Of puppies and burkhas: Why the Modi makeover is a dud

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, as does meaning. Within the space of a weekend, a few words uttered by Narendra Modi — 'kutte ka baccha', 'Hindu nationalist' and 'burkha' — have unleashed a tsunami of interpretations.

The many answers to the what-did-Modi-mean question were predetermined by partisan or ideological leanings. Where Modi detractors viewed the language as unmasking Modi's communalist self, his supporters defended him by pointing their finger back at the critics, who are determined take umbrage irrespective of what Modi does or says — even when he attempts to express compassion, which was his intent in the Reuters interview.

They are not entirely wrong. Yes, those who read the puppy analogy as a standard Hindutva slur were wrong. And yes, the foreign press outing was an attempt to soften his Hindutva image — a failed one at that. For months now, the media has been abuzz with reports of the Modi Makeover, ie a new development — and governance-focused avatar which downplays his Hindutva credentials without abandoning his base. Modi was expected to 'pivot', 'moderate', 'reframe' his message to help the pro-development, non-BJP voter put Godhra where it belonged, as in the distant past.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at a function at Fergusson College in Pune. PTI

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at a function at Fergusson College in Pune. PTI

He tried to do exactly that in the Reuters interview, as the Telegraph notes: "The objective appeared to be to turn apolitical fence-sitters around and reassure his traditional support base." He failed. The failure points to, one, the limitations of Modi's otherwise excellent communication skills, and, two, the true enormity of the challenge of "talking to multiple constituencies."

For Modi, the task of speaking beyond the base is particularly perilous because his devoted followers would view any hint of compromise as betrayal. They adore him precisely because he makes no apologies, and takes no prisoners. 'Pivoting' from such a persona can become a painful exercise in parsing. Take, for instance, his 'puppy' version of Godhra, which is worth reproducing in context:

Reuters: Do you regret what happened?

Modi: I’ll tell you. India’s Supreme Court is considered a good court today in the world. The Supreme Court created a special investigative team (SIT) and top-most, very bright officers who overlook oversee the SIT. That report came. In that report, I was given a thoroughly clean chit, a thoroughly clean chit. Another thing, any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.

Asked about regret, Modi's first instinct is to ensure that any acknowledgement of regret is not confused with an admission of guilt. Hence, the SIT report, and the hasty repositioning of himself from driver to passenger. Then comes the difficult bit. As a prime ministerial candidate, he also has to move forward and recognise the riots as a tragedy, and express some compassion for its victims. But on the matter of Godhra, the Hindutva credo prohibits specifically mentioning or acknowledging the Muslim death toll, which would be seen as minority pandering.

Modi is therefore forced to express 'regret' in the most convoluted fashion, mustering up a bizarre analogy that tries to recognise Muslim victims but without naming them as such. The result: a callous and tasteless analogy lumping together riot victims with dead dogs. "In our culture every form of life is valued & worshipped," tweeted Modi in response to the outcry. Except in our society, killing humans is a crime, running over incautious dogs is not. One is the failure of law and order, the other is individual error.

"I am simply saying would Modi use the same analogy for Uttrakhand Flood Victims or Gujarat Earth quake Victims?" tweeted @SamKhan999. The answer is self-evident, but there is no identity politics at stake in those tragedies. What the puppy analogy revealed is the lengths Modi must go to avoid the M-word — and the hazards of the same.

The 'Hindu nationalist' question poses a similar dilemma. Modi's Hindutva base will not allow him to disown or even distance himself from the label. But he can no longer afford to be defined as one if he wants to be seen as a credible prime ministerial candidate. So he is reduced to playing linguistic games: "I’m nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I’m a born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So, I’m a Hindu nationalist so yes, you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist because I’m a born Hindu."

The statement was wrongly interpreted on social media as an unabashed declaration of identity, when in fact the opposite was true. @samas777 offered a more accurate assessment: "His answer was more like when a boy in India is asked if he has a girlfriend. I have a friend, She is a girl. Ergo." It was also every bit as facile and unconvincing.  As Nai Duniya editor Shahid Siddique pointed out on NDTV, "If I say I am a Muslim nationalist, I am talking the language of Jinnah. If a Sikh says I am a Sikh nationalist you are talking the language of Khalistan not India."

The verbal gymnastics also made a man best known for his blunt rhetoric sound like an evasive teenager. And that's no good for Modi. He has built his entire career and persona around a rough-hewn, no-bullshit authenticity. The kind exemplified by the 'burqa of secularism' jibe. This is Modi in full-cry talking to the faithful — not to be confused with the other Modi ineptly trying to finesse his constituencies in a foreign media interview.

Swapan Dasgupta tried to dismiss the phrase in an NDTV interview, saying, "In any language there are images that are commonly understood. If Narendra Modi had said 'behind the pardah of secularism', someone could say he is attacking an old tradition that existed among Hindus and Muslims."

That's just silly. The word was 'burkha' for good reason, as Firstpost editor R Jagannathan notes, "[T]he 'burkha' reference was certainly entirely appropriate in the context of what the BJP has been alleging all along about pseudo-secularism, especially when it comes to giving Muslims a free pass into the secular club." Modi was specifically taking aim at the Congress Party for pandering to Muslims in the name of secularism. And this is what endears him to his supporters, what makes him uniquely popular. But it is also what is likely to doom his candidacy -- contrary to those who claim this is part of a clever 'reverse polarising' strategy.

"It was a law and order problem. And he should have addressed as a chief minister addressing a law and order problem," argues Siddique, and rightly so. By ducking and weaving around Godhra — while name-checking Muslims in his anti-UPA jibes — Modi is "falling into the trap of Congress. Congress has always used the fear of communalism.. to make Muslims vote in a particular direction."

Each 'burkha' dog-whistle paints Modi further into a rhetorical corner, making more puppy-like analogies inevitable. It is difficult to 'pivot' one day — and poorly at that — and play to the base the next. It is near-suicidal when the ruling party is itching to turn the upcoming election into a verdict on the Hindu Hriday Samrat.

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