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Modi, Gandhi and Mohan Bhagwat

10 October 2014

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Business Standard, October 9, 2014

Why Narendra Modi needs both ’Mohanlal’ and Mohan Bhagwat

The prime minister has followed a dual strategy. He is invoking Gandhi to project himself as a statesman and yet, because he is essentially a politician, he has to take the RSS along as well

by Bharat Bhushan

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his favourite constituency of non-resident Indians, promising them an India of "their dreams", he asked them rhetorically: Gandhi gave us freedom, but what did we give him in return? A wag remarked on Twitter: "Sanghis’ gave him a single bullet". Actually, it was three - Nathuram Godse touched Gandhi’s feet before shooting him three times. Although the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has always denied any responsibility for the assassination of Gandhi, there is no doubt that the conspirators were Hindutva ideologues.

Gandhi has never really been owned by the RSS. Many in the RSS will even question why he is referred to as the Father of the Nation, because for them the idea of India precedes Gandhi by thousands of years. It is surprising, therefore, to see Modi, once an RSS-pracharak (proselytizer), invoking Gandhi repeatedly, most recently on his birthday, re-designated, Swachhta Diwas.

Modi has not engaged deeply with Gandhi’s thought. He did not even care to get his name right. The Madison Square Garden speech was the second time Modi called Gandhi "Mohanlal". That he is no true acolyte of Gandhi was evident from the fact that he reinforced the stereotype of the lower castes being unclean by choosing to wield a broom in Valmiki Colony (Valmiki is a "scavenger" caste).

Modi also seems to need the RSS. He immediately scotched criticism of the state-run media for broadcasting RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speech by praising it for addressing "important national issues". How do Gandhi and RSS sit comfortably in the political consciousness of Modi?

He is aware that he won the Lok Sabha election with only 31 per cent of the vote. That is only about 165 million Indians out of the 500 million who participated and voted for him, contrary to the claim of 1.25 billion Indians electing him in his speeches. Modi has since followed a dual strategy. He has to project himself as a statesman who is above politics and yet, because he is essentially a political animal, he has to take the RSS along as well. He needs its cadre in the elections, which take place almost round the year in some or other parts of India. While development slogans build a statesman-like image for Modi, it gets the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) only the additional floating vote of the middle class and the youth. Its base vote comes because of the Hindutva ideology.

Modi has grown up with this ideology and he owes his political life to it. The BJP also has no cadre of its own and depends on the RSS cadre for electoral legwork. The RSS knows that Bhagwat cannot win parliamentary elections. An ideologically repackaged full-time cadre like Narendra Modi can. But he has to polish the rough edges to make Hindutva electorally palatable.

Once he decided to bid for prime ministership, Modi had to fashion a new strategy. A neat division of labour became evident in the Lok Sabha election - while Modi delivered uplifting speeches and urged his followers to build the tallest statue of the first Home Minister of India Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Amit Shah and the standing army of the Hindutva family of organisations polarised the voters on communal lines.

Having become the prime minister, the same dual strategy continues. Only this time, he has sought to selectively appropriate the symbol of Gandhi instead of Patel. The association is initiated through Modi’s public speeches and government propaganda, it is intensified, however, by the media picking up and repeating those messages.

But the issues are selectively framed. The national campaign for cleanliness was projected as if the only thing holding India back was a failure of leadership, which, of course, Modi will now provide. If, for example, the issue of cleanliness had been framed differently by Modi and the media - say, in terms of public health, then the solution would not be just every citizen picking up a broom.

The issue would then have to be seen in terms of citizenship rights such as access to water, sanitary facilities, epidemiological profiles of populations, the role of local municipalities and their functioning, waste-disposal facilities, condition of housing, nature of livelihoods, living spaces, whether in cities, suburbs and villages and so on.

The moment one frames the issue as one of Modi sweeping with a broom and Gandhi as the metaphor, the mental framework and the methodology of understanding, discussing and making choices about public health and the issues of the citizenship are short-circuited. As Modi’s personality gets a brand rub-off from Gandhi, perhaps India does not become significantly cleaner or healthier, or even attentive to the link between caste and manual scavenging, which Gandhi wanted to highlight in his campaign for "cleanliness".

Modi, the individual, is the recurring theme of his political communication and not the complex social issues that this country faces - whether of inclusion and exclusion, religious divisions, income disparities or unequal access to resources. In this way, he can safely invoke whatever popular symbol he chooses and also let Bhagwat and the RSS be promoted along with Gandhi, Patel and others.

What complicates trying to span these two different images - a great statesman prime minister and the brightest shining star of the Hindutva ideology - is constant electioneering. His political stardom makes him the first choice of the BJP as a campaigner. Modi is a great public speaker, but his campaign speeches also bring out unattractive aspects of his character - nastiness towards political opponents, cheap mimicry, slipping into the language of a street bully and selling false hope (like promising to change the formula of Pepsi to include real fruit juice in it).

The image that he so assiduously wants to cultivate - of a great statesman, the tea-seller’s son who became prime minister and the philosopher King who will deliver India - then has to live with the dark and manipulative side of his leadership. Managing the two images is, therefore, going to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s toughest task.

The writer is a journalist based in Delhi


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