Indians Die While Modi Carves a Myth
Representational use only.
This must begin with an apology. Because I begin with the favourite part of speech of this country's Pradhan Sevak – the singular pronoun, I.
I do not do this for a variety of reasons. But chiefly because of growing up with family and friends for whom the plural pronoun is default usage – not the singular – while speaking Hindi (hum, not main).
After April 2013, following the publication of my biography of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I was often invited by representative industry bodies, merchant bankers, financial analysts, diplomats and of course journalists, foreign as well as Indian, to talk and provide perspective on a man who appeared destined to occupy the South Block.
I met people full of questions about him, his politics and likely policies. At times, I pleaded inability, explaining that although granted interviews and access to information despite the book not being an 'authorised' account of his life and politics, these on-record interactions were halted while still writing the book.
Consequently, several questions, especially those related to his vision for India if he became prime minister, remained unanswered. Mind you, the book was written in 2012 when Modi, despite my direct question, evaded replying if becoming prime minister was his ambition.
"It is a very loaded question... It is very difficult to answer such questions. It is for writers (like you) to study and come up with their assessment," he replied.
Yet people, especially those who invited me, were certain that Modi was heading out of Gujarat.
At the end of one such interaction with a small group of four-five senior executives, one of them asked: "All this is politics and policies, but tell us something at the personal level. What really drives Modi, what is he really seeking?"
Honestly, I had never contemplated this. Saying power drove Modi would be a cliché. But, a question was put forth. There was no escape from answering.
Somehow, it came out in a tumble, possibly because for the eighteen preceding months, Modi was uppermost in my mind.
"He is looking for political immortality and physical permanence," and I paused briefly, before completing: "Few decades later, after altering India's socio-political discourse, he would like the prime minister of the time to unveil his statue next to the one of Sardar Patel in Kevadia, but twice its size."
It was an unconcealed wisecrack and our meeting concluded with loud guffaws.
Thereafter, the more we discussed this episode and my spontaneous response with friends and family, there was increasing agreement that I successfully put a finger on what Modi personally aspired for.
On February 24, I was agape at hearing Union Home Minister Amit Shah announcing that Motera’s Sardar Patel stadium in Ahmedabad was being renamed after Narendra Modi. I shook my head in disbelief as President Ram Nath Kovind inaugurated the world’s largest cricket stadium ahead of the third Test between India and England. There couldn't have been a more undignified reversal of hierarchy and protocol.
That night I remained disturbed. For being just half-correct -- although not a statue, Modi had indeed acquiesced to renaming the stadium after him.
But I was half-wrong too: It hadn't taken a few decades for this to happen, but merely seven years, that too within his lifetime.
In hindsight, there were signs of this coming. Three days prior to the inaugural, BJP national office bearers passed a resolution that cast sycophancy during Indira Gandhi's tenure as schoolboy idolisation.
The resolution stated "with pride" that India had "defeated Covid under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi". It further complimented him for his "far-sighted and humanitarian decision to impose a complete nationwide lockdown" last year.
The text added that Indians had in Modi, a leader "who will stand tall at all times, under all situations and against all odds". It claimed that India was "steadily advancing in the direction of complete triumph over Covid."
If the resolution was delusional in content, there was nothing untruthful about the stadium's renaming. Yet, it still took several hours of convincing that it had actually been done!
I chided myself for failing to anticipate the timeline of Modi's steps towards securing physical permanence. In August last year, he performed Bhoomi Pujan for the Ram temple in Ayodhya and followed this in December by laying the foundation stone of the new Parliament Building.
These were not routine ceremonies the prime minister does. The first erased the distinction between state and religion. The second was odd in a different way, because the office of the prime minister has no role in the functioning and management of Parliament.
Yet, we did not realise then that yeh to bas jhaanki hai, aage bahut kuch baaki hai.
Motera becoming a mouthful of a stadium was not where the quest for eternalness would end.
Much has been written and stated about the Central Vista, that it is a vanity project which was steam-rollered through without adequate bi-partisan consultation.
Every regime, especially if it swears by democracy, must preserve environment and architecture among other heritage objects and traditions. But this project has been rushed through without adequate discussion ever since the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs proposed the Central Vista redevelopment project in 2019.
