2020 has been a critical year for political leaders around the world. While the likes of Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, and Tsai-Ing wen have earned considerable plaudits for their cautious and compassionate management of the coronavirus pandemic, the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Jair Bolsonaro have floundered, unable to match the bluster of their words with the efficiency of their actions.
There has, however, been one leader who cannot be slotted into either camp, who has neither handled the pandemic with aplomb nor damaged his reputation as a result. As prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, Narendra Modi has had a peculiar 2020, a year in which he has defied the binaries of good and bad, right and wrong, effectively transcending politics in the process.
A TYPICAL BEGINNING
The first couple of months of 2020 did not veer far away from the Modi prototype, which consists of letting the country’s political blame game acquire momentum, before imposing his sophisticated spin on events in an attempt to turn the tide of public opinion.
Playing by his established rulebook, Modi maintained a stoic silence on the surge of protests that had engulfed India in January and February in opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019 and its potential coupling with the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC). And then, having taken his time, Modi did what he always does- generalising the dissenters as conspirators acting against national interest; but without the crude vocabulary of fellow BJP politicians like Anurag Thakur or Kapil Mishra, whose alleged hate speech, of course, solicited no condemnation from Modi.
After using his rhetorical prowess to subvert the perception of anti-CAA protests as inimical to Indian democracy, Modi welcomed Donald Trump to showcase once more his bonhomie with the American president. As Modi and Trump missed no chance to flatter one another, Delhi raged and burnt in the communal riots of late February.
Like Rajiv Gandhi during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, Modi pretended everything was normal in the capital, before issuing his customary platitudes on social media, once the fire of violence had been quenched. So far, so predictable, but not for too long.
THE TURNING POINT
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on Indian shores provided Modi the perfect opportunity to rally his compatriots and genuinely invoke the essence of his favourite slogan, “sabka saath, sabka vikas.”
Instead, a hastily announced lockdown with less than four hours’ notice on March 24, and a lot of dilly-dallying before releasing inadequately tailored economic relief packages, meant that Modi had helped plunge India into a social and economic crisis, besides a medical one.
But, as always, Modi took none of the blame.
Since becoming the nation’s pradhan sevak in 2014, it has become customary for Modi to evade accountability. He gives no press conferences, does interviews only with fawning journalists or celebrities, never announces the policy details- only the overall vision behind a scheme- through a one-to-billion broadcast technique, and does not, for once, admit that his government might have been at fault.
The fact that Modi would repeat these tactics as India stumbled through its Covid-19 response would have surprised nobody.
But then, Modi went a few steps further, using the pandemic to procure his latest political makeover, one that went beyond politics itself.
CROSSING THE POLITICAL REALM
What do you do when the economy is in a shambles, when migrant workers have been left in the lurch, when religious intolerance produces new forms of bigotry every month, when farmers agitate against radical new laws made without their consultation?
You resort to the power of symbolism, so that you can both cut across and cross over the political realm.
But Modi being Modi, symbolism too must be incorporated in intricate ways. Thus, we get three levels of symbolic conduct from the prime minister.
First, the apparently benign change in appearance that has seen Modi’s impeccably groomed hair and beard turn into flowing locks resembling a sage. No, Modi is not channelling his inner Rabindranath Tagore ahead of the Bengal elections next year; he is calibrating his looks in a manner that resonates with the subtle shift in personality he has engineered so successfully in 2020, ringing in the amoral and apolitical Modi. This first level of symbolism also involves Modi praying in a gurdwara, performing yoga in his animated avatar, and gently strolling around in his residence feeding peacocks, amidst the piercing gaze of the camera, which is meant to humanise Modi, using artifice to suggest authenticity.
Second, the complete negation of ground reality, sometimes quite literally. Therefore, Modi makes no mention of China while addressing the civilians or the troops on the subject of encroachment in Ladakh. He merely hints at an ostensible enemy that must be taught a befitting lesson. This is another adept use of symbolism, as by not calling out China by name, Modi is able to add to the abstraction of the “other”, referring to the adversary that may be geographically external, but also to that which may be closer home- geographically indigenous, but culturally distinct, even alien. In his brand of Hindutva majoritarianism, Modi’s deft deployment of anti-China rhetoric (that does not pronounce “China” even once) becomes a cover for all kinds of anti-ness. Anti-Muslim, anti-pluralism, anti-intellectual. Question Modi or his administration, and you question his idea of India, for the symbolism of the “other” has permeated across socio-political fault-lines.
Third, Modi’s artful dovetailing of himself with the democratic and civilisational fabric of India. Be it Modi’s protagonism in Ayodhya for the Bhumi Pujan in August that marked the elected head of a constitutionally secular republic explicitly endorsing the majority religion of his country, or his laying of the foundation stone for India’s new Parliament (as part of the Central Vista project) in December that conflated Modi’s executive authority with that of the legislative sanctity of the Indian democracy, the Modi of 2020 is omnipresent, not just omnipotent.
By weaving his presence into institutions- devoutly religious ones like the Ram Mandir or politically inclusive ones like the Parliament- Modi has dexterously escaped the unwritten norms of the professional framework within which a prime minister is supposed to operate.
2020 has not only witnessed Modi retain his teflon-esque quality wherein no criticism of the BJP seems to stick to him or affect his incredible popularity, it has also observed the rise of Modi above political power play into a totem that stands for so much more than politics. Think of peacocks and rishis, and you will think of Modi. Think of Hinduism and Ram, and you will think of Modi. Think of the portals of Parliament, and you will think of Modi. In other words, think of India, and for better or worse, you will think of Modi.
Larger-than-life prime ministers have reigned before on Indian soil, most notably through the eclectic charisma of Jawaharlal Nehru and the sheer indomitability of Indira Gandhi. But nobody has done what Narendra Modi has been able to do. By applying symbolism in its most potent forms in 2020, Modi has established his unique status as a consummate politician completely unbound by politics.