There is an old joke: “There are two rules in life. Rule 1: The Boss is always right. Rule 2: If in doubt, refer to Rule 1.” Only, the reality is not as amusing. In keeping with the “two rules of life” while Election Commission of India has been acting on a slew of complaints with respect to violations of Model Code of Conduct, it is acting with kids’ gloves on a dozen complaints filed against prime minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The silence of the Election Commission on these complaints some of which accuse the duo of violation of the Representation of People’s Act and the Conduct of Election Rules has been finally broken by the country’s apex court which directed the ECI to decide on the pending allegations on Tuesday next. The latter, responding by giving a clean chit to Modi in one of the several pending petitions on the day of the Supreme Court directive, gives an indication of how rest of the allegations will be viewed, even though these include evident bits of hate speeches and unabashed manner of using the armed forces for political propaganda. One of the charges against Modi and Shah are the abuse of power in using government officials and Niti Aayog to profile regions and peoples to strengthen BJP’s electoral strategy. The charges are far graver than those against Indira Gandhi, who was accused of similar but less brazen use of election machinery in 1971 elections. She was thus convicted by Allahabad High Court in 1975 and debarred from parliament, compelling her to impose a state of Emergency in the country.
Unlike Indira Gandhi, who needed the Declaration of Emergency to assert herself and perpetuate her authoritarian rule, Modi effortlessly manages to get away with all his failures and brazen misuse of power – whether it is through institutions whose autonomy and effectiveness has been severely compromised or due to his ability to mesmerize a committed audience with B-grade theatrics, which strangely find a currency among vast swathes of population.
How does he get away with his failures, scant respect for law and institutions and by evading accountability? His popularity is severely dented after the 2014 wave due to unfulfilled promises besides policies like demonetization and haphazard implementation of GST but fails to erode beyond a point and remains steady at a level where he continues to have the ability to wield and abuse power with impunity. What is it that endears a section of public to him? His qualities? Or, the perception of imagined qualities? What lies beneath the optics of the power that Modi exudes? A related question could be if it is all so cosmetic, is he indeed as powerful as is being projected?
Who is the real Modi and what is he all about? One predominant aspect of his personality is that he sees himself above the law, beyond accountability and beyond criticism. Those seeking accountability are silenced through intimidation, taming the media or by the weight of excessive power under which democratic institutions easily crumble. The ECI’s evident prejudice is just one case in point. There are many more ways in which truth about Modi becomes evasive. The most significant is his ability to silence all opposition and criticism.
Modi is the only prime minister of this democratic country who has shied away from press conferences and interviews other than those that are tailor-made where uncomfortable questions are never asked or asked with a twist to provide him an opportunity for demagoguery or peddling lies. His tolerance level towards independent media is sub-zero and he has made no bones about it as even the most powerful professional and independent media institutions are facing persecution through defamation cases and counter narratives of the loyalist and tamed media. Editors and reporters have been shown the door for even the slightest of criticism by managements unwilling to displease the man at the hot-spot and reportage of many a scam has disappeared after the filing of preliminary reports. Even within his own party ranks, any minor challenge ends up decimating the vocal critic or opponent.
Modi’s image of being humble, clean and honest remains intact not because one cannot dig holes in it but because a counter narrative undergoes an enforced disappearance. His poor and humble background is so easily wrapped over a personalised pin-stripe suit. His acts in violation of democracy and law are never known because his ruthless power ensures that it does not exist in public space. His failures are camouflaged under layers of lies and fudged statistics. His ‘no-terrorism’ claims are at loggerheads with his own government’s statistics and the long list of acts of arson under his watch, leave alone the terror-accused he patronises as a candidate from Bhopal. His projection that before him, the army under operational command of previous successive governments was twiddling thumbs is an insult to the democratically elected governments of the country and the armed forces. His ’56-inch bravado’ is an armour he uses to hide his cowardice, the epitome of which can be seen in the manner in which a partisan Election Commission rejected the nomination papers of Samjwadi Party backed ex-jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav (the man who was fired for circulating videos of the rotten food being fed to soldiers) who dared to contest against him in Varanasi and expose his government’s hollow claims about caring about security forces. Why have laws been bent to ensure that the candidature of the most powerful man in the country remains unchallenged and without causing him any embarrassment? Is this ‘mighty-powerful’ man actually afraid of his own shadows?
Two major failures of Modi are the rising intolerance and communalism and the destruction of democratic institutions to enable him to centralise all authority and control. Propaganda loyalists and Modi apologists, however, would explain the damage to institutions as either a continuing project or even a shameful necessity. As for communalism, it is met with abject denial invoked with a comparison of ‘minor lynchings’ with major communal riots like Gujarat 2002, Mumbai 1993 or Delhi 1984. Post-independence, big or small communal riots have been limited to select pockets. The present communally polarized atmosphere is spread across the country with ‘Love jehad’ or ‘beef’ being invoked anytime and anywhere, making the sense of majoritarian power and minority insecurity all-pervading. Anybody walking on the road, sitting in a bus or inside his own home can be an unsuspecting victim, who can so easily be demonized and the perpetrators heroized with celebration under the tri-colour. Never before in the history of India have communal incidents been justified and perpetrators of violence valourised for their acts. That this government does so is a sign of the deepening communalism. Other than that, laws can be created or amended, through undemocratic ordinances, to further put the minorities in a tight spot.
The discourse about Modi is a game of perceptions, where no other perceptions are allowed other than the one that projects him as powerful, honest, clean and efficient. And, thus, a man who doesn’t know Taxila from Nalanda or Lahore jail from Andaman’s cellular jail becomes the ‘Wise One’, the man whose words would repel the script-writer of a trashy Bollywood film becomes the ‘Great Orator’. And much more as every failure is turned into an asset through a one-sided discourse. These perceptions are managed through propaganda and continuous repetition of lies much in line with Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Goebbels to whom are attributed the words: “A lie thousand times told becomes the truth.”