Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacts with doctors and frontline workers on Covid-19 situation in Kashi, through video conferencing, in Delhi | PTI Photo
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Just when the opposition finally seemed to be getting on track in taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government at the Centre, it got derailed again with its personal attack against him. Questioning PM Modi for his botched up handling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic or his flawed vaccine policy was wise, but questioning his crying and mocking him for shedding ‘crocodile tears’ is equally unwise.

A photo of what appeared to be the front page of The New York Times (but was actually a satirical post by a parody Twitter handle called The Daily New York Times) quickly took off and caught people’s interest. Many mistook the image of a crocodile carrying the headline ‘India’s PM cried’ for real, and made it viral on social media. The opposition and Modi’s critics thought they had found the perfect tool to target him with, following his ’emotional’ moments during a virtual interaction with health workers from Varanasi.

But if election results and India’s politics of the last few years ought to have taught Modi’s rivals and critics anything, it should be this crucial lesson — any personal attack on him only boomerangs, and strengthens ‘brand Modi’ further. The only way for the opposition to counter Narendra Modi effectively is to take him on over his governance and policy failures. Never play to your enemy’s strength, as the saying goes, especially when the image and perception of integrity are someone’s biggest strengths, as is the case with Modi. Any attack on these, and you’re sending the PM laughing all the way to the hustings.


Also read: Dear people, I am an Indian crocodile who is getting a very bad name these days: Shobhaa De


Lessons from the past

Modi has thrived on winning the perception battle, projecting an image of his that is ‘clean’, ‘self-made’ and one of ‘people’s leader’. He has drawn a clever distinction between his ‘humble roots’ and an ‘entitled’ opposition.

The Gandhis, most notably, have often fallen into this trap. Sonia Gandhi’s ill-timed and ill-advised ‘maut ka saudagar‘ (trader of death) remark against Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, not just cost the Congress the 2007 assembly election in that state but in a way changed the political tide of the country. It made Modi the perpetual ‘victim’, who was always under ‘vicious attack’ by his political rivals.

Fast forward to 2019, and this gets cemented further. Rahul Gandhi spent a considerable part of his energy, focus and campaign in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election trying to sell the ‘chowkidar chor hai’ line, a taunt thrown at PM Modi, alleging corruption in the Rafale deal. Modi, meanwhile, turned it into a virtue, becoming the ‘kaamdaar‘ who was being targeted by the entitled dynast.

The results of the Lok Sabha polls were for all to see. Their beloved, ‘honest’ PM being called names by his rivals was not palatable to the voters, and the Congress was taught a lesson.

Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’schaiwala‘ and ‘neech aadmi‘ remarks about Modi and their consequences are testimony to the foolishness of launching a personal attack against a popular leader.

Modi himself has learnt wisdom in this theory the hard way. His ‘Didi, oh Didi‘ cat-call against West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who remains widely popular in the state, ahead of the assembly election this year seemingly hurt the BJP a lot, with voters cutting the party to size in a state where it had not just hoped but promised to storm to power.


Also read: Lights, camera and action: How Modi govt relies on drama to survive just like Bollywood films


Policy vs personal attack during pandemic

For someone as popular and devoted to image-building as him, personal attacks are just what Modi wants. They help him distract people from his failings as a leader and from the gaps in his governance. He uses it to divert public attention and show his supporters that he is being persecuted by the privileged.

In the pandemic season, Narendra Modi and his team have given people many reasons to question, target and corner them. His tears, however, are not one of the reasons.

The Modi government’s handling of the Covid second wave has been dismal and apathetic, to say the least. The government has fumbled and bumbled its way through, caring more about managing headlines than managing the pandemic. The vaccination programme has been blotchy and poorly conceived.

These are issues that have really affected people, and caused actual grief and pain. For once in the past seven years, Modi has given his rivals a clear and powerful reason to target him, and the opposition has been doing the right thing by using it to the hilt.

But the temptation to make fun of Modi seems too hard to resist for his opponents. And his tears at the virtual address, coupled with the crocodile satire, seem to have emboldened them further. From Rahul Gandhi tweeting saying ‘crocodiles are innocent’, to Congress leader Digivijaya Singh’s now-deleted tweet — “to him Crying at the right time is an Art!” — Modi’s political opponents were quick to latch onto this new opportunity to make fun of the PM.

As tongue-in-cheek, catchy and social media friendly as these barbs might be, it should not be forgotten that Modi is going to do everything in his power and imagination to turn these in his favour. This is the same PM who, through his powerful messaging, made people look beyond blunders like demonetisation and willingly indulge in his ‘thali bajao‘ (clank utensils), ‘diya jalao‘ (light candles) kind of hollow antics.

It is far, far more difficult for an incumbent to defend her or his governance failures at a time of such crisis, and far easier to field personal attacks. Perhaps Modi’s tears were real or part of an act, but by mocking them, his opponents may just have given him the breather he needed at this point.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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