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Bharat Bhushan: Chacha Modi or forging the Great Avuncular Leader

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is preparing to address the nation on the radio twice a month. This comes after his promoting himself to a captive audience of school children on Teachers’ Day. An exercise is on to solicit the opinion of the Twitterati whether the radio address should be on every second and fourth Sunday of the month or on some other suitable days. One way of looking at this move will be that Modi needs to share his world view with the people of this country directly – without any mediation or distortion.

US President Franklin D Roosevelt pioneered the direct broadcast to the nation. Between 1933 and 1944, thirty “fireside chats” were broadcast over the radio by Roosevelt, helping him to explain his social policies to the American people through intimate and direct communication. The radio, it is said, was preferred by Roosevelt because it allowed him to hide from public eyes his disabilities from polio. However, subsequent US presidents have also followed Roosevelt in periodic and some even in regular weekly radio broadcasts to the nation.

Yet the question persists; why does Modi need to do this when he already has an army of Twitter handlers in his employ and a media that is bending over backwards to please him? First of all, this mode of communication will distinctly set him apart from his peers