If he was a normal politician, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity would have reached its nadir by now. Two out of three working Indians, according to a survey, have lost their jobs owing to the ham-fisted lockdown he declared on 24 March. The government has failed spectacularly to address a migrant crisis festering for over two months. Half of Indian households have reduced their number of meals since the lockdown. Yet, astonishingly, there seems to be no anger with Modi, who seems as popular as ever.
It astounds many that when Modi addressed the nation on 12 May, he didn’t acknowledge the migrant crisis even once, let alone offer empathy. He didn’t acknowledge the unprecedented loss of jobs, chronic shortage of essentials, nor the atmosphere of sheer desperation. Just like he didn’t acknowledge the massive destruction to livelihoods caused by demonetisation in 2016, a disaster no other political leader would have survived.
How does Modi face no political costs for the suffering he, in large part, causes? And how does he not come across as arrogant, out of touch, or simply cruel to most people, even as he consciously ignores their suffering?
Modi confounds normal political analysis because his appeal isn’t merely political. The appeal of Modi is quasi-religious, that of a messianic figure. Like M.K. Gandhi, Modi represents what political scientist Morris Jones referred to as the ‘saintly idiom’ of Indian politics. He is the self-described ‘fakir’, unattached to family and material possessions, who is here to lead India not just politically, but also socially, morally and spiritually. This is why he generates not mere following, but devotion. And this devotion is immune to the performance of the government he leads.
People’s suffering a trial of faith in Modi
When you are suffering, you don’t sack the messiah, much like you don’t sack God. You redouble your faith, because God tells you your suffering is for a higher cause, the thorny path towards salvation that only God can lead you to. The one time Modi mentioned the suffering of daily wage workers, he termed it as ‘tapasya’ (penance) —suffering for a higher cause, just like he had described his demonetisation move as “yagna against corruption”. When he extended the first lockdown on 14 April, he used the same spiritually imbued terms, calling for ‘tyag’ (sacrifice) and ‘tapasya’. Gandhi told people that India will achieve freedom through sacrifice and self-purification, which was the basis of satyagraha. Modi tells people he will build a ‘self-reliant nation’ — Atmanirbhar Bharat — on their sacrifices and penance.
This is why he began his speech with invocations of India’s ancient greatness. Modi is a messiah in a certain moral universe. In this universe, India was great, then we had “1200 years of slavery”, in his words (which includes the ‘slave mentality of post-Independence period’), until Modi arrived to lead us back to greatness. The coronavirus is not a crisis that calls for damage mitigation, the framework in which other world leaders place their measures; it is an ‘opportunity’ to fulfil his vision of regenerating India into a great nation.
But he requires unconditional faith. In this framework, the suffering of people is a trial of faith, similar to demonetisation. The faith of the people in the nation, and in the leadership of Modi. It is not unreasonable that many desperate people will cling on to this faith, which gives meaning to their suffering, rather than succumbing to total despair. Modi calls on them to transcend the banal, and increasingly wretched, existence, and be part of something bigger than themselves. Suffering strengthens faith, not weakens it, because that’s when you need it most.
This faith was recently consecrated with rituals, the thali and diya spectacles, participated in by tens of millions of people. Modi also administered seven vows to people, which included ‘taking care of elderly’, ‘taking care of poor people’, and ‘being compassionate to your workers’. Meanwhile, he also released his own animated videos doing yoga, viewed by millions of people. Through these measures, he was reinforcing his claim to the social, moral and spiritual leadership of India.
Relief measures are personal benevolence
Modi similarly packages his speeches with the aura of revelation. Unlike other democratic leaders, who are understandably communicating almost every day in the midst of a crisis, Modi communicates once every few weeks. He makes people wait for the new revelation, which is why he announces his appearance a day or two in advance. The gap is filled with wild speculation, with people airing their wishes and hopes, like prayers to an unpredictable deity.
Then he appears, at the appointed time. His speeches are part sermonising, part commandments. Often nestled in the midst is a big announcement, which is designed to shock or dazzle. The stimulus package, which was announced soberly as a crisis mitigation measure by other world leaders, was revealed by Modi like Sathya Sai Baba spitting out the golden egg. ‘Rs 20 lakh crore’, Modi kept repeating, wanting to mesmerise his audience with the scale of the package. He didn’t call it the ‘Modi package’ (those nomenclatures are left for a fawning media), but that’s how he presented it, as personal benevolence to the people, larger than they could have imagined.
“Modi’s package is equal to/bigger than the economy of Pakistan,” his missionaries on social media and mainstream media screamed out. The actual fiscal package, it turns out, would only amount to a few lakh crores, underwhelming by the standards of other countries or even India’s needs, consisting mostly of government secured loans and paying off government dues. It is an old trick that he had perfected during his days in Gujarat, when he rattled off staggering figures of lakhs of crores of investment in Vibrant Gujarat summits, which were actually MoUs seldom realised on the ground. But Modi, like religious men, only speaks in grand, symbolic terms.
Ministers may be accountable, Modi isn’t
The mundane work of crafting policies to realise his vision of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ was left to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The reason Modi does not announce any policies or goes into specific details, is because he doesn’t want to be judged for those policies, but for his vision. When the policies fall short of expectations, his ministers take the fall for the shortcomings and failures. When migrants are charged for train tickets, it is the fault of railways minister Piyush Goyal. Even Right-wing supporters are critical of Nirmala Sitharaman, just like they were with her predecessor Arun Jaitley, for not just failing them but also failing Modi. Modi’s ministers are human and fallible, and therefore accountable, in contrast to the infallible and unaccountable demi-God figure of Modi.
Modi has staked a position for himself akin to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. Another divinely guided, infallible leader, who has the final say over all government measures, sets the political direction of the country, embodies and enunciates the moral values of the nation, but is above political accountability for government failures, which rests with the elected officials subordinate to him. Modi occasionally earns democratic legitimacy at the ballot, but between elections, it is this transcendental legitimacy that makes him above press conferences, above transparency, above all the constraining and scrutinising procedures of democracy that he nonchalantly ignores, with popular acquiescence.
He ignores the plight of the migrants and the poor because he can’t admit to any faults or weaknesses or oversight. The core of his quasi-religious appeal is that he can never be wrong. Even if you don’t understand his plans, you trust him. In fact, it’s better if you don’t understand his plans because it deepens his mystique, the inaccessible ambiguity that characterise religious leaders. Which is why he is so miserly with actual communication, thriving instead on uplifting sermons. Even when spelling out government plans, Modi prefers alliterations and hands out acronyms to people like chantable mantras. His offerings are not only vague but come with no timeline of delivery. You just have to keep the faith.
Hindus’ religion is at core
This quasi-religious appeal of Modi has been enabled by decades of propaganda by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This propaganda has used Hindus’ religion to establish a cult of “national worship”, to delegitimise dissent, establish it as blasphemy, and excommunicate BJP-RSS’ opponents from the moral-national community as ‘anti-nationals’. Modi has inserted himself into this mythical, religious conception of India as the national messiah, with willing acceptance from large sections of the people.
The result is a democracy that faces a catastrophic crisis under a leader holding near absolute power, with no apparent accountability to respond to reality. In the real world, our economy, which was already reeling under demonetisation and GST, has suffered a devastating blow whose effects might last decades. Hunger deaths have already been reported and perhaps more are going unreported. But, have some of that opium of the new national faith, and we are steadily marching towards ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. If Modi is indeed a false prophet, he has certainly glittered the path to hell in the most glorious light.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Views are personal.