On Monday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed this chaotic, clamouring nation, and said anti-Covid vaccines would be made free (private hospitals could still buy it from Central supplies), that the Centre would procure the vaccine and supply it to the states, as that is what they wanted, and that free distribution of ration will be extended.
The second Covid wave is flattening, having so far killed around 350,000. Many families have lost their bread earners. That increasingly there is not much bread to earn in these fallow times is perhaps a matter of secondary importance. The timing of the prime minister’s announcement is partly explained by the fact that the killer wave appears to be receding. Partly, too, because the Supreme Court has taken a proactive interest in the case following governmental incompetence in handling the pandemic. The SC has asked the Centre to produce an affidavit, explaining how Rs 35,000 crore allocated for the vaccine has been spent.
Minutes after the PM’s speech, intrepid journalists and social media activists ‘exposed’ the discrepancies and false claims by the PM. Trolls by their hundreds deflated the PM. Nevertheless, this writer wondered if Modi’s speech on Monday was his best in recent times in terms of striking an emotional chord.
From his eye movement, it appeared he was reading his speech. But he emoted well. Modi is now credited by the liberals, leading journalists, and social media’s toilet revolutionaries as a thespian. But which mass political leader is not? Leadership is as much a matter of histrionics as a sustained if delusory exercise in optimism. Consider the all-time darling of the international elite, Barak Obama. There was not a moment he was not ‘performing.’
Modi performed well, though his eyes have lost the old sparkle, the assured and gleeful confidence that history is in his grasp. This is a new, slightly fractured Modi, going through a shaky phase in his career, yet making a deliberate effort to be human. When you come up against the kind of odds as he did, you are lucky if you still belong to the human species.
As with the dulled eyes, so with the glow of his skin. It is not just the overgrown beard, often now trolled as a dipping measure of India’s Covid efforts, that is hiding his usual rude good health. As this writer has said before, no political leader in India has done as much as the virus to undermine Modi’s authority. It has forced Modi to change a little. Certainly, this has been the most political of viruses. Each life lost, each patient gasping for oxygen, is potentially a vote less for the BJP. That the national Opposition still is unable to rally behind the leadership of the mutant virus is their ineptness.
Modi is aware he has a chance still in the next general elections, which is likely to be sooner than we expect. He is learning fast, say, a need to laugh and cry more in the public. The trick of turning personally intimate. If the Monday speech was any indication, the prime minister is practising, perhaps only with his mirror watching, empathy. This writer found his Monday Mass moving.
The unbelieving elite social media opposition has not. They are making a characteristic mistake. Modi is not talking to them. As ever, he is talking over their heads and through their devilish minds to rural India. For example, when he says what might have happened if health care works had not been given first preference in vaccine allotment, the tone he adopts and the pauses between the words are not meant for the benefit of urban ( that parish without redemption), brahminical consumption. He is addressing the believing billions in poor homes, who still look for explanations why their lot has turned even harder. The very poor are very different from you and me. They believe in miracles. Modi is tapping into their hope. And despite the dulled eyes and pale skin, he is still a master at transmuting hope, a kind of secular trans-substantiation, a process by which he instils confidence in the broken minds of the Indian poor from the pulpit of a studio, a kind of church of our times.
In the course of his speech, Modi mentioned at least thrice the need for self-belief. Self-belief and relentless hard work. Only with these can we reach our goal. It is a biblical ethic; god helps those who help themselves.
It is not clear to this writer what that goal is, or even where the goalposts are; they seem ever to recede in the distance. To the cynics, and they are a superior legion, words like self-belief, hard work, goal have been emptied of meaning. The loss of lives they have suffered and the material hardships brought on by the virus, and their natural skepticism of spirit, make them scoff.
This writer is a reluctant member of that tribe. But not the very poor, those who are making do with one meal a day, and have lost their bread earner, and floated him down the Ganga, a river always at hand. For them, words like hope, self-belief, and hard work still mean the difference between life and certain death.
Modi himself seems to derive courage to go on from these speeches of his. No powerful man in India is more desperate for power. The words he uses are a code. The cliches he uses are exactly that. The elite may make fun of them. They have no idea what is being said and to whom it is meant. It’s a code that can be broken down and deciphered in full public view only by people who live by what’s not there: water, gas, work, medicine, bread. Modi’s sermons are for them. For those who live on air. Just like the prime minister. They are a congregation.
(CP Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal)