A Grateful Nation watches a Roman circus

Bharat Bhushan on the birthday gala to refurbish 'Brand Modi'   The birthday celebrations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have metamorphosed into a three-week project of “Service and Dedication” from the single week of “Seva saptah” followed until last year. They will showcase a grateful nation thanking the prime minister for his service. The events projected as entirely voluntary have, however, been planned down to the last detail.

It has not yet gone as far as the birthday celebrations of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea, where citizens must begin the day with offering flower bouquets at their “shrines” and statues and workplaces organise group activities, hold spot-competitions, art performances and screening of revolutionary films, lectures, and oath-taking. Non-participants are designated as “ideologically sick” and even black-listed. Kim Jong-un though has not as yet declared his birthday a national holiday and celebrations are not public.

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While Prime Minister Modi’s birthday celebrations are not forced on reluctant citizens, the line between the State and the ruling party is significantly blurred by presenting government schemes paid for by the national exchequer as his gifts to the nation. In the next 21 days, 14 crore bags containing 5 kg free food-grain for the poor will be distributed. Each bag carries a picture of Prime Minister Modi and thanks him personally. BJP units in various states will give voters at booth levels 5 crore “Thank you Modiji” postcards to send to the prime minister for welfare schemes for the poor. Rivers will be cleaned, using public funds, at 71 designated spots to mark his turning 71. An astounding 2.5 crore vaccinations were carried out on his birthday and videos will have vaccinated citizens expressing their gratitude to him.

Eminent persons from the fields of art, culture, literature and sports will hold seminars at district and state levels to discuss his life and work and write in his praise in the media. Children orphaned by Covid-19 will be registered for benefits under the PM-CARES scheme. An ongoing auction of mementos received by the prime minister will contribute towards cleaning the Ganga.

This is in addition to lighting 71,000 lamps on his birthday and cutting a 71 kg laddoo in Varanasi, a 71-kg Jalebi in Surat and a 71-feet long syringe shaped cake in blue (ostensibly the colour of the vaccine) in Bhopal with “Thanks Modi ji for the Namo Tikka (vaccine)” written on it. This is of another order from the usual celebrations on previous birthdays, involving blood donation camps, free health check-ups, issuing ration cards and food-distribution, etc.

How can we understand the purpose of this Roman circus beyond the frame of sycophancy? It is being enacted at a moment when Prime Minister Modi’s public approval has plummeted and a series of state assembly elections have to be won by his party in the coming year. The electoral debacle in West Bengal notwithstanding, the prevailing belief in the BJP is that all elections, in the states and the Centre, are won because of the PM’s charismatic personality. That belief must be reinforced as life gets tougher for the common folk.

The pandemic has devastated their lives--millions have joined the ranks of the unemployed, household incomes have fallen, family debt has risen and the much publicised free-food grain scheme is inadequate for an average family’s needs. The manufacturing sector has lost about one crore jobs permanently and new jobs are only in the low paying gig economy. The unemployment rate is still above pre-pandemic levels. The economy is weaker than it was before the pandemic, despite improvement in quarterly growth numbers.

The rural economy is in shambles. A Reuters survey showed in June that in rural areas there was a steep decline in nutrient rich food items (like milk, lentils and cooking oil) after the pandemic. The doubling of expenditure on essentials pushed families deeper into debt while slashing dispensable income levels. Economists worry that rising debt and low incomes in rural areas will hold back economic recovery and dent private savings and investment.

It is not surprising that Prime Minister Modi’s public approval has plummeted: rating from 66% a year ago to 24%, according to one survey. Brand building through public genuflection might help reverse this trend.

Assembly polls are due in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur in February-March, in Himachal Pradesh in November and Gujarat in December. There might also be polls for the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir in between. The BJP can live down not winning West Bengal but not UP or Gujarat. UP not only sends the largest number of MPs (80) to Parliament, it is one of the states representing the BJP’s core support base in the Hindi-belt. Gujarat is the prime minister’s home state which launched his entry into national politics. His extraordinary decision to sack all incumbent ministers in Gujarat along with the chief minister shows his determination to battle anti-incumbency in the state.

A disinclination to be weighed down by bad governance was also demonstrated in his ruthless reshuffle of the Union Cabinet in July this year. High profile ministers were not only dropped unceremoniously but also made to vacate their official residences post haste. Moulding Prime Minister Modi like Xi Jinping, as the irreplaceable fount of all political and social wisdom, will also help to boost the fortunes of the small coterie of leaders close to him. They have a major stake in projecting him as the inevitable and invincible leader of the party and the nation.

Lastly, the logistics of organising various birthday events is a clever way of mobilising the party organisation and involving party workers from the booth level upwards. Each performance will reaffirm their link with the leader of the party. Like an army exercise in peacetime, it will test the efficacy of the party organisation and identify weaknesses. Those whose celebrations are not up to scratch will not go unnoticed. The objective of strengthening the vote base and party workers to confront elections amidst mounting public disapproval is also served by the prolonged birthday gala.


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