When NiMo meets NaMo
One good thing in the often joyless times in which we live is the flowering of satire and cartooning on social media (yes, RK Laxman's legacy is alive and kicking) For the last week, my whatsapp has been buzzing, not so much with breaking news, as with 'breaking jokes'. Every few minutes there is a new Nirav Modi joke that enters my inbox which is then almost instantaneously shared with friends and 'contacts' since we all need a break from the tedium of our lives. Most of the jokes have a distinct Narendra Modi angle to them. Now, it is purely coincidental that the latest swindler in town shares a surname with the prime minister and with another famous fugitive, but it clearly isn't a happy coincidence (bloody hell, even the acronym NiMo is all too uncomfortably close for comfort to NaMo). As the latest joke goes: 'the Congress gave us five Gandhis in 60 years, while the BJP has given us three Modis in four years so the BJP wins on the Duckworth-Lewis system'.
To be fair, the prime minister has prima facie little to do with the NiMo scam. There is no evidence to suggest that a hustle in a PSU bank branch office is in any way linked to a prime ministerial act of omission and commission. If the prime minister still finds himself being scrutinised, it just reflects how the Modi brand of highly individualistic politics is a double edged sword. After all, if you constantly claim to your followers that you are a 'magic man' with a 56 inch chest who is ridding India of 70 years of sloth and corruption, then people are occasionally entitled to ask whether the latest bank fraud is simply another case of plus ca change, plus c'est meme chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same) in a country where the ease of doing business can never ultimately match the ease of scamming the system.
Which is also why the incessant lampooning of the prime minister in the last few days should worry Mr Modi and his aides. For the last four years, almost all the jokes were on Rahul Gandhi: he was, after all, branded as 'Pappu' by the BJP's hyper-active IT cell and those with a visceral hatred for the Gandhi Nehru parivar. That Rahul's public speaking skills seemed limited at the time didn't help matters: he just seemed to stumble from one verbal faux pas to another. Now, with general elections just a year away, the tables have turned dramatically. Every remark of the prime minister from his 2014 campaign is being dug out by a galvanised Congress social media team to remind the nation that life as CEO in 7 Lok Kalyan Marg is very different from being a rabble rouser in the opposition. Hey, wasn't this the prime minister who in 2013 asked for votes because he wanted to be a 'chowkidar' against corruption? Wasn't this the prime minister who had been scathing about his predecessor's silence in the face of corruption by describing him as 'Maun-Mohan'?
Today, Rahul Gandhi's official twitter handle (yes, the same bumbling Pappu is now even a twitter sharpie) has chosen to target the prime minister with the epithet 'Maun-Modi' after his rather conspicuous silence over one of the country's biggest bank frauds. The 'chowkidar' video has gone viral, a reminder that while voters may forget poll rhetoric, nothing is ever forgotten on the open source internet. Worse, the prime minister's fascination for the photo op has meant that a picture of him with a beaming Nirav along with other industrialists in Davos has also been shared a million times. Frankly, the photo itself is innocuous: you really can't expect the prime minister to checklist every businessman in a group photo and, besides there was no FIR or lookout notice against the diamond prince when the photo was clicked. But in politics perception matters, and somehow the perception in the mind of the common man is that NiMo must have known NaMo: Gujarati, same surname, same initials! And while this Chota Modi Bada Modi analogy is clearly not fair, one could well ask if anything is ever fair in today's era of vendetta politics?
It gets even worse. There is that potentially deadly 2015 viral video where Narendrabhai refers to Mehulbhai (Mehul Choksey, the other diamond czar to have lost his shine) at a function at the prime minister's home. Now, there is again nothing wrong per se in fondly referring to someone as 'bhai' unless it is Dawood or Osama you are talking about. 'Bhai' is, after all, a term of endearment in Gujarati that suggests brotherly love and respect. But in the context of Mehulbhai being exposed as a con artist who was skimming the system, the video makes it seem as if he has a special relationship and enjoys the valued blessings of the prime minister. We could argue again legitimately that the reference to 'Mehulbhai' is harmless and only typical Modispeak: he routinely likes to send out a message of familiarity to his audiences (didn't he call Hugh Jackman by his first name once, and what of good old Barack!) And yet, the Mehulbhai video will haunt and embarrass the prime minister especially if more details tumble out of Choksey's political clout. NiMo atleast didn't have any cases against him during the Davos date; Mehulbhai had several complaints of fraud against him when he was a visitor to the prime minister's home.
In the end, it's the ironies of the NiMo-Mehulbhai-Narendrabhai connect that are driving the humour. Just think of it: a prime minister who has always taken pride in his association with fawning Gujarati business friends (which is why he would rather have them accompany him on foreign trips than pesky journalists asking discomfiting questions) is now being targeted for those very business links. A prime minister who is in love with the camera and who is the original social media and viral video politician is now being exposed and caricatured by the very technology that built him into a larger than life figure. Karma truly is a bitch.
Post-script: do you have a favourite NiMo joke? Here is one of mine: 'There is a new entry in the dictionary to describe the way scamsters operate: its called Modis operandi!'