Modi v/s Modi – Will the Real PM Please Stand Up?

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Given the relevance of the issues in this essay, originally published in 2021, we are re-publishing it here, with credits to the author and publisher

(This essay, originally written for ‘Midweek Matters’ in August 2021, has been edited and updated with a postscript The book was published by Speaking Tiger Books: Parakala Prabhakar – The Crooked Timber of New India—Essays on a Republic in Crisis)

August 2021

I never miss the Independence Day address by our prime ministers. Even when I was abroad, in the pre-internet days, I used to visit our diplomatic mission in the city to listen to them. On Sunday, August 15, 2021, our present Prime Minister (PM), Narendra Modi, delivered his eighth Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort. He is a very competent communicator. There’s hardly anyone among his peers today who can match     his oratorical skills. He packs his speeches with the precise message he wants to convey, and uses a host of rhetorical devices to good effect. Everything he says has been planned well in advance, and with a clear purpose. Nothing is really spontaneous. So it is important to examine carefully what PM Modi says in the most significant speech of the year, in order to understand what his government has in store for the country. It is important not only to consider what he says forcefully and at length, and what he says cursorily, but also what he chooses not to say.

Let us look back at his speeches from 2014 to 2020, and put the 2021 speech against the backdrop of the words he spoke in those seven addresses to the nation. And try to understand from them the shift that has taken place in these years.

In 2021, I was a bit late tuning in. When I did tune in, about seven minutes after the PM began his speech, I was stunned by what I heard.

These  are the words he was speaking: ‘…amaanaveeya haalaat se gujare, atyaacaar sahe. Jinhe sammaan ke saath antim samskar tak naseeb nahi huya. Un logon ko hamaara smruti me jivit rakhna utna hi jaruri hai.’ (‘… those who suffered inhuman experiences. Who were denied dignity even in death. It is equally important to keep them alive in our memory.’) For a moment, I thought he was speaking about the thousands of people who had died in the devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that summer – those who could not get hospital admissions, struggled for oxygen, for ventilators; who could not get dignified last rites; whose abandoned bodies floated in the Ganga. Had the PM finally, after three months of complete silence, found the humanity and courage to fully acknowledge his government’s criminal failures and apologise? It seemed unreal.

The next sentence brought me back to reality. Our PM was not speaking about the victims of COVID. He was telling us about his government’s ‘emotional’ decision to henceforth observe  August 14 every year as Vibhaajan Vibheeshika ka Smriti Divas—Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. He was unclear whether he meant that we ought to remember every single person who lost her or his life during the communal violence that erupted in the wake of Partition. The PM never lacks clarity when he wants to be understood. If he had meant the atrocities committed by all communities —Hindu, Muslim and Sikh—against each other, on both sides of the newly created borders that divided a united India on the basis of religion, he would have said so clearly. If he had meant that we should remember and ensure that such hatred and violence is never repeated in our country, he would have said so in as many words. He didn’t. He left his listeners to draw their own inferences. That, to my mind, is no insignificant political message in his Independence Day address. Along with the many resolutions that he announced to shape the next 25 years, until the centenary year of our Independence, which he called Amrit Kaal—Ambrosial Era—he also wanted us to revive the memories of the poison of communal hatred that engulfed us 75 years ago. And carry that hemlock in our minds and hearts until 2047.

If for a moment you forget about the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day, the 2021 Independence Day address appeared forward looking, full of resolve and inspirational. It called upon people to do their best to create a Shrestha Bharat, a Perfect India. It exhorted them to make their dream of a prosperous India a reality. Therefore, if before all of this the Prime Minister chose to summon the dark, blood-soaked period of violence and hatred into the nation’s consciousness there must be some purpose behind it. There must be some subliminal messaging embedded in the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. His reluctance to send greetings to the government and people of Pakistan on their Independence Day—14 August—only strengthens the subtext of the announcement. As does his reference to ‘centuries’ of ‘slavery’: ‘Bharat ne sadiyon se matrubhoomi, sanskriti aur aajaadi ke liye sangharsh kiya hai. Ghulami ki kasak, aajaadi ki lalak iss desh ne sadiyon tak kabhi chhodi nahi.’ (‘India has struggled for the motherland, culture and independence for many centuries. For many centuries it has never let go of the pain of slavery or the longing for freedom.’) A century and a half of colonial rule was not what he was talking about. He was also not talking about the great freedom struggle which gave us the independent Indian nation we all inhabit today. It is revealing that ‘motherland’ and ‘culture’ took precedence over ‘independence’ in his formulation. And the way he constructed his sentences, he suggested an ongoing fight. The call to remember ‘Partition Horrors’ every year must be understood in this context.

But the beginning of his innings in New Delhi had been promising. It was a different avatar of Narendra Modi we saw in the first few months after he became the country’s Prime Minister. I don’t know how many of you remember his first Independence Day address in 2014. He didn’t carry the ‘Mia Musharraf’, ‘James Michael Lyngdoh’ kind of rhetoric from Gujarat with him when he arrived in Delhi.

