On the Prime Minister’s birthday last week, every major newspaper in the country carried full-page advertisements in his praise. The Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Uttar Pradesh led the charge and were lavish in their praise of his ‘vision’ and his achievements. The wife of an ex-chief minister of the BJP in Maharashtra made her personal contribution by posting a song in Modi’s praise on Instagram that she sang with the uninhibited devotion usually reserved for gods. What surprised (and worried) me was that major private news channels sounded like Doordarshan of yore in their own obeisance to Narendra Modi on his 71st birthday. The Prime Minister approves of genuflection and sycophancy, or it would not happen. Especially not from the media, whose basic reason for being is to play watchdog and not poodle.
The problem with sycophancy is that it does more harm than good to leaders who encourage it. Next week the Prime Minister travels to the United States on his first visit there since that ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston, when he had just won his second term and there was euphoria in the air. Not just among overseas Indians, who planned this assembly, but in the world in general. There was consensus then that India would get its economic act together and become a major player globally. If not equal to China, at least well on its way to getting there. Much has changed since, and Modi could find that, this time around, India is not seen as that beacon of democracy and hope that it was then.
Modi’s devotees like to blame Covid’s calamitous second wave for all that has gone wrong, but the decline in India’s image began well before then. If anything, Covid brought a halt to protests that were sweeping across the country because of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) that was seen by millions of Muslims as deliberately discriminatory. When the Home Minister repeated, ad nauseam, that it was the first step towards setting up a National Register of Citizens (NRC) that would derecognise those who could not prove that they were Indians, it set alarm bells ringing. Millions of Muslims, like millions of other Indians, do not have documents to prove their citizenship.
If there was any doubt that the agenda of Modi’s second term was going to make life difficult for Muslims, it came when Covid was at first blamed on that congregation of Tablighi maulanas who gathered in Delhi for an event that had the written permission of the Home Ministry. Many foreign Muslims who came to attend this Islamic congregation spent months in jail on grounds so flimsy that Indian courts passed severe strictures against the officials who arrested them. When a government is seen to discriminate openly against a minority, its image suffers serious damage.
After the CAA has come the hounding of dissident journalists and activists, and this continues to this day. So, it is no surprise that international watchdogs of democracy have started to speak of India as only partly free and as an illiberal democracy. Personally, I failed to understand why the Prime Minister has not spoken out against those who have been responsible for India’s democratic credentials being downgraded. But last week when Modi’s favourite chief minister made that ‘abba jaan’ comment, I began to see a sinister method in the plot.
It is no secret that senior BJP leaders believe that the only way to win elections is through consolidating the Hindu vote by targeting Muslims. And now that most important of all state elections draws nearer and nearer. It comes after a summer when the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh showed serious incompetence at the height of Covid’s second wave. Yogi Adityanath has continued to deny that desperate people were forced to deposit their dead in the Ganga or bury them in shallow graves on her banks, but these are images that have been etched deep in the public mind. If this were not bad enough for Yogi, there has come this outbreak of dengue fever in which nearly a hundred people, many of them children, have died. It has exposed once more the fragility of health services in a state that Yogi claims, with the backing of the Prime Minister, has been transformed under his rule.
When it comes to propaganda, Yogi Adityanath is ahead of Modi. It is hard to turn on the TV or open a newspaper or magazine without being bombarded by advertisements that boast of the ‘great strides’ that Uttar Pradesh has made since Yogi became Chief Minister. Personally, I cannot remember a state election in which so much money has been spent on propaganda and publicity. We will know in a few months if this colossal, expensive exercise in trying to hide the truth beneath a thick blanket of lies has worked.
For the moment, what is important is for the Prime Minister to convince the leaders he will meet on his first major foreign visit in two years that Indian democracy is as vibrant and robust as always. He would have an easier task if the investigative agencies that work directly under him spent less time going after dissidents like Harsh Mander and disobedient digital media platforms which are only trying to do their job. Servile sycophancy and enforced obeisance rarely help political leaders enhance their stature.