Modi is the master of symbolism. But is that what we need in a pandemic?

The prime minister has the goodwill of the people. It’s time to use that to effect actual changes rather than gestures.

WrittenBy:Rajan Laad
Article image

An American politician of eminence and experience once astutely observed, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

Governing is dispassionate, time-consuming and onerous. It involves the authoring and amending of laws and bills after multiple consultations, getting them passed through the legislature, and — the most crucial part — their implementation.

To the voters, the intricacies of governing that causes the boosting of the GDP, lowering of inflation, relaxing of regulations,reduction of the fiscal deficit, and the conception and implementation of governmental reforms and schemes are of little consequence. Much like safety measures demonstrated before take-off, the importance of governance is only realised when it is absent.

What matters to the voter is the outcome of the governance, such as higher profits to their business, paying less taxes, etc. Often, even that is not sufficient to dictate their voting choice.

Quite often there have been electoral defeats despite able governance. Under PV Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership, India witnessed great economic prosperity with the opening up of the Indian market for international investors and brands. But despite this remarkable success that had people and businesses prospering, Rao’s government was booted out in the polls.

So, why did people not respond to good governance?

There are politicians and then there are leaders, who manage to capture the public imagination to become a phenomenon. If one looks deeper, the standard politicians appeal to the mind, while the phenomenon appeals to the heart. These emotions soon evolve into bonds that can be almost unbreakable, making the phenomenon immune to colossal failures.

While Narasimha Rao was responsible for the affluence and prosperity, he never managed to translate that into a story that touched the heart.

How Modi brought in heart

Right from his days as chief minister of Gujarat, it was amply clear that Narendra Modi was a master of connecting with the regular voter. A possible reason is that unlike most of the “ruling class”, Modi has spent a large part of his life among regular people. He knows how they think, he understands their wants, their needs, their frustrations, and that for Indians, their hearts usually rule their minds.

This is crucial for a politician and isn’t dissimilar to a product-maker deeply researching and understanding the buying behaviours of potential customers.

When Modi helmed various schemes as prime minister, he seldom referred to the schemes but instead, their outcome. The Ujwala Yojana was referred to as providing relief for women whose health was ruined because of the smoke emanating from the burning wood from their challahs. Building toilets was not just about stopping open defecation, but was about providing dignity for women and providing a safe place for young girls going to school. Having a Jan Dhan account wasn’t about being part of the formal economy, it was a way for the poorest to receive their pension or welfare money without having to be insulted by government officials over what is rightfully owed to them.

It is not that some of these schemes didn’t exist before, but Modi’s rebranding gave them heart. He also quite astutely made sure to associate his name with all these schemes.

The examples are numerous, and Modi managed to tell stories that touched people’s hearts. Even those who weren’t directly impacted by these schemes were touched by the changes that occurred on the ground.

There is always something intimate about radio broadcasts; if done properly, it can seem very personal and can work as theatre of the mind. For major cities, radio waves are merely another channel of communication but for the rural parts of the nation, radio waves are a valued mode of communication.

No prime minister has ever thought of connecting with the nation on a monthly basis like Modi does with his Mann Ki Baat. For many regular people, it is their prime minister talking to them directly about what’s on his mind. Once again, it is special for those who have been forgotten by the mainstream for so long. Modi even makes a point of mentioning letters he received, even calling out senders by name, adding the crucial personal touch.

During his first Mann Ki Baat address, the prime minister asserted that governing a nation is not just the job of an elected government, it requires the active participation of the citizen.

In the next few months, Modi requested those who are able to afford to pay the market price for LPG to voluntarily surrender their LPG subsidy. The result was overwhelming: over 10 million gave up their subsidy which was then redistributed to provide gas connections to poor families.

Modi also urged people to buy khadi to support the then struggling khadi industry. This resulted in the doubling of sales from Rs 1,170 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 2,509 crore in 2017-18. Millions of jobs were also claimed to have been created.

