I heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi's “Mann ki Baat” address to the nation today (31 May 2015). About how this innovation has captured the attention of the nation and people world over, there is plenty that has been said on TV and also written about. The point of this piece is to ask what is Modi's project when he so shares his thoughts and feelings with the “people”.
Just plain listening to Modi's “Mann ki Baat” gives one the feeling that Modi is reaching out, explaining stuff, making people part of his decisions. But pay careful attention to his tone, the undertones particularly, and one notices a rather dark and patronising manner in which Modi renders his messages.
Take today's episode, for instance. Modi spoke of the heat wave; the Kisan Channel that is being launched; the One Rank One Pension promise to Jawans; about success and failures in examinations and how to deal with them; and also announced he would lead the nation in commemorating June 21st the International Yoga Day. It's a kichhdi of issues, really speaking. But that apart, the message is in the way it is delivered: the deliberate halting in his speech, the heaving, the pauses (some quite unnecessary, but aid in stressing the trivial as non-trivial) and the unmistakably Modi under-breath. All of this adds to a singular proposition: Modi is not arguing his case with the people, he is telling them what he will do, he is telling them he is there at the helm of affairs and they need not worry. And does so in a manner that dumbs down the issue to a level that no one can even pick a quarrel; those who do will look bad.
It's no one's case that one needs to take care of oneself, one's family, friends, neighbours and elders, especially in an heat wave. And it's common practice in India, anywhere really, to keep out some water for wandering cows and goats and birds, monkeys and donkeys and the like, to take a sip and beat the heat. But when this becomes an issue that a Prime Minister speaks about it takes a different tone, especially the way Modi says it. He reminds us about the need for compassion for animals, while we take care of ourselves. For the massive audience that he has now commanded, because almost all government channels are being used in the telecast/webcast/radio broadcast of this programme (with private channels volunteering their bandwidths too), there is a simple and effective message that wants to deliver (a sadly predictable) impact: here is a man so sensitive, that he has time to care for animals too, despite being the PM. Nice touch?
Not really. Because, Modi has dumbed down the issue comprehensively, and deliberately. A heat wave is like a flood, a critical emergency. If mishandled, people will die. And people are dying, in hundreds. Its not because they aren't taking care of themselves or their animals that they are dying. It is despite doing that. Heat waves, like most natural disasters, kill the poor primarily as they live in an universe of scarcity: scarce access to water, to liveable shelter, and no possibility of taking a day off from work as that would mean dealing with the double whammy: unbearable heat wave + unbearable hunger. Now a Prime Minister who really cares for the people would want to discuss such grave matters with a grave tone, and explain what his administration is doing to alleviate people's suffering. None of that came through in Modi's address barring suave advise on how to take care of oneself and animals too, totally dismissing the fact that here is a major crisis that the nation is gripped by. The Prime Minister is basking in his innovation of communicating “directly” his “thoughts and feeling” with the “people” when this unprecedented heat wave is alarming many across the world to ask if this is a new norm in a world impacted by climate change.
“Mann ki Baath” is not in the least a subtle effort at valourising Modi, claimed as the man who has made the Prime Minister's position worthy of respect and widespread regard. These monthly episodes have a message for BJP, that it has found a leader who is popular and that the party has to be reverent to Modi for getting them a mandate only he could manage and can again do. Implying, therefore, that without Modi, BJP is an also ran party. With the sub-text indiscreetly suggesting: Narendra Modi is here for the very long run, and all these episodes are part of a well-orchestrated campaign to ensure that he remains an indispensable feature in the Prime Minister's office.
Consider this new scheme Modi launched today (No, I am not talking about the Yoda day), its that people could now share with him, online, their family photos: of picnics at the beach. He would like to be a part of their “joy” “from a distance”, as he put it. Now imagine lakhs and lakhs of cell phones clicking pictures and sharing on the Prime Minister's portal pictures, which till this morning, would be considered personal, private stuff.
Surely, a Prime Minister coming across as personal is a nice thing, provided, of course, the Prime Minister has done his job. Such as take care of massive unemployment in the rural and industrial sectors, for instance. The heat wave is parching India, and monsoon shows no signs at all of knocking over the Kerala coastline anytime soon. What is Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, going to do to save millions from an already crazy heat wave that will only get crazier? What will he do when farmers are forced to leave their farms in millions and go seek out livelihoods, with families in tow, from lowly paid, highly exploitative construction jobs in cities, if at all they can manage it? What will the Prime Minister do to get all Chief Ministers together and put together a comprehensive relief package? None of such critical concerns, which most of us would agree are indeed critical, are addressed in Modi's “Mann ki Baath”!
Meanwhile, for reasons not very clear yet, the MGNREGA scheme is floundering for attention. Scholarly research has proven that this programme, conceived and launched during UPA-II, has helped save millions from chronic persistence hunger, exploitation, and also given them a leg up in their fight against poverty. But our Prime Minister, who has time to peek into peoples' picnic selfies, has no time to prioritise investment in such massive security creation for the rural masses! So what if it was a Congress legacy? The scheme at least gives some security to farmers struggling against an unprecedented heat wave.
The sinister aspect of Modi's “Mann ki baath” comes across in his direct message to defense personnel, serving and retired, that their 4 decades old demand of “One Rank One Pension” will be met. It's the way in which he made the promise that is disconcerting. Typically, in most Governments past, such an important policy statement would be delivered by the Defence Minister. Instead, it's got to be Modi, the man, the “peoples” Prime Minister. For the Jawan, Modi is now a hero, not merely a Prime Minister, and this hero will now find the solution to a vexatious issue that several past governments have failed to deliver. The “I will do it” tone is clear, direct, and demanding: of respect, of deference. Modi wants every Jawan to be grateful to him, to know he is not just any hero, but a super-man who will do the unbelievable.
Such valourisation of an individual's effort is so un-Indian. It is particularly so unlike the Army which demands bravery from all and keeps a very careful watch on indulgences in an individualistic streak. Into such a force, which has instilled discipline distilled from decades of team effort and a policy of deliberately working in the background, that Modi has now introduced a streak of Ayn Randish individualism. It works for Modi, perhaps, but spells disaster for the Army. Many armies around the world who have been careless about such behavioural drifts, have ended disastrously, and wrecked havoc in their nations.
Not to be missed is an overarching element of these one-way, didactic style of rendering ideas and views: that Modi the man is the one who delivers on everything. There is no need for holding any other Union Minister accountable, or sharing the credit with anyone else. One noticed how completely sidelined India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has been in so many of Modi's overseas visits. Not one of the Union Ministers handling important politically important portfolios such as power, surface transport, urban development, etc. convey their Ministry's messages directly to the public anymore. It's always all done by Narendra Modi. Comes across as an unhidden effort to project Modi as the go-to man, as the will-get-it-done man, the man with a broad chest who shelters his colleagues, defends their mistakes, and yes, also takes credit for their work. Its a dangerous approach in which accountability is obscured, and misdirection, that cardinal technique of magic, is employed to divert public attention from so much that has to be so very carefully scrutinised and understood. Misdirection in magic is but momentary, entertaining when performed well, and irritating otherwise. In Modi's case though, it has become his norm of communication and we are way beyond the momentary feeling of irritation and well into an increasingly alarming strategy to divert attention from what the public ought to know so they can be prepared and take care of themselves – government or no government.
So what does one do with a Prime Minister who employs misdirection? What does one do with a man so full of himself that he does not notice he is killing with every one of his “Mann ki Baath” episodes a hoary tradition of Parliamentary governance where projecting the individual as achiever is anathema? What does one do with a man who uses the office of the Prime Minister to overwhelms his mass audiences with trivial concerns (Yoga, one can see. Selfies?) and provides a dumbed down version of critical concerns in such a way that masses can't quite comprehend the depth of the problem at hand? What does one do with a man who does not allow anyone else from his administration to share their “Mann ki baath”?
The answers to these questions aren't easy to find. But they must be found. For in searching out these answers, and in raising many more similar questions, rests the possibility of securing India from another unwelcome episode of authoritarianism. In a country where the electorate is too occupied finding ways to live every day and with little time or resource to hold accountable the elected over their period in office; where sycophancy is the norm, not the exception; where deferment is an expectation of politics, and democratic argumentation scorned upon, even punished brutally; where political leaders rise because of the fear they instil, not respect they command; into that country we now have Modi, a man who triumphantly proclaims his achievements.
Now such a man is reaching out and effectively mesmerising a massive population into believing what Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants them to believe. While quietly, dissenting voices are being snuffed out, by shouting down dissent, and inceasingly frequently smothering those who dissent with brutal abuse of law. Here is a man who is advocating narcissism of the masses, by the masses, and join the party with narcissistic Modi. Rescuing a nation getting afflicted by this disease is a task that cannot wait another day.