On Sunday’s Mann Ki Baat, his monthly radio show, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke, among other things, about kartavya. He started with the upcoming Republic Day and segued into reminding us how it is incumbent upon us to fulfil our duties. If I remember correctly, the dive into kartavya began with the rather innocuous appeal to make the ganatantra stronger, and our “pavitra kartavya” to vote in order that this may happen. Playing thus on duty, the Prime Minister threw open the floodgates.
As is his wont, Modi asked that the youth write to him on his app and fill up the MyGov page with ideas on what kartavya means to them. He also asked that an essay-writing competition be organised among school children on Republic Day. One wonders how the PM is not embarrassed by his zealous resolve to get school children to write moral science essays on a regular basis. From APJ Abdul Kalam to the smart city project, nearly every major scheme of this government has been given the expository treatment by earnest kids who cannot say no. No matter if all this academic activity takes place only for the whole thing to be forgotten within a day of its passing muster. It makes for good copy, if little else.
Wags wondered this Christmas about the fate of Good Governance Day, announced with much fanfare last year and which seems to have since disappeared among this government’s plethora of schemes and ideas.
This emphasis on myriad schemes that last but for a season is problematic because it shows a government, and a prime minister, willing to hog the limelight without necessarily doing the groundwork before or after the fact. This impression was bolstered again last week as the PM landed in Pakistan to have an unannounced lunch with Nawaz Sharif, with no signs of any diplomatic preparation for the visit.
That said, the more worrying aspect of this tendency to build up events around national occasions such as Republic Day is the Prime Minister’s sorely lacking communication strategy. On Sunday’s Mann ki Baat, his cloyingness – the repeated invocation of kartavya, say – was hard to stomach even for his dedicated army of fans. Worse, it belied a studied eagerness to portray himself as above the malicious fray of Delhi politics. Speaking about essay-writing competitions may divert attention from the unease in the BJP over L’Affaire Jaitley, but it also comes across as strikingly disingenuous. Surely, it is the PM’s kartavya to answer to the nation why the whistleblower, in this case Kirti Azad, and not the perpetrator, was suspended from the party. When he instead waxes about Ambedkar and the rights of the differently abled, it is impossible not to conjure that metaphor about the ostrich and the sand.
There is another problem with the PM’s holier-than-thou approach to communicating with the masses. It sounds very much like a Hindu version of the Sunday Mass. There is little connect, beyond the slick condescension of the clergy. There is little of that conversational felicity that a Barack Obama displays with such confidence. Earlier this year, appearing in Charleston where a white supremacist had gunned down 21 black people in a church, Obama launched into Amazing Grace, it would seem, almost unthinkingly. Standing among the families of the deceased, the president’s breaking into a cherished Christian hymn was both a powerful image aimed at providing solace and the measure of a leader who connects viscerally with his audience even in the face of the damnedest tragedy. Of course, it may not have been as impromptu as it looked, which only makes it more impressive.
Surely Modi desires to be in the same boat. But his Mann ki Baat is so pedestrian and soporific a programme, it makes one wonder if this is the same man who roused a nation during 2014’s campaign trail. In the latest edition, as in his earlier ones, he plugged government schemes such as the Jan Dhan Yojana and the voluntary cooking gas subsidy withdrawal for the well to do. Yes, these schemes are important and it is great that they are working, even if not to the extent that the Prime Minister advertises. For all that though, the PM’s saccharine delivery grates.
It would have been still okay if the Prime Minister was like this throughout, but that is definitively not the case. When abroad, he returns to the Modi of the election cycle, roaring before packed auditoriums, eager to make good on the sticky metaphor of the 56-inch chest. Look, for instance, to pictures from the weekend trip of him and Sharif sitting on opposite sides of a table loaded with the most stunning delicacies. Modi is grinning ear to ear, perfectly at home in a land he had led us to believe is our sworn enemy. Perhaps it is an outcome of his antagonistic relationship with the media that we rarely see him so much as smile in public gatherings back home. But surely he can inject some life into his one-on-one talk show. Less pedantry, more emotion please, Mr Prime Minister.