Narendra Modi is a Hindutva leader and a political animal first, India’s prime minister and a statesman later. With 50,000 cases of coronavirus infection a day, one would think that PM Modi, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the organisation with the largest cadre — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — would be in all-hands-on-the-deck mode. But no. A Ram mandir at Ayodhya can’t wait for the pandemic to flatten. In fact, this is when Modi needs to deploy his favourite tropes even more — Pakistan-bashing, Ayodhya and putting his stamp on Lutyens’ Delhi.
The prime minister and his team may be doing their bit to tackle the coronavirus crisis, but that does not stop him or his party from making a grand event of the temple construction. The government is also keen to fast track the Central Vista redevelopment project, ignoring criticism that this may not be the best time for it. Of course, there is the Bihar assembly election slated for the end of this year, which the BJP and its alliance partner Janata Dal (United) are keen on holding. And then, in his monthly radio show ‘Mann Ki Baat’ Sunday, Modi launched a scathing attack on Pakistan — and not China, which right now is the bigger enemy — calling it ‘wicked’ and a ‘backstabber’.
All of this might give an impression that there is no pandemic anymore and that we are back to normality.
Politician first, PM later
Modi, together with his trusted lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, manages a system where no one has any qualms about placing politics above all else. Power is everything, and shrewd politics the means to acquire it. Everything else is secondary, including governance and administrative responsibilities.
This is not to say that the Modi government hasn’t been working to control the pandemic. Of course it has, just like every other leader or head of a government in the world right now. In the first few weeks, the coronavirus situation was overwhelming and it showed even in Modi’s own approach — his addresses to the nation, the all-concerted effort to project his government as completely hands-on, and constant reminders to the people to remain on high alert.
But even as the threat continues to loom large, PM Modi seems to have now decided it is time to get back to what he knows and understands best — politics.
Safe territory, core issues
The Ram Janmabhoomi movement is at the very heart of the BJP’s politics and the party’s national rise. The beginning of the Ram mandir construction, therefore, is not the kind of opportunity Modi, or any BJP leader in his place for that matter, would allow to simply pass by without reaping the maximum political dividends out of it. Modi, in fact, has been keen to project himself as someone who is ‘correcting’ all of India’s historical ‘wrongs’ and bringing a closure to long-pending issues.
The Ayodhya issue, for the BJP, is the most significant of them all and Narendra Modi — the 56-inch-chested, ‘strong’ Hindutva leader — wasn’t going to miss the grand 5 August ceremony, Covid or no Covid.
Then there is the resentment against Lutyens’ Delhi that runs high, and being in power, Modi will ensure he rebrands the Capital as his own. The Centra Vista makeover project, therefore, is top priority.
Both the Ram temple and the Rs 20,000 crore redevelopment plan in Delhi are big-bang and opulent shows that Modi simply loves.
An election is another high-inducing event for him, and hence, the emphasis on holding Bihar’s assembly polls on time, despite vociferous protests by the opposition. Narendra Modi can campaign, be heard and use his semantic power to the hilt. It also ensures the BJP comes back to power without much delay, in what now seems like an increasingly one-sided election given the shattered state of the opposition.
Pakistan-bashing, meanwhile, is the BJP’s favourite past-time and nothing makes Modi feel more at home than that. So, even when China is snarling at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), making Pakistan the biggest-ever enemy makes more sense, because it echoes with Modi’s majoritarian, ultra-nationalist voter.
Hardly the first time
Covid crisis, however, isn’t the only time that Modi’s preoccupation with being a hardcore, election-winning politician has overwhelmed everything else. The prime minister of the country is expected to maintain a certain decorum. But barring the social media platforms — which, by the way, remain squeaky clean ever since he became PM in 2014 — all other avenues are turned into rough playgrounds where the honourable position held by Modi loses some of its dignity every now and then.
Why else would a PM go to the extent of dragging the name of his predecessor during a bitter election campaign with the most preposterous of claims? During the 2017 Gujarat assembly election, Modi floated this theory of a ‘secret meeting’ between Pakistani officials, Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar.
Modi’s shamshaan-kabristan (cremation ground-graveyard) remark during the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election or his usual rhetoric on the NRC-CAA-NPR send out a similar message — of him being an opportunistic politician before anything else.
So, who is this tiny virus to stop Modi from being the great, election-fighting politician that he is? The coronavirus may be the biggest threat at the moment, but it’s not bigger than Modi’s desire to be the most powerful politician.
Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.