Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week met his mother, released a bag of butterflies, and visited the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which was allegedly filled up a month ahead of the schedule so that he could celebrate his birthday by performing a pooja near the dam.
There was also the announcement of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Mann Bairagi’, a film on the “defining moment of our PM’s life”, according to the one and only @akshaykumar. And, there were the photos of a young Modi released on the occasion, the unmistakable intensity shining through his eyes.
Like Nehru, Modi likes to do big things – a big Sardar Patel statue, big dams (the Sardar Sarovar, like the Bhakra-Nangal) and most recently, a big political strike on Jammu and Kashmir. The last one was Nehru’s doing, which now Modi has undone.
The obliteration of Nehru certainly lies at the heart of the Modi manifesto. No other leader continues to stride across India’s political consciousness, so many decades later.
Except, Nehru believed that big dams were ‘temples of modern India’ while Modi would rather that modernity is about the building of temples, especially one at the contested Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya.
But as he kicked off the Maharashtra poll campaign Thursday wearing a faux Peshwa headgear, Modi returned to the theme that has been front and centre across the country since 5 August: Kashmir.
“Phir se ek baar swarg banana hai. Har Kashmiri ko galey lagaana hai, (Once again, Kashmir has to become heaven on earth and every Kashmiri must be embraced),” Modi said in his address in Nashik.
It’s not clear what the audience thought. Back in Srinagar, 81-year-old sitting MP Farooq Abdullah sat in his home, now converted into a sub-jail, unaware why he’s been booked under the Public Safety Act. Elsewhere at Hari Niwas and Chashme Shahi, palaces and garden houses that are now sub-jails, former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti continued to sit out the days and nights in more or less solitary confinement.
So, as the PM flies off to the UN – where he will refuse to speak on Kashmir and hope that the UN Resolution of 1948 is given a proper burial because J&K is now a fully ‘integrated’ part of India – life in the Kashmir Valley continues to be far from being normal.
The big gamble
But Modi knows that the revocation of Article 370 is the biggest gamble of his political career. That it’s one thing to fulminate publicly about Nehru and why he destroyed India’s case by taking Kashmir to the UN, that Kashmir should therefore be stripped off its special status, and that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir belongs to India. But it is another thing to have a non-partisan audience abroad believe at least one of these statements.
That is why, sources say, instructions have been issued to J&K’s administrators: nobody should be killed by security forces. Arrest who you like, intensify the clampdown, shut down the Valley. But no deaths, at least as long as the PM is abroad.
Stifle the voices, as long as the PM is out of the country. It will look terrible if the PM, who has wagered his enormous reputation worldwide on his Kashmir gambit, was to be presented with screaming headlines in the international press on the not-so-nice goings-on in Kashmir the morning he meets Trump, for example.
This, then, is Modi’s big strategy as he embarks upon a very important visit abroad – meeting Donald Trump in Houston, addressing the influential Indian-American community (note that all major addresses will take place during Indian prime time, when TV is buzzing) as well as speaking at the UN General Assembly.
A distracted opposition
Back home there is enough noise to distract the opposition. Home Minister Amit Shah wants Hindi to be the only unifying language across the country and cites Ramayana to say that if a war is necessary to protect a woman’s honour, then it must be fought. The more the opposition breaks out into a cacophony of argument, the better it is for the BJP – believes the BJP.
See how the PM has refused to say a word about all these intensely divisive issues. Instead, on the eve of his US visit, he has pressed Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to cut corporate tax, a move that has already generated a positive momentum. Modi knows that an early baptism by fire awaits.