The bulk of time since then has been during the pandemic and despite the indisputable challenge before the nation, work has the continued at a feverish pace because the man whose signature the project bears, wishes to have a grand event to mark the 75th anniversary of India's independence. The event wouldn't be complete without throwing open the 'new' Central Vista in New India.
There is also need to recollect deliberations over whether the best proposal was chosen, or if the contract was awarded because the firm that bagged it had the correct connections.
It is pertinent to serve a reminder, the Ahmedabad-based HCP Design firm, which bagged the consultancy bid for the ambitious project, was also involved in the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, showcased as Modi's achievement when he was Gujarat Chief Minister. The riverfront has also been the site of many a grandiose event.
These included Modi serenading on a wooden swing with Chinese President Xi Jingping in 2014 and the mammoth event to mark Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary in 2019.
There is also the question over whether the project cost could have been better used now. True that Parliament Building was becoming inadequate, and many ministerial buildings on either side of Rajpath were decaying. But could this not have waited a few years?
This regime swears by Hindu tradition. Even otherwise, every religion has a mourning period during which families push back beginning new ventures and projects.
The insistence of the regime to continue a project that is nothing but grandiose in the current situation, underscores its insensitivity to human suffering. When people are unsure of waking up the next morning, or where the next meal will come from, it's business as usual for the government.
It is evident that insistence to continue with project underlines that pride of a few, or rather one person, is more important than basic necessities of the majority of India's population.
The past for this regime is of relevance only when it can be weaponised. The legacy of the Rajpath is of little relevance to this regime. This explains the urgency to trample over history to mark out the current rulers' presence.
Yet, there is a paradoxical colonial parallel to the urgency and insistence on the Central Vista project. A century ago in 1921, India was coming out of the throes of the debilitating Spanish Flu pandemic which killed an estimate 1.8 crore Indians, almost six per cent of the combined populations of British and princely India.
Those who escaped the wrath of the deadly virus a hundred years ago did not have much to live for. Horror embodied in images has floated past hundreds of thousands of people living close to the banks of the Ganga river in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in recent days.
Likewise, the iconic Hindi poet, Suryakant Tripathi 'Nirala', who lost his wife and several other members of his family in the Spanish Flu pandemic, wrote of the Ganga laden with swollen and bloating dead bodies.
Yet, the British government back then continued construction of New Delhi with great pomp and show.
On February 21, 1921 the Duke of Connaught visited India to lay the foundation stone of the Central Legislative Assembly building which later became the Indian Parliament. His words have found echoes in recent years whenever the Central Vista project was spoken about by leaders of this regime: The House would stand "as the symbol of India's rebirth to yet higher destinies".
This government followed its footsteps. The cluster of construction projects it is pursuing, it claimed, will herald arrival of New India. Little changed for people then by way of their quality of life. The story will be the same this time too.
The British believed building a new city would give Indians a sense of pride and belonging, this one too is pursuing the Central Vista project with hope of diverting attention and make people rejoice over false glory.
Although this is not a colonial regime, the mentality has survived. Ironically, it professes belief in the philosophy of Antyodaya, literally meaning the rise of the 'last person'.
Noted Tamil writer Indira Parthasarathy, commonly referred to as Ee Paa, tweeted: “Aurangzeb wrote to his father, Shahjehan that to build a white marble mausoleum (Taj Mahal) at such an expense, when people are dying out of starvation in the country side is an insult to the Empire”.
It is redundant to serve reminder to Aurangzeb being among the list of vilified historical personalities now.
Another self-proclaimed 'classical liberal' is more pithy. The tweet from this handle read: "Let's take a moment to remember the fate of the governments and persons (history/mythology) who tried to rebuild the Delhi capital."
He went on to list several names, from the mythological character Duryodhana to various medieval rulers, and finally the British
It is early to assert that history will repeat itself. But the motive that powered the push to opulence at the cost of bare necessities is certainly visible once again.
From the Motera stadium to the temple at Ayodhya, the new Parliament Building, the Central Vista and many more temples that are on the to do 'list', the idea is to scatter the country with numerous everlasting markers carrying Modi's insignia, somewhat like the Ashokan Pillars that have withstood time.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include “The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times”. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
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