Narendra Modi's self-obsession is by now well known. He beats all politicians in the number of times he takes his own name in election speeches and media interviews. No Prime Minister in the past has done so much self-projection through relentless propaganda at taxpayers' expense (bill so far: nearly Rs 5,000 crore). Building a personality cult around oneself is a time-tested method adopted by all dictators. The key difference in India this time is that in addition to the government's own propaganda, Modi and his party have also succeeded in roping in a large section of the so-called independent media to do their bidding. Who says press freedom cannot be purchased for a price?
When an incumbent Prime Minister goes to the polls seeking a second term for himself, the least that is expected of him is that he give an account of how his most ambitious schemes and audacious decisions have helped improve the lives of common people. So far, Modi has not uttered even a word to explain the benefits of his two biggest decisions - demonetization and GST. He is also mostly silent on his government's other much-publicised initiatives - Make in India, Digital India, Skill India, Startup India, Mudra Yojana, Ujwala Yojana, Awas Yojana and so on. He is not telling the voters how many jobs were created in the past five years or how far his government has progressed on his other major promise - doubling farmers' incomes by 2022.
Modi has not made 'vikas' (development) the centre-piece of his campaign because he is astute enough to know that there is a big gap between promise and performance. Which is why he has made his own name and face the principal - nay, the sole − attraction of every form of official publicity. India has no precedent for the sheer ubiquity of this kind of government-sponsored personality cult creation.
If making the Modi icon larger than life was one part of this method, the other was to cut rival icons to size. In this game plan, nothing is a bigger hurdle than the very prominent place the Nehru-Gandhi family occupies in the history of modern India. After all, it is the only family that has given India three Prime Ministers whose combined tenures in office account for 37 years. Jawaharlal Nehru will always be remembered as India's first Prime Minister other than as a major leader of India's freedom movement. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi sacrificed their lives for the nation.
What is deeply disconcerting for Modi - and also for the Sangh Parivar, of which he has become an icon - is that the Nehru-Gandhi family is not simply part of India's history, it is very much a part of India's present and the foreseeable future. Many had written off Rahul Gandhi a few years ago, but he has now become Modi's main challenger. Menacingly for Modi and the Sangh Parivar, Rahul is now also joined by his gutsy sister Priyanka, whose ability to establish an emotional connect with common Indians has been on full display during this election campaign. Irrespective of how many seats the Congress wins on May 23, nobody disputes that the Rahul-Priyanka combination can revive the party in the coming years.
It is in this context that we should see Modi's spiteful attack on the Nehru-Gandhi family. This cannot be attributed only to his personal hatred for the Nehru-Gandhi parivar, it is also a pressing political and ideological need for him and the Sangh parivar.
To explain this point, I would like to reproduce an educative passage from a new book on Modi which I released in Kolhapur (Maharashtra) recently. Usually, English-speaking Indians do not get to know about good books written in regional languages. But Modi Parva ('The Modi Era') in Marathi, authored by Shriram Pawar, the group editor of Sakal (one of the largest non-English media houses in India), is an excellent account of our prime minister's personality and politics. Here is Pawar's analysis about why Nehru is a thorn in the flesh of Modi and the larger Hindutva movement.
"BJP (before Modi) did not have a leader who could so publicly negate Nehru's contribution to nation-building. Which is why people in the Sangh Parivaar were not happy even when Vajpayee became Prime Minister. They wanted a leader who could speak their language and work out a strategy to translate their language into reality. In Modi's rise, they are now experiencing the realisation of their dream. However, the biggest hurdle in building the India of their dreams is the broad national consensus created by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. They know that they cannot afford to show open hatred for Gandhi. Realising this, they have started co-opting him. Using only convenient parts of Gandhi is the first part of their strategy. Which is why, ignoring his holistic teachings, his inclusiveness and his emphasis on tolerance, they have used him only as a symbol for the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan. Having done this, the second part of their strategy is to project Nehru as a villain. Targeting Nehru is also very useful to mount a direct attack on today's leadership of the Congress."
The above passage helps us understand why Modi is raking up events and episodes from a bygone era to malign Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi. If, in the process, the Prime Minister lies and lowers the already polarised political discourse to a coarse level, at least he and his supporters do not care.
Lie No. 1: "There would have been no Kashmir problem if Sardar Patel, and not Nehru, had become India's first PM." (Truth: Patel was ready to give the entire Kashmir Valley to Pakistan.)
Lie No. 2: "When Nehru visited Kumbh in 1954, he tried to hush up the stampede that killed a large number of pilgrims." (Truth: There was no media or official cover-up of the tragedy. Nehru himself spoke about it in parliament. His government set up a high-level judicial probe.)
Lie No. 3: "Nehru gifted Kartarpur Sahib to Pakistan at the time of Partition." (Truth: In trying to retain Kartarpur Sahib, India could have lost both Amritsar and a key road link to Kashmir.)
Lie No. 4: "Rajiv Gandhi died as Bhrashtachari No. 1." (Delhi High Court quashed Bofors-related corruption charges against Rajiv.)
Lie No. 5: Rajiv Gandhi used INS Virat as his personal taxi to enjoy holidays with his foreign relatives." (Modi's claim has been debunked by two former Navy chiefs and the then administrator of Lakshadweep.)
There is no doubt that the Nehru-Gandhi family - and the Congress party in general - have a lot to answer for their own failures and betrayals. Without honest introspection and holistic self-correction, the Congress cannot adequately regain the trust and support of the Indian people. But as far as Modi is concerned, it is sad but unsurprising that he is trying desperately to malign the Nehru-Gandhi family's legacy rather than building a bigger one of his own.
(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
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