His eyes meet yours only briefly. They glance at you sideways and then turn back to the front towards the official event photographer. His head has not moved to acknowledge you at all. He is India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But at that moment, in this story, he is in America. Still meeting Indians though, always for the people, of the people, of course.
But somehow, that memory remains. The people, on peripheral vision, come and go. The camera, on the centre stage of his mind, constant.
What then is the camera to him? Anna-daata, perhaps? No, he doesn’t eat much, they say. But it is something that has occupied his attention, from the smallest interaction to the largest stadium event. The camera is more than this. It is, perhaps, ballot-daata (vote giver).
Six years have passed, almost seven. Many ballots have been cast, counted, cashed in and celebrated. So many in his favor. Sure, some states may come and go. But the nation, it is his and he is theirs. Ballot-daata sukheebhava (stay blessed vote giver).
But there’s more than votes making this mind work. Media and power have always come together, from the days Doordarshan was called Devidarshan, sure. But here, the rasas and bhaavas are more ponderous, more complex, because they must fill a void, a very large one whose proportions are only now becoming obvious.
Camera. Podium. Temple. Everything must be sacrifice. The fire of sacrifice is what has built this nation, and PM Modi will restore it. From the priest-king of Sindhu to the king-priest of Kashi, in the shadow of the modern monk he shares a name with and the ancient rishi he aspires to emulate, Modi will yield to his people everything, even his bones like the sage Dadhichi. This spirit of sacrifice he spells out in his first book, Jyotipunj, a tribute to the selfless men of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who inspired him.
With that kind of fiery belief in the goodness of humanity, what could go wrong? Or so he perhaps thought.
Crisis is here
Kurukshetra is here, and neither Krishna nor Arjuna have stepped up. Only the poor, foolish king of Pundra, fancying himself the original as it were. At least in the old days, the people had the solace of knowing the original was right there with them too. He stood among them, knelt low amid their cows and their horses and chariots, and with battle-scarred body and all-seeing eyes he remained their own. Krishna was Krishna, and the False Vasudeva? Well…
Kurukshetra is here — the air ran out first from the skies over the cities, black hot extractive arrows everywhere, digging soil, rivers, mountains, forests, and then, the last humiliation of whatever we thought of as human agency, as hope, as the air ran out from under the noses of our loved ones, o cruel wretched time… o Krishna.
No answering voice comes.
No more friends with camera
Only he who lived by the camera now seems to stand exposed, to be judged by it. No one needs to say the obvious anymore. Like a broken clock being right twice a day, his critics, whatever they might have said before, whatever their lies were once, now stand looking like the truth is on their side.
He who lived by the camera is now upstaged by the camera.
He who could not look away from the camera to see people as people and not just props in his performance, now finds that the cameras aren’t looking at him anymore.
Before the cameras, there is now only fire, cremation ground fire.
He grasps for his handy tools perhaps. The apparatus of State broadcasting and digital management services. The Twitter followers. The sheer numbers.
And before them, before his conception of them, he might appear still, to himself at least, a sacrificial-sage, a king-priest, a monk, a fakir, a servant, still.
The illusion of the social. The narcotic of narcissism. The myth of the messiah. Mere children making posts for popularity on Instagram feel it, and fall for it. What of mighty maharajas then, dreaming of being seen and being respected by millions?
What happens to the head that has internalised such a gaze?
The inside voice becomes louder
Movie stars and megalomaniacs. All must fall one day when that camera turns away, and all that is left is the voice inside the head, the whisper inside the heart.
And what will that heart say when one is truly alone? Will it still maintain that the lie was actually the truth?
It was easy to call out the lie from without, the lie about him; a nation did it for him, again and again.
What of the lie from within? The lie of delusion, vanity, the avalanche of denial and deception burying reality as the walls of the durbar ascended quickly all around?
What is that voice inside saying now? Look left. Look right. Hold pose.
Or does it know? The world is not seeing a vishwa guru, or any guru. The world never really cared at all. Because the world still exists beyond the little dramas on Twitter and WhatsApp in India.
“World-famous” where? At the UN? In the US? India? At least, Bharat?
No mate, you were just world-famous in your own head, that is all. Like most of us these days. Just the way it is with social media addiction.
But luckily for the world, most of us do not need to handle a vast chunk of the planet in crisis in between our swipe-for-new-likes habits.
Not so luckily for the world, maybe, that you do. You still do.
So snap out of the selfie-daze now, sir. Lose that melancholic Bahadur Shah Zafar long white beard. Lose whatever illusions you may have had about how you are being seen around the world. Listen. Learn. Lead. Or let someone who can turn their head fully towards the people and towards reality do that job for you.
Vamsee Juluri @vamseejuluri is Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)