Then there was the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Modi urged people to personally be responsible for maintaining cleanliness in their vicinity. I personally witnessed individuals from all demographic groups do their bit to maintain cleanliness in their housing complexes, their places of worship, their offices, and even their parks. Even children made it a point to toss their chocolate wrappers into dustbins, and not on the street. All this was done with pride.

The experience was unique; it had no pecuniary gains but the mere participation in bettering the nation struck a special cord. Citizens felt part of the collective solution. This was nationalism at its best.

In November 2016, the biggest sacrifice Modi demanded was demonetisation. As currency notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 were invalidated, the country witnessed a virtual shutdown of the unorganised sector. People had to queue up to withdraw their own money. Under any other leader, this might have resulted in a riot on the streets, if not certain electoral routing. But people complied, and even tolerated the irreparable loss — all because Modi told them it was for the larger cause of combating black money.

Relentless image management

In addition to the ability to appeal to their emotions, what also worked was Modi’s relentless and assiduous image management. There are forwards on Whatsapp, some which are obviously apocryphal, highlighting his achievements, there are clips of Modi consoling a distraught scientist after the failure of a lunar mission, and of Modi decimating the Opposition in Parliament. There are textual forwards that highlight and even embellish his achievements

There are occasions when supporters ascribe higher motives to Modi’s most casual statements. But this is all part of what the prime minister means to his voters.

All this works in building an almost unassailable image of Modi as the all-knowing, not just the all-caring, leader. He is both the leader and a member of the masses.

Critics and rivals may slam these supporters as “bhakts”. This characterisation is erroneous: one look at social media and you will find Modi supporters indulge in the most virulent and vicious criticism of their leader when they feel he is drifting from his core promises. Ironically, it is when the compulsive critics spew their venom that they reunite with their leader. The rivals are probably envious that they have never been able to cultivate such a faithful following.

Such was the strength of this image that Rahul Gandhi’s ploy of terming Modi a crook with his relentless “chowkidar chor hai” slogan backfired so badly that Gandhi lost his seat in Amethi, once a Congress stronghold.

When I was standing in line to vote in the Lok Sabha election in 2019, I overheard an elderly man talking to another.

“I had stopped voting a long time ago, these politicians are crooks,” the man said. “They are all in it for themselves. But with Modi things are different. He cares, he is trying. Unlike others, he has not done things to benefit his family members. He is hardworking and honest. There has been no corruption. I, therefore, broke a rule of a lifetime and am voting. So are many of my friends.”

It has to be noted that the gentleman was aware that the outcome may not always be entirely desirable, but it is the attempt that was admired.

Clearly, a majority of voters subscribed to this school of thought and the Modi government won a landslide victory, even enhancing its seat tally from 2014.

While it may seem blasphemous to Modi’s critics, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that after Mahatma Gandhi who pioneered the involvement of regular people in India’s freedom struggle, Narendra Modi has a reputation that is so strong that people willingly and happily comply with their requests.

Much like how Gandhi prevented the freedom struggle from being a heartless negotiation and eventual transaction between the elites of India and Great Britain, Modi has managed to include the citizen in the process of governance, thus making everyone feel like an active participant and responsible.

When Gandhi requested regular folks to boycott the British, they responded by burning clothes made in Britain and resigning from their highly-paid jobs in the then British government. We have seen people respond almost identically to requests made by Modi.

With Covid-19, has Modi’s symbolism gone too far?

The coronavirus pandemic is one of the biggest crises to hit Indian shores in modern times. It also presents myriad challenges for Modi as a leader.

In his primary address to the nation, Modi requested a “personal favour” from the public: to remain indoors for a self-imposed curfew on March 22, from 7am to 9pm. He made another request: that citizens stand at their windows or in their balconies and applaud to show appreciation for essential services personnel such as healthcare and sanitation workers, airline and rail staff, police and deliverymen.

