In London, Narendra Modi tries to rationalise burden of expectations on him, reaches out to Indian middle class

"What is the secret of your stamina", a turbaned youth asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the mega Diaspora event in London on Wednesday.

"There are many ways of answering the question," said Modi. "Pichle kareeb kareeb 20 saal se main daily 1kg-2kg gaaliyan khaata hun" (For the last nearly 20 years, I have been on a diet of 1kg-2kg abuses daily), quipped the prime minister, leaving the audience in splits. It was a reminder that when it comes to connecting with the audience, very few politicians can hold a candle to him.

The programme, moderated by lyricist and censor board chief Prasoon Joshi, was held at Westminster's iconic Central Hall. Yet, the nearly thousand-strong non-resident Indians present at the venue were incidental. 'Bharat Ki Baat, Sabke Saath' was in reality an impeccably organised election campaign streamed live from London for the domestic audience back home that brought out Modi the master communicator, as he took questions from the audience at the venue and from around the world sourced through social media.

There were enough headline-worthy quotes which will keep the media and the Opposition busy for a few weeks but at another level Modi was connecting with his electorate and laying bare his extraordinary ability to address different audiences at the same time. He has done this before at the Madison Square Garden in New York in 2014 and at the Wembley Stadium in London in 2015. Those were perhaps grander in scale and triumphant in tone.

This was a different Modi, mindful of the fact that four years have passed and he has only an year left before seeking a return mandate in 2019. His speech on Wednesday, therefore, was at once a detailed account of the job that he has done in these four years, the ground that he has covered and a subtle pitch for more time to help build the New India of his dreams. And yet these subliminal and explicit messages were delivered with a finesse which left the audience eating out of his hands, and at times he managed to turn even the criticisms against him into compliments in a veritable lesson in masterful oratory.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays homage at the statue of 12th century Indian philosopher Basaveshwara in London on Wednesday. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays homage at the statue of 12th century Indian philosopher Basaveshwara in London on Wednesday. PTI

"In any home, parents love all their children equally but when there's a job to be done they give responsibility to the one who works hard and delivers, knowing that the job will get done, don't you agree?", Modi posed, adding "people have apeksha (expectation) because there is bharosa (faith). I am happy people expect more from us. They do so because they trust me to take India forward… They are no longer happy with incremental change."

He told the middle class that it is okay to be aspirational and impatient because aspiration brings desire for change and impatience seeks to implement that change quickly.

"The 1.25 billion people of India feel excitement, hope and expectation. Earlier, people had adopted a 'chalta hai' attitude but now I'm happy they have high expectations from us... Jo karega use hi to kahenge (The one who works is always asked to work)."

What Modi was trying to do here was to rationalise the burden of expectations on him and tell BJP's core constituency, the middle class, that he requires more time to bring the transformative change that he had promised. And yet, Modi was quick to remind the audience back home he may make mistakes, but his intention will never be wrong. He added that when the policy is clear, intention is true, and the object is noble (Neeti spasht, neeyat saaf, irade nek) then results are inevitable.

It has been said of late that a series of steps undertaken by Modi — demonetisation, GST, focus on welfare schemes in budget and little by way of tax sops — the salaried middle class has been left disillusioned by the conduct of their favourite leader. Modi understands this. He is also aware that he cannot afford to antagonise the middle class beyond a point and yet his compulsions to splurge on welfare schemes leaves very little room for manoeuvre. Modi's plan, therefore, was to appeal to the middle class to become equal partners in nation-building and look upon democracy not as a labour contract but as a participatory democracy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with British Prime Minister Theresa May visits the Francis Crick Institute in London on Wednesday. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with British Prime Minister Theresa May visits the Francis Crick Institute in London on Wednesday. PTI

"Today the need of the hour is to make vikas (development) a mass movement. Democracy is not a labour contract, it is about participation. So my effort has been to make ours a more participatory democracy where people perceive the government as its representative and work hand-in-hand to achieve the objectives," he said, drawing a parallel between himself and Mahatma Gandhi. Modi pointed out that Gandhi — who once stood in the very hall where he was now addressing the world from — had turned the Indian freedom struggle into a mass movement.

A better part of Modi's conversation centred around the poor. He set the tone at the beginning of the program by carefully decoupling 'Modi the tea-seller' and 'Modi the prime minister'.

Two narratives are at work here. In the first, Modi is the representative of the poor and the downtrodden sitting pretty at the Westminster Hall in London because democracy in India allows the poorest of the poor to dream big. Here, Modi didn't forget to aim a barb at Rahul Gandhi by pointing out that premiership isn't the exclusive preserve of a dynasty.

The second narrative is subtler.

Modi drew a distinction between himself (the tea-seller) and the prime minister (pradhan sevak) because a linear journey from the railway platform to Royal Palace in London brings him from poverty to affluence and makes him vulnerable to attacks from the Opposition that Modi may have been poor in the past, but now he represents 'suit boot ki sarkar'. The distinction, however, preempts the argument and closes that gap. This is masterful articulation.

Modi was at pains to press home the point that he is an embodiment of two contrasting phenomena — that sky is the limit for those willing to work hard. He tried to project himself as the quintessential tea-seller who has renounced earthly possessions because he has no use for material wealth.

Modi gave a rare glimpse into his personal life to reveal that as Gujarat chief minister, he had frequently given away gifts and cheques for charity and even in his tenure as the prime minister, and presented the picture that he, essentially, remains a fakir.

"When I was Gujarat chief minister, I used to get these wonderful gifts at various events — sometimes a silver sword, often beautiful paintings. Wouldn't anyone want to keep these in their homes? Not me. I auctioned them away and soon enough we had Rs 100 crore with which we created a fund for the education of the girl child. That is my life, I have been so poor that these riches don't affect me."

It is evident that this theme will be central to his campaign as we move deeper into an elections season. Critics have claimed that far from being an unscripted event, the program was choreographed to the last detail. The references to surgical strike (where Modi revealed that Pakistan was intimated officially about it before it was broken to the media in India), Kathua incident (where he appealed to the Opposition not to politicise the brutal rape and killing of a girl child), the mention of Basaveshwara and Karnataka identity ahead of election in the state leave little space for doubt.

Even so, a government is within its rights to give an account of its achievements. Whether Modi will kickstart election campaign from London or Liluah should be his decision. It is inexplicable, however, that a government helmed by such a talented communicator would be so poor in messaging and its tenure marked by one communication gaffe after another.


Updated Date: Apr 19, 2018 12:10 PM

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