The country’s bizarre fascination for the word ‘strong’ is going strong. Count the number of times it comes on your television screen, particularly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes a statement, and you realise the fascination borders on the pathological. The response to his speech in Kozhikode is a case in point. His supporters expected him to be all fury and revenge over Uri, but he surprised them with a mature and sober prime minister-like speech. It didn’t exude raw aggression; it spelled out firm intention in a measured way. Most channels interpreted it as ‘strong’ warning to Pakistan even though both ‘strong’ and ‘warning’ were less than conspicuous in the actual speech.
This is a problem Modi would find difficult to get rid of. His supporters, bhakts to be more exact, accustomed to a crude notion of strength – it involves expression of muscularity in word and action – would find it hard to digest when he behaves like a statesman or someone who is a regular at high tables across the world. Modi himself, who launched himself in national politics with loads of brashness, juxtaposing himself with a ‘weak’ Manmohan Singh, is partly to blame for the situation.
He built very unrealistic expectations. He made all complex challenges of history and legacy look frivolous and the faithful took it hook, line and sinker with no all disbelief suspended. But to be fair to him, he has been trying to live down that image over the last two years; the speech at Kozhikode being the latest example. The only problem is that the bhakt crowd won’t let go of it. For them it would be tantamount to betrayal if he turned out different from how they perceive him to be.
So, how do they perceive him? Well, Modi has been all things to all people. But to the true bhakt, he is many persons rolled into one. Here we go:
The comic book superhero: Whenever the world is in distress, the superhero shall fly in and all trouble would vanish in a jiffy. We don’t know how he would do it but we know he would, quick and all by himself. Be it the attack at Pathankot or Uri, or problems with the economy or society, the superhero – read Modi –has all the quick-fixes. Being the force that he is, isn’t it easy for him? Two years on, as he faces a rather disillusioned crowd, the prime minister has to take some blame himself. He understood his enemies but he failed to assess the stupidity of his bhakts. If only at some point he had told them that prime ministers and superheroes are different creatures.
The friendly neighbourhood goon: Modi takes no-nonsense, and he is always game for a good fight, and he fears none. In the face of terrorist attacks he won’t be a sissy like people before him. He would give it back to Pakistan real hard, then and there. He won’t balk even if it’s China or any country for that matter. He would overawe everyone with power. Ah! How Modi would like to tell the bhakts that this is not how civilised countries function. A local goon’s power is all about physicality and intimidation; countries, particularly democracies like ours, have to function at a more cerebral level. Obviously, the bhakts took the 56-inch chest claim too seriously.
He is like us, one of us: The deep attachment of bhakts to Modi needs no overstating. It stems from the fact that they see him as an extension of themselves, in every way negative or positive. The bhakt never had a chance express hatred towards a whole of things. He hates Muslims, he hates beef-eaters, he hates liberals, he hates seculars, he hates intellectuals, he hates who he thinks are anti-nationals, and of course, he hates Pakistan. For some reason, he came to believe that in Modi he had a perfect like-minded leader. While the intellectuals of the Indian Right would insist that political rivals gave him that kind of a negative image, the reality is it is the bhakts who would like to see him in that image, nothing beyond. Vision and statesmanship can go to hell.
The real challenge for the prime minister now is to convince this lot to re-imagine him as the leader of the country. He has to tell them that the notion of being strong is different for a prime minister than it is for the man on the street. His party would do well to tone down and be more realistic about his image. After the Uri attack, Modi and the party have been admirably dignified. The sense of calm and unhurriedness displayed by the government behoves a country aspiring to be in the global big league.
It may be difficult to change the bhakt though.