If prime minister Narendra Modi was not a politician, he could probably be a feel-good guru. Mr Modi’s signature characteristic has been his ability to constantly radiate a positive energy. Last week, as the prime minister took his ‘Bharat kee Baat’ to a global stage in London, he was once again the consummate performer: near Westminster Hall, a handful of protestors were chanting anti-Modi slogans, inside the hall, an adoring diaspora audience was lapping up his one-liners. For two and a half hours, with an ingratiating poet-advertiser Prasoon Joshi as his balladeer, Mr Modi showed us just why he is such a successful political communicator: even in times of gloom, there wasn’t a trace of self-doubt or anxiety in his demeanor.
It hadn’t been a good April until then for the prime minister. Back home in India, the morning papers were headlining the cash crunch in ATM machines, with troubling questions re-surfacing over a lingering fallout of demonetization. In the previous week, the shocking attempt to shield the accused in the horrific sexual assault and murder of an eight year old in Kathua and the death of the father of an alleged rape victim in police custody in Unnao had provoked national outrage. In both instances, the role of the ruling BJP law-makers had come under a cloud. At the start of the month, a Bharat bandh called by Dalit groups had sparked off street violence that resulted in eleven deaths: some of the BJP’s own Dalit MPs had publicly protested against what they claimed was an anti-Dalit stand of the party. From student demonstrations over a leaked CBSE paper to opposition protests in Andhra Pradesh to a farm agitation in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, the government seemed to be gheraoed from all sides.
And yet, in the rarefied atmosphere of an iconic London building, the street anger might have seemed like an optical illusion, manufactured by a 24 x 7 media frenzy: the bloodied streets of Bhind, the arid Cauvery delta, a remote village in Kathua and a dusty town in Uttar Pradesh seemed a very long way away.
Which brings me to the central question: is the prime minister living in denial, or are those of us in the news universe choosing to inhabit an area of permanent darkness? During his interaction, the prime minister claimed that ‘positivity’ was his life mantra: ‘For me, the glass is always half full. You’ll always find people who’ll say a glass is half full, some will say half empty. I am different. I say this: it is half full and the rest is filled with air’. The audience burst into instant applause.
For a few hours, in the shimmering lights of a London amphitheatre, the prime minister appeared to be consciously invoking the spirit of ‘achche din’ that had catapulted him to power in 2014, making the despair of 2018 seem transient. It was almost as if the Dalit anger during the Bharat Bandh, the protests over Kathua and Unnao, the farmers march in Mumbai, the Cauvery black flag demonstrations, the ‘revolt’ in the judiciary, the multi-crore bank scams, a CBSE exam leaks controversy, the staff selection exam dharna, were all aberrations: in a land of a million mutinies, the prime minister was instead touching upon a billion aspirations.
In the battle between an ‘aspirational’ India versus a ‘mutinous’ India, the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in-between. In 2014, the prime minister could relentlessly focus on being an energetic agent of change because he was, after all, the challenger seeking to demolish the status quoist ‘Lutyens elite’. He could then fit into the role of an anti establishment hero because a country was tiring of an ancient regime that had presided over vaulting corruption, low growth and high inflation in the previous five years. But in 2018, Mr Modi cannot switch quite as easily to the avatar of the humble ‘chai-wallah’ or detached ‘fakir’ because he now fully enjoys the trappings of power and authority: the 'outsider' is now the proud occupant of 7 Lok Kalyan Marg and even his fashion style suggests a regal air.
Nor are the areas of darkness pointed above just in the imagination of a cynical journalist. When taken together, they offer a mirror to a deeper moral and institutional crisis that faces the country today. The frequent eruptions of public anger aren’t just a reflection of ‘impatience’ as the prime minister suggests: there is a deeper moral vacuum and an institutional corrosion that goes beyond the usual hankering for change. The fact is, that there are societal cleavages that need to be addressed urgently, not by clever slogans like ‘new India’, but by restoring a measure of trust and confidence in a system that appears disconnected with the desire for constitutional morality and justice.
What else will explain the manner in which a sickening crime in Kathua gets caught in sharply polarized local politics, revealing a shameful majoritarian bigotry? Why do faceless farmers have to repeatedly hit the streets to have their voices heard? Why is it that Dalit rage is like a dormant volcano waiting to erupt? Why is it that the super-rich seem to get away with big ticket corruption even as the anonymous salaried Indian waits his turn in bank queues? Why can a technologically advanced country not conduct an error-free exam? Why is the judiciary split wide open?
Asking these inconvenient questions is surely a legitimate exercise, one that cannot be dismissed lightly as the prime minister appeared to do when he said, “I take criticism in my stride because, after all, people need someone to trash, someone to fling barbs at.” Not every mutiny is a ‘barb’ directed at you Mr Prime Minister, but is often a much-needed wake-up call to conscience: after all, a half full glass is sadly, and more realistically, half empty too.
Post-script: As the adulating audience left Westminster hall, a bejeweled lady turned to the camera: “Isn’t Mr Modi so inspiring, he makes us all feel like coming back to India.” Watching her drive away in a sparkling BMW, I wasn’t quite sure she would.
(a short version of this appeared in hindustan times)