The selective images of progress that have cast a spell on many do not represent a progressive world-view but an evolved Hindutva

In the early 1990s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was famously described as the mukhauta — the mask — the moderate face behind which BJP hardliners hid. In 2007, the Gujarat Chief Minister flipped that mask metaphor, literally, distributing thousands of masks, allowing all those who donned them to become Narendra Modi for a while — all-powerful, autocratic, the mard manas, even “feeling the pain”, as he himself phrased it, each time he was criticised.

Times had changed, and Hindutva advocates no longer needed to pretend they were anything else; now the unspeakable could be spoken. You could wear your ideology on your sleeve, indeed, on your face. In Gujarat’s political theatre of the absurd, as masked Modis multiplied and proliferated, he occupied the entire mind space.

In 2012, Mr. Modi didn’t abandon the masks, despite an ironic Dorian Gray glitch: when the first batch of 50,000 arrived in November, they displayed a face so old, wrinkled and terrifying that they were withdrawn, and three lakh fresh shiny-faced masks were ordered.

Shock and awe

But not content with the masks this time, Mr. Modi, the technology fetishist, also went virtual. His 3D image, beamed from a studio in Ahmedabad, spoke to audiences across the State. The experiment, touted as a first in the annals of political campaigning, achieved the appropriate level of shock and awe among Mr. Modi’s most loyal constituents, tech-aspirational young men.

From the man to the mask to the hologram, Mr. Modi’s political journey as Chief Minister has grown progressively more delusional. When the rains failed this year in Saurashtra, he was loath to declare a drought, lest it mar the picture-perfectness of the image of Gujarat he sends out, and force him to impose austerity measures, cutting back on lavish publicity campaigns. When the Wall Street Journal asked Mr. Modi the reasons for high malnutrition in his State, he said young women were more focused on being slim than healthy. “Modi has progressively cut himself off from reality,” sociologist Ghanshyam Shah said, “I think he actually believed his own statement.” Gujarat ranks 14th (Rs. 69) and ninth (Rs. 56) in men’s and women’s rural wage rates respectively among India’s 20 major States; consequently, most workers can’t buy adequate nutritious food.

Those making flying visits to the State, whether NRIs or home-grown industrialists, are so dazzled by the glitzy glass and chrome malls of Ahmedabad, Surat and Rajkot, and the network of super highways, that few among them care to look beyond at the pockmarked roads and the vast swathes of poverty in the interiors. Many Hindus who live here, but have prospered like their counterparts in the rest of post-liberalisation India, live in denial. A forty-something, wealthy, trendy — and deeply political — builder in Ahmedabad was shocked to hear there was a water crisis in Saurashtra. Mr. Modi had created Brand Gujarat, he said, thanks to which people like him in the real estate business were making more money than they had ever dreamt of. In a highly urbanised State, it has been easy for Mr. Modi to guide the spotlight on the Gujarat he wants people to see.

Passing the image challenge

If he has faced a challenge in the 11 years he’s been in power, it has been to ensure that outside Gujarat he should not continue to be defined by the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 while remaining, at home, the ‘Hindu hriday samrat’. Mr. Modi’s genius lies in the fact that, in large measure, he achieved that fine balance — through a PR blitz.

The Vibrant Gujarat campaign helped to replace horrifying visuals of violence with happy images of people flocking to Gujarat’s tourist destinations, and then investing in the State. The annual investor summits from 2003 brought in a fraction of the investment Mr. Modi claimed, but they changed the optics, and helped re-create the atmosphere in which the business community could prosper in a State that has been industry-friendly since its inception in 1960. No one noticed that the rural poor weren’t thriving, the tribal people continued to live on the edge, and Muslims lived as second class citizens.

At the much-hyped Sadbhavna rallies, Mr. Modi posed with Muslims, but refused to wear a skull cap — even for a few seconds — lest it alienate his core Hindutva base. His object was merely to help his acolytes tell those who cared to hear them that he is not anti-Muslim.

Admirers cite Mr. Modi’s marginalisation of the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat as proof that he has dumped Hindutva for a forward-looking world view. But, in fact, he is the RSS’s most evolved product, who has ‘photoshopped’ Hindutva. Only Sangh insiders recognise that the core hasn’t changed. Keshubhai Patel, who built the BJP in Gujarat and challenged him in these elections, called Mr. Modi a modern Goebbels at a rally, minutes after senior RSS leader Pravin Maniar denounced him as Hitler. But neither accused him of abandoning the Hindutva project.

Sleek and expensive

Mr. Modi no longer resembles the RSS pracharak he once was: his wardrobe, customised by Jade Blue, an expensive chain of menswear stores patronised by the likes of Gautam Adani, has given him a whole new image. The sleek appearance, set off by a range of turbans, bandi and traditional shawls is a far cry from his earlier no-frills look.

As the great impresario of Gujarat, he has used official machinery to showcase himself as Father Bountiful, with District Magistrates playing event managers for an unending series of melas, blurring the line between party and government. RTI questions on the source of the largesse being distributed have received no answers, just as no one knows who pays for his PR machine.

Finally, the gap between the man and the myth, and the chasm between the two Gujarats have become visible to all those who have seen him at close quarters — whether in the BJP, or in the State government, or, indeed, those who have had personal dealings with him. But is this enough to end his dream run?

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