Narendra Modi government believes that if you put a new label on something, it automatically becomes yours.
It took an innocuous tweet from a foreign leader to remind us all of the extent to which, instead of being a game-changing government, the BJP has turned out to be a name-changing one.
On 31 October, President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea tweeted: “Prime Minister @narendramodi of India sent me some gorgeous garments. These are modernized versions of traditional Indian costume, known as the ‘Modi Vest’, that can also be worn easily in Korea. They fit perfectly.”
Prime Minister @narendramodi of India sent me some gorgeous garments. These are modernized versions of traditional Indian costume, known as the ‘Modi Vest’, that can also be worn easily in Korea. They fit perfectly. pic.twitter.com/3QTFIczX6H
— 문재인 (@moonriver365) October 31, 2018
In a follow-up tweet, he added: “During my visit to India, I had told the Prime Minister @narendramodi that he looked great in those vests, and he duly sent them over, all meticulously tailored to my size. I would like to thank him for this kind gesture.” They were accompanied by photographs of the Modi gift, prominently labelled “Modi jacket”.
During my visit to India, I had told the Prime Minister @narendramodi that he looked great in those vests, and he duly sent them over, all meticulously tailored to my size. I would like to thank him for this kind gesture. pic.twitter.com/wRgekJSW16
— 문재인 (@moonriver365) October 31, 2018
Twitter, of course, is an unforgiving medium. Within minutes, the Twitterverse had erupted with reminders that the vests that had the Korean President over the Moon had been known for decades in India – under a different name. Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah put it pithily: “It’s really nice of our PM to send these but could he not have sent them without changing the name? All my life I’ve known these jackets as Nehru jackets & now I find these ones have been labelled ‘Modi Jacket’. Clearly nothing existed in India before 2014.”
It’s really nice of our PM to send these but could he not have sent them without changing the name? All my life I’ve known these jackets as Nehru jackets & now I find these ones have been labelled “Modi Jacket”. Clearly nothing existed in India before 2014. https://t.co/MOa0wY37tr
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) October 31, 2018
It’s a seemingly trivial issue, but it speaks to a defining characteristic of the current ruling dispensation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spent a good deal of energy in claiming that everything worth being proud of in India is due entirely to him. According to his many speeches, Indians were even ashamed of their Indian passports before he became Prime Minister. Now that he was in charge, he has declared more than once that Indians abroad were finally able to hold their heads high and be proud of being Indians.
But what about everything that had been accomplished before his ascent to office? Modi’s answer is simple: he simply appropriates it. India unified by Congress stalwart Sardar Patel? Build a gigantic statue to honour the man, and invite no member of the Sardar’s party to grace the occasion. India managing to put a satellite in orbit around Mars? Make a vainglorious speech claiming credit for the accomplishment without even mentioning the Prime Minister who had started India’s space programme, or acknowledging that 99 per cent of the work that led to the successful Mangalyaan mission had been completed before he came to power.
The ‘Modi vests’ are a minor example of the same phenomenon. They reflect that appropriation of national successes is best done through an adroit change of name. If you put a new label on something, it automatically becomes yours. The fact that it had existed and succeeded under another name can thus be erased from the popular consciousness.
It is striking that the only successes the Modi government can point to are schemes that were initiated by the UPA and often criticised at the time by the opposition BJP. One can start with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or MNREGA (which the PM sneered at, but now seeks credit for increasing its funding, even though states complain the promised subventions from the Centre have not come). There’s Aadhaar (which Modi vowed to dismantle but has instead made compulsory, in many cases, linking it to such things as credit cards and mobile phones that often have no links to government benefits). The list goes on.
On Aadhaar, neither the Team that I met nor PM could answer my Qs on security threat it can pose. There is no vision, only political gimmick
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) April 8, 2014
But the largest number of examples involve, like the ‘Modi jacket’, a change of name – from the Direct Benefits Transfer, attractively renamed Jan Dhan (as if the BJP had not criticised its adoption), to the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, now packaged as ‘Swachh Bharat’ (with lower outgoes but five times the publicity budget). The UPA’s skill development mission has been renamed the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana; the National e-Governance Plan is now ‘Digital India’; the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana has been rebaptised as the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana; the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme has become the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana; and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has been shrunk to Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation. All this while the Modi government pretends that these are all new schemes launched from the imagination of its visionary leader.
One must concede that the Modi government creates better acronyms than its predecessors did – AMRUT is markedly more euphonious than JNNURM, for instance – but it cannot demonstrate better results on the ground. And let’s not forget the schemes where the Modi government simply sheepishly took on the UPA’s ongoing efforts without even risking a change of name – FDI in retail, the Financial Inclusion Scheme, liberalisation of insurance and GST (Goods and Services Tax) itself, all of which the BJP had ferociously opposed and now wants to be congratulated for adopting.
What’s in a name?, Shakespeare famously asked. But Yogi Adityanath wasn’t listening: he has renamed Allahabad Prayagraj. It may not be long before this feckless government seeks to rebaptise the Taj Mahal under its so-called “original” name of Tejo Mahalaya. They are asserting their power, the power to decide what a thing will be, the power to name — for if one does not have the ability to create anything new, one can at least claim the right to relabel what one now seeks to appropriate.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.
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