His 2014 election campaign agenda was almost entirely on issues of development and corruption. On August 15, 2014 he called himself not Pradhan Mantri but Pradhan Sevak (the Prime Servant). He didn’t look for enemies and scapegoats in his predecessors. He gave credit to all of them— in fact, to every state and its leadership, as well—for the progress that India had achieved until then. Let me recall for you the English rendering of that speech. He said: ‘[Today,] if we have reached this far after Independence, it is because of the contribution of all the prime ministers, all the governments and even the governments of all the states. I want to express my feelings of respect and gratitude to all the previous governments and ex-prime ministers who have endeavoured to take India to such heights and who have added to the country’s glory.’ In 2014, the Prime Minister also said: ‘we don’t believe in moving forward only by virtue of majority. We want to move ahead on the basis of strong consensus.’ He continued to elaborate on the principle of consensus, which he said his government had already put into practice:

‘[The] nation has witnessed the entire session of Parliament. Having taken all the parties and the opposition along while working shoulder to shoulder, we achieved unprecedented success and the credit does not go to the Prime Minister alone, the credit does not go to the people sitting in the government, the credit goes to the opposition also, the credit goes to all the leaders of the opposition too, and all the members of Parliament. I also salute all the political parties…’

Yes, believe me, this was our Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. The Modi who has now disappeared.

That first year, Modi also spoke about ‘the poison of casteism and communalism’. And he said, ‘…look behind you and you will find that nobody has benefitted from it’. Then he gave a call: ‘Let us put a moratorium on all such activities for ten years’, so that ‘we march ahead to a society which will be free from all such tensions’. He told us about the benefits of such a national approach: ‘And you will see how much strength we get from peace, unity, goodwill and brotherhood. Let’s try this experiment for once.’

Can you recognise the person who spoke these words? Does the Prime Minister himself recognise the person who spoke that language? Does he ever recall those words he uttered not very long ago?

He spoke about Team India in 2014. About 125 crore people who comprised Team India. About all the chief ministers and the prime ministers who comprised Team India. This is precisely what he said in the first meeting of NITI Aayog too. In his 2014 address, he said, ‘There should be a team of chief ministers and Prime Minister, a joint team of the Centre and states should take things forward.’

If you look up the text of the Prime Minister’s 2015 speech, too, the phrase Team India is repeated many times. In some parts of his speech, every sentence contained that phrase.

But the phrase disappears—believe me, it completely disappears— from his speeches 2016 onwards. A very short shelf life for Team India. We do not hear the phrase any more.

And when did we hear the designation ‘Pradhan Sevak’ after the 2014 speech? Never again from the ramparts of the Red Fort. I wonder why.

Nor was his self-appellation as ‘chowkidar’, the nation’s guard and guardian, ever heard again from the shade of the Tricolour fluttering high at the historic Red Fort. Why?

I was trying to look for clues to the changeover from the idea that ‘great things happened during the past 70 years’ that was prominent in his 2014 speech, to the declaration that ‘nothing good happened in the last 70 years’ which is repeated ad nauseam these days. The Prime Minister’s cabinet, his party leaders, his devotees shout this at us every other day. Of course, the initial whistle was from the PM himself. It began in 2016. If you examine the framing of the past in the Prime Minister’s speeches since 2016, it is like this: his government versus every other government before him. A sort of ‘Before and After’ and ‘after-me-the-deluge’ framing.

Some people would say this is understandable—the Prime Minister wants to set himself up as the antipode to the Congress and the dynasty that presided over it. But the fact is, it doesn’t stop with that. The framing that ‘nothing happened’ in the country before the Modi regime came to power dismisses Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai (of whose coalition Modi’s own party’s former incarnation was a part), V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Narasimha Rao, I.K. Gujral, Deve Gowda—and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, hailed as the tallest leader of the BJP.

I will give you just one example from the 2021 Independence Day speech which is evidence of this framing. The Prime Minister took credit for taking electricity to every village in the country. It was framed as something that hadn’t been done ‘for 70 years’—no PM before Modi had managed the electrification of 100% of India’s villages. But the actual fact—that the extent of the Modi regime’s task was in fact very modest—was not in the frame. The truth is this: by the time Modi became Prime Minister, all but 18,500 of India’s 600,000 villages—that is, 97%—already had electricity. So it was like the last runner in a 10,000-kilometre relay race completing the final 100 metres to the finishing line and taking the credit for the entire relay marathon. This is just one example. When you have time, please look up his speeches. You will find many such clever claims.

The PM is also very good at reporting new, revolutionary ‘initiatives’ that have—to quote one of his tweets—‘forever transformed India’s development trajectory’. These initiatives are in fact old schemes with new, catchy names. Like the Jan Dhan Yojana, which is the old Basic Savings Bank Deposit Account; or the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, which is essentially the Indira Awaas Yojana; or the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, which is no different from the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme. About such initiatives he speaks with confidence from the Red.

Four. He gives you numbers. He tells you how many Jan Dhan accounts were opened. How many redundant laws were repealed? How much grain was produced? How much ration was distributed? He speaks confidently about these things because almost all the work was done before he came on the scene, and when the schemes had different names.

It is easy to tell what he is not confident about. These are the programmes or initiatives for which he has no data to give us because they did not exist before his time; he thought them up. So, he has no figures to offer for Make in India, Startup India, Skill India, and Stand up India. All of these are his government’s flagship programmes which, if they had been thought through properly, could really have been tools to transform India. Look up his speeches. You won’t get a clue about how these programmes are doing. He no longer even mentions them.

You will notice one more interesting feature of his Red Fort communication. Ideological and political issues that were addressed a few days or weeks before August 15 find mention in his speech. And he deals with them at length. For example: Scrapping of Article 370 and 35 A. Laying  the foundation stone for the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. Abolition of Triple Talaq. Decision to mark Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. But about larger humanitarian issues of colossal significance, there are hardly any words. In the 2017 speech, the Prime Minister spoke about demonetisation very cursorily—the country was reeling under its impact even ten months after the decision. Similarly, the COVID-19 tragedy found very brief mention in the 2020 and 2021 speeches. Just a few sentences, a few seconds. And in none of the speeches does he tell us how many jobs were created.

The grand show of humility, all the talk about team spirit, consensus, compassion, cooperation, the need to eradicate the poison of communal and caste disharmony that marked the 2014 and 2015 Modi speeches from the ramparts of the Red Fort began to fade by 2016 and then disappeared completely. Were his mighty words of those two years unreal? Just a performer’s lines delivered for effect without intent? Only empty rhetoric meant to snare the young and the middle classes of the country? If they were truly the defining creed of Modi’s New India, could they have vanished from his annual discourse on politics and governance?

Which is real—2014 or 2021?

Postscript, August 2022

The 2022 Independence Day address by Prime Minister Modi was a pretty long one. Over 80 minutes. As he himself repeatedly said in the speech, it was a very significant moment, the beginning of what he called the ‘Amrit Kaal’, the Ambrosial Age. It was, therefore, an occasion to share with the nation his view of the situation in the country and his approach towards addressing the many critical issues that confront our Republic. In his long address, Modi had ample chance to do this. To tell us, for example, how his government—or rather, he, since the entire government now resides in his all-powerful self—intends to handle price rise, high unemployment, deceleration in manufacturing, and the alarming situation on our eastern border where China has been sitting pretty on a substantial tract of our land. But the PM characteristically avoided all these.

Instead, he resorted, again, to rhetoric that to my mind is barely disguised and crafty stoking of divisive sentiments. And he offered a revised version of the discredited ‘Achhe Din’ promise in the form of ‘Amrit Kaal’.

He repeated a dog whistle from his 2021 address: Partition Horrors Day. And he spoke again of centuries of ‘foreign rule’. Although he did deign to mention Jawaharlal Nehru, he took care to name him after many others, and not in the company of freedom fighters—those slots were reserved for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and those whom the BJP is trying hard to co-opt into its pantheon, like Subhas Chandra Bose.

This time, Team India was himself and ‘130 crore Indians’. Not chief ministers, nor the leaders of other political parties. Even as he was ushering in India’s Amrit Kaal, an entire age, he was not prepared to yield some space to any other political player in the country.

Among the five pledges—‘panch pranns’—that he elaborated in his 2022 address, one was to shed ‘our slavish mentality’, and another was to respect and cherish ‘our own heritage’. These again amount to dog whistles. When he spoke of ‘slavish mentality’, he was not referring to Indians looking to the West for endorsement and acceptance. Go back and listen to recordings of his address: he said that for hundreds of years, we have been slaves. He was referring to India’s Islamic regimes. So, respecting and cherishing ‘our heritage’ obviously meant respecting not our composite heritage, but the Sangh Parivar’s idea of an exclusivist Hindu heritage.

Towards the end of his 2022 address, Prime Minister Modi gave a call to the people of India to stand by him in his fight against corruption, and in his effort to cleanse our institutions and national life of that menace. This to me was a clear indication of an even more aggressive taming of state institutions, and widespread use of enforcement agencies against political opponents painted as corrupt individuals.

So, this was what I heard in his long Independence Day address of 2022: a project to usher in an era that would see a revival of an imagined pre-Islamic ‘Hindu’ India, and a one-party State where the entire political opposition would be branded as corrupt and possibly put behind bars. In other words, an Orwellian Hindutva autocracy.

This, indeed, is a far cry from the Modi we heard on 15 August 2014.

(Excerpted from Parakala Prabhakar – The Crooked Timber of New India—Essays on a Republic in Crisis, 2023, Pages 26-33)




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