As the chaplain of a bomber unit in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 discovers, turning vice into virtue, thievery into honour, brutality into patriotism and sadism into justice requires no brains; all it needs is an absence of character. So when the Uttarakhand hills were devastated by floods and landslides recently, a local party functionary with no character told an English daily how the Chief Minister of Gujarat had suddenly materialised with his personal plane and a fleet of sport utility vehicles, and managed within just two days to rescue no less than 15,000 Gujarati pilgrims stranded in the Kedar valley.
'As this astounding bit of information went viral, a few rather uncomfortable questions began to be asked about the logistics involved. First, how was it possible not just to land in the devastated terrain, which even the 8,000 strong contingent of well trained army jawans was finding so hard to negotiate, but also speedily identify and segregate no less than 15,000 Gujaratis among them and airlift them to safety, all within 48 hours? The second query raised among others by some senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and a long-time BJP ally like the Shiv Sena, concerned the morality of the reported act. While thousands of lives were at stake, they asked, was it not totally reprehensible and heartless to discriminate between Gujarati pilgrims and those from the rest of India?
Building the image
The Chief Minister of Gujarat is never spotted, like other celebrities, sauntering casually towards his car while flinging one-liners into the gun mikes thrust in his face. By now his image-makers have ensured that whenever Narendra Modi enters the scene, his arrival is orchestrated in such a way as if six liveried buglers were heralding a king’s arrival. He makes straight for the head of the table, throwing curt nods and brief waves at those awaiting his arrival. He waits politely, occasionally smoothing his hair carefully or running a hand over his stubble while the master of ceremonies gushes over him before requesting him to take the mike. All this while the eyes in his unsmiling face dart ceaselessly across the room sizing up supporters and potential troublemakers from various enemy camps. He rises, lopes across to the podium and looks around as a classical singer does, inwardly humming the aroh and avroh of the raga he is going to perform. Then, he begins to speak and you realise what a remarkable gift he has for spin doctoring and dodging the real facts with disarming sincerity, while pouring scorn over his opponents. Q&A sessions are rare. His cadres take care to see that the speeches — about the rise and rise of Garvi Gujarat under The Great Leader, the hidden hand of his Opponents in stoking communal riots, the ghettoisation and then appeasement of Muslims, the justification for annihilation of those suspected of terrorist activities — are broadcast worldwide, over and over again, until they begin to be taken seriously even by those who doubted Mr. Modi. They realise of course, that his words may not always be accepted as the only truth but these do obscure the complex truth so well that many begin to doubt their own initial perceptions.
During situations like the present one in Uttarakhand, since no one can stay on top of every thing, journalists depend a lot on each other for information about what is going on. Also, tragedies of such magnitude have a habit of tearing off all masks and revealing the reality underneath. It is harder to fool people. That is what happened with the reported incident of Rambo giri . By now we have all heard Narendra Modi distance himself from the claims made on his behalf and snap at every public gathering about how it is the “midiah” that constantly spreads lies about him and his party. He also says he is convinced that the people of India are not buying this distorted picture of him and his efforts to lead his State and party. Then he switches the topic and begins to speak of the misuse of state machinery, in particular the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), against him by his jealous enemies in Delhi.
Paranoia comes easy to leaders who aim for absolute control of power. The one thing each such leader declares certainty about is that someone, somewhere is lying in wait to trip him up, to grab a post he has managed to occupy after a great struggle. The constant effort is to establish a narrative of a misunderstood victim. When the media points out to Mr. Modi how greatly the Muslims still resent him, he points to photographs of him shaking hands in public with imams and beaming at women in hijabs ; when asked why the United States still won’t give him a visa, he smiles and points out how many Senators have found his State to be the most progressive one in India. He tones down his obvious anger, stares at the media representatives intensely and leans down to whisper like a fellow conspirator using dramatically sincere tones: “ Mitron (my friends!),” he says, “you must not get carried away by Delhi’s evil propaganda. I suggest you verify your facts.” Then, he reels off statistics about his happy and proud citizens, about the women and children, about the FDI that is flowing in, about the admirable communal harmony and the absence of riots in Gujarat after 2002, about how the World Bank and Some Eminent Economists have certified Gujarat to be the best administered State in the nation.
Many, who are tired of the misgovernance in the country and afraid of losing their financial bearings during the recession, are impressed by such statistics and begin to say that Mr. Modi has a point. But many more who are seen nodding in assent — media owners, diplomats, ministers from foreign shores, and corporates — are not so naive. They take Mr. Modi’s assertions about Article 370 and the Ram temple with a pinch of salt and feign appreciation to generate goodwill they can perhaps encash later. Those who belong to neither of these two categories, will get nowhere with him.
Even if we forget his fear and loathing for the minorities this once (after all the pilgrims were all Hindus), or the exact numbers of Gujaratis rescued by him, tell me honestly, seen against the backdrop of the tragedy, what does Modi’s Rambo giri stand for? An all encompassing love that extends to all suffering Hindus, or version 2013 of the same parochially divisive frenzy that was born in 2002?
(Mrinal Pande, a veteran journalist and writer, is Chairperson, Prasar Bharati.)