To suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party is losing the plot is tantamount to committing sacrilege, if not hara-kiri, for a political journalist today. After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no challenger worth the name. The Opposition is in tatters. The BJP is set to bring down yet another Opposition-led government, in Rajasthan — whether in July or February is just a matter of dates. The Modi government has claimed credit for “saving lakhs of lives” from coronavirus through the nationwide lockdown. Uddhav Thackerays and Mamata Banerjees of the world must account for failures now. The economy seems to be on auto-pilot mode and corona must take the blame. It must, therefore, be preposterous to suggest chinks in the ruling party’s armour.
Yet, something seems amiss. A usually combative PM Modi seemed guarded, if not evasive, during his Mann Ki Baat radio programme on Sunday. The contents of his speech were predictable and staid. More than what he said in the programme what he didn’t say rang louder. His public persona has been built on five pillars — strong and decisive leader; vikas purush or man of development; global statesman; a fakir who keeps his family away to work for others; and a Hindu Hriday Samrat.
The first three pillars seemed to be under stress — conspicuous by what he left unstated in Sunday’s Mann Ki Baat.
Three messages in what Modi left unstated
Paying tribute to the armed forces on the 21st Kargil Vijay Diwas, he attacked Pakistan but was silent on China. In fact, what he said about Pakistan — backstabbing and ‘dusht’ or evil nature of fighting for no reason — is applicable to China, too. The Prime Minister skipped any reference to the Chinese intrusions and chose to talk about apricot in Ladakh — quite uncharacteristic of a strong and decisive leader. Even if people are anxious about the situation at the Line of Actual Control, the PM would like them not to forget that what they say would have an impact on the morale of the soldiers and their families. To summarise: ‘Don’t ask questions.’
Modi chose to highlight India’s low Covid mortality rate as compared to many nations but the confidence that oozed in his previous addresses — when he declared the nationwide lockdown and urged people to clang thalis and lit candles — was missing. The fight against covid was left to the people who must wear masks and maintain social distancing. Or so it seemed.
The PM’s how-is-the-josh talks with students who cleared Class XII results with flying colours fitted well with his aspirational politics and vikas purush image. But there was nothing from Modi on why they must stay optimistic about their future, despite the dismal state of the economy and unemployment scenario. Stories about the young pearl cultivators in Bihar or those engaged in self-employment wouldn’t really match up to their aspirations, for sure.
The third element of Modi’s public persona, his image as a global statesman who rubbed shoulders with Donald Trumps and Xi Jinpings of the world, also remained rather understated in his Mann Ki Baat. India is seeking to capitalise on Modi’s global image to isolate China and win over smaller neighbours who seem to be drifting away. But the Prime Minister as also his spin doctors have, of late, been rather discreet in showcasing his global standing.
In the previous edition of his radio programme, he chose to talk about Suriname’s newly elected president taking oath in Sanskrit while holding Vedas in his hand. That’s because Modi appears increasingly isolated in the neighborhood today. Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits didn’t deter Ladakh. While America is a reliable ally, the pandemic has forced powerful nations to hunker down and look inward. It is not a time when the US will play global policeman in India’s border wars. The anger against China over coronavirus handling is a short-window of opportunity for India — economically and strategically. But the way China has delayed and dithered LAC disengagement shows that having us as a friend isn’t going to scare Beijing away. Modi’s global swag isn’t enough to swing things for India.
These three pillars of Narendra Modi’s strength do seem to have developed cracks and damages and the omissions in Sunday’s Mann Ki Baat speech were an indirect acknowledgement of that.
BJP’s power politics and hole in Modi’s fakir image
The fourth element of the Prime Minister’s public persona is the image of a selfless leader who has devoted his life to the nation, leaving his family behind. It struck a sharp contrast to dynastic parties whose purported primary goal is to serve certain families, and not the people.
That image is taking a hit now — not because of what Modi does for himself but for what he allows his party, the BJP, to do. In its bid to maximise the benefits from brand Modi, the BJP has started compromising the brand itself.
The na-khaoonga-na-khane-doonga image of the Prime Minister stands diluted today as the BJP has ended up projecting itself as a party that can spend any amount of money to engineer defections in the opposition camp to gain power in states. BJP leaders must believe in mass stupidity to pride themselves in and celebrate the success of Operation Kamals in one state after another. Every time the BJP dislodges a government to re-affirm Amit Shah’s image as Chanakya, it also chips away a bit of Modi’s credentials as a leader for whom the national interest is supreme.
The fifth pillar of Modi’s persona —a Hindu hridaya samrat — is the only one that hasn’t suffered any corrosion or damage. It will be further bolstered when the Prime Minister performs bhoomi poojan of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on 5 August.
The most astute Indian politician that Modi is today, he would certainly know that his mass popularity and electoral victories were not just about his image as a protector of Hindus’ interests. What made him the most popular politician was a blend of these five elements or built on five pillars, especially his aspirational politics. That’s where the BJP seems to be losing the plot. The BJP, being a party with a difference in 2020 is already a matter of popular jokes. The only thing that differentiates it from the Congress today is brand Modi. Take brand Modi out of the calculations and the BJP’s political equity would be no better than the Congress’ today. The BJP’s power politics is taking a toll on this brand now.
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