It is a political puzzle why Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to ride the crest of popularity wave, as opinion polls suggest, despite the economy sputtering, the job market shrinking, salaries and profits dipping, and Covid-19 cases rising exponentially. A slate of analyses has sought to solve this puzzle with clues gathered from the political and socio-cultural realms.
A better way to comprehend Modi’s enduring popularity is to imagine him as the captain of a giant ship sailing to the paradise where superpowers reside. The ship’s charter says the captain will be at the wheel for the next five years. He controls the resources; he is the disciplining authority; he decides, above all, the route his ship should take to the paradise.
Imagine also the ship’s passengers distributed over 36 cabins, big and small, each under a head. All must work on the ship to earn their keep. The consensus on the ship is that it must sail to the paradise, although there are sharp differences over the best route to it.
In May 2019, the ship had set sail. It was the captain’s second stint at the wheel, his contract renewed not because he had taken the ship closer to the paradise than before. It was, rather, because he had ordered big guns to be fired at a smaller ship, from where pirates had come to the captain’s vessel and created mayhem, a few weeks before his contract was to come up for renewal.
The captain must remain at the wheel, many passengers clamoured, for the paradise cannot be reached without eliminating the threat of piracy.
There were some, though, who cautioned others against the captain’s propensity to steer the ship, rather needlessly, on routes regarded rough. These contrarians shivered on recalling the night of 8 November 2016, when the captain announced he was dumping a large quantity of the ship’s fuel.
His reason: the fuel was adulterated.
For months, the ship drifted along. Much time and energy that could have been utilised to reach the paradise were squandered.
After taking over the wheel for the second time, the captain requisitioned data regarding different routes and weather conditions. The headwind was to remain strong for a while, the ship could not but sail slowly, the captain concluded.
To nip the possibility of passengers becoming restive, he turned to those who had opposed the renewal of his contract and decreed that they would be packed off to jail if they were to divorce their wives by pronouncing talaq three times in one sitting.
“Gender justice is a prerequisite for any ship to enter the paradise,” the captain declared.
For long, the captain had been sore with Cabin J&K, one of the 36 on the ship. It was here pirates always found refuge. Passengers of this cabin were forever threatening to jump into the sea and swim to that very ship against which the captain had fired volleys during his first stint. Such perfidy slowed the ship, said the captain. So he switched off the special lights that had been installed in Cabin J&K at the time the ship had been chartered to sail for the first time.
The passengers rejoiced, for it was proof of the captain’s capacity to take tough decisions considered necessary for speeding the journey to the paradise.
The captain, however, knew better—all data showed the ship was lagging far behind the schedule. Was the ship slowing because it had too many passengers? Perhaps, said the captain’s deputy.
They then decided that anyone on the ship who had come from other vessels sailing in the vicinity and was non-Muslim could stay on. As for Muslim passengers, well, like all others, they will have to prove they did not board the ship illegally before their names could be entered in a register of bona fide passengers. The plan was seen as a ploy to toss out Muslims from the ship.
In anger and fear, they took to blocking corridors and organising sit-ins on decks. Look at them, said the captain’s henchmen, such terrible behaviour on a ship destined to dock at the paradise reserved for superpowers. They must be taught a lesson.
A bloody fight broke out near the captain’s cabin. Some alleged that the ship’s disciplining force allowed the fight to go on. Who sparked it? There is never a simple answer on the ship sailing to the paradise. All evidence, whether concocted or real, must be tested over years before reaching a conclusion.
Just when some passengers thought the captain would take a breather from taking one decision after another, news came of a mysterious disease stalking ports and ships. Thousands were falling sick, dozens were dying daily.
How was the ship to be saved?
The captain pondered over the many options before him. It was undoubtedly an extraordinary situation, in sharp contrast to the 2016 decision of dumping the adulterated fuel. That decision then had crafted a precarious situation. Now, a precarious circumstance demanded a suitable response.
The captain mulled, tousling his beard.
He decided to cut-off the engine. Just for 21 days, he promised. He then extended the lockdown of the engine for another 18 days, and then for yet another 14 days. With the engines shut down, there was little work for anyone to do—and, therefore, no money to earn and spend. Worse, the ship veered off the course, sailing in whichever direction the wind took it.
Soon, the ship started to heave, then to sway and surge. A murmur of disquiet arose in all the 36 cabins. “Turn on the engine,” said some.
Another 14 days, said the captain, and the mysterious disease will have been vanquished, an achievement no ship had managed until then.
But then the passengers began to fall sick and die on the ship sailing to the paradise. Hunger began to stalk them. The sea had become choppy, dark clouds hovered, a storm seemed to be brewing. A school of sharks encircled the ship. Sea monsters, imagined in fantasy books, were spotted.
The futility of cutting off the ship’s engine became all too obvious.
It was time to control the ship’s motion with the precision only machine can offer. The captain ordered his mates to start the engine. He assured the passengers that he would steer the ship back on the course from which it had drifted away. “None should have doubts about reaching the destination,” he said.
But the engine just would not start. Or the engine would spring to life and then sputter and die out. Or it would work at a third of its capacity, as a result of which the ship was sailing at 10 knots. A murmur, once again, arose: has the engine been damaged irreparably? Has water leaked into the engine room? Is the ship caught in a whirlpool?
A furious storm overtook the ship. Giant waves buffeted the ship. Can the captain see clearly? Will the ship collide with another? To calm down the passengers, the captain declared, over the public address system, that it was time to become self-reliant.
Self–reliance, he said, was the only way to reach the paradise. “Make toys, make phones, think technology, plan creatively,” he said, as the ship titled and heaved.
A murmur arose: “Are we sinking?”
“No,” replied a seafarer. “We seem to be sliding back, going farther and farther away from the paradise.”
It was around this time a poll or two was conducted among the passengers. How did they rate the captain? Super. How did they rate his strategy to combat the mysterious disease? Super. Will they renew his contract a third time? Obviously. Was the captain to be blamed for cutting off the engine, because of which reaching the paradise seemed just a dream? No.
These answers were considered stunning, yet another evidence of the captain’s magical pull, which was subjected to profound inquiries.
But there was another way to look at these replies: on a ship sliding back, clocking 10 knots instead of the usual 30 knots, most passengers knew that there was no alternative other than to hope for surviving the voyage. The paradise could wait for another day.
For them to not hope was to also accept that they were doomed to slide or sink. Not to believe in the captain’s skills was to accept that he was incapable of saving them. Anxiety and fear would have gnawed them, hopelessness would have marked their voyage, particularly as they knew the captain had the charter to be at the wheel for another four years. So they were thankful to the captain for the small mercies he showed them—a dole of Rs.500 a month, a moratorium on loan….
They detested those critical of the captain and his skills, for their criticism implicitly asked them to relinquish hope. They said, “Remember please, on a ship sliding back or sinking, no passenger wants to be told that they are doomed.” They did not think it was of any use to contemplate on an alternative to the captain when his contract was for another four years.
The only alternative to the captain was the captain brimming with confidence, talking up the voyage to the paradise. To prove he was cool, in command, he fed peacocks. On a ship sliding back, hope in the captain is the only hand on the deck.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.