It has to be remembered that the curfew was not mandatory, and a violation of it was not a crime. But the country, known to not comply with rules, witnessed an astounding level of cooperation from its citizens. Parts of the country that were usually overcrowded on Sundays were deserted.

For the appreciation hour, the response was overwhelming, with people from all walks of life coming out and clanging their utensils. At a time when things were looking rather dreary, it was a good way to energise the public. Unfortunately, there were those whose overenthusiasm got the better of them; they took out processions almost as if it were a victory march against Covid-19, thus ignoring the social distancing rules.

For his second address the prime minister imposed a nationwide 21-day lockdown. The March 22 seemed like a rehearsal, perhaps easing people into it.

This address wasn’t without its problems. Much like the first one, there were almost 24 hours between the announcement of the address to the actual address. This caused a lot of speculation, and the rumour mongers on various social media platforms began to function on steroids. The vagueness of the impact of the lockdown had people ignoring all the rules of social distancing to gather at shops after the announcement, and panic-buy in bulk. What was required was a succinct speech, perhaps with visual aids to clearly explain what will and what will not be operational during the lockdown.

For Modi’s third address, the announcement was made 12 hours before. Once again, rumor mongers began speculating that this may be the declaration of an emergency or a complete shutdown.

The core of the third address was the prime minister urging people to turn off their lights and light diyas at 9 pm on April 6 for nine minutes. I must admit thinking of this as a cruel practical joke — to reserve an address to the nation and the apprehensions of the announcement merely to urge people to participate in another gesture of tokenism.

It did seem that Modi, who is quite the master of poetic symbolism that touches people's hearts, may have gone too far this time, especially when there is deep concern and fear all over the nation.

But when the clock struck 9 on April 6, despite my initial scepticism, the atmosphere was overwhelming. There were aartis sung, conches blown, and chants of patriotism. The sight of diyas illuminating the entire area that was in pitch darkness was nothing short of spectacular. Once again, like the appreciation shown on March 22, it worked in elevating the mood when things looked gloomy and dreary.

Several videos of cities and towns turning dark and illuminated with diyas inundated social media. Critics will say that much like the clanging of pans, this occasion, with the bursting of crackers, devolved into the unintended. That instead of this being a sombre moment of tribute, this may have become a brazen display of the individual. They may have a point, but it was merely nine minutes out of the 1,440 minutes in a day. Surely we can survive some overzealousness.

But in a crisis such as this, Modi cannot afford to overplay these symbolic gestures of appreciation. As the crisis gets graver, it may seem insensitive. Besides, the relentless display can wear off the novelty.

For his next announcements, Modi needs to talk about concrete changes on the ground. Such as more and affordable test centres all over the country, safe transportation for all those who want to return to their villages, protective gear for medical personnel, details on how the government plans to aid small businesses that have been hit by economic inactivity, steps to help those who have experienced a sudden loss of income after the pandemic.

It is amply clear that Modi holds great respect among the people in India, such that they dutifully and ardently comply with his requests. Perhaps it is time to apply them for actual changes. He must talk about the reprehensible discrimination faced by first responders in some sections of society. He could even address the end of possible stigmatisation of those who are victims of Covid-19; we have know of victims of diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy suffering discrimination despite recovery.

Much like the manner in which his myriad schemes touched the poorest on the ground, it is time for Modi to swing into action to bring about change on the ground.

Here’s hoping that the next gesture of symbolic gratitude is when we have totally and completely overcome this pandemic. Hopefully, that occurs very soon.

Also see
article imageWith Janta Curfew, Modi overcame the state’s impersonality to strike a chord with citizens
article imageIndia’s healthcare is not equipped for a COVID-19 pandemic, and we can’t clap that away

Power NL-TNM Election Fund

General elections are around the corner, and Newslaundry and The News Minute have ambitious plans together to focus on the issues that really matter to the voter. From political funding to battleground states, media coverage to 10 years of Modi, choose a project you would like to support and power our journalism.

Ground reportage is central to public interest journalism. Only readers like you can make it possible. Will you?

Support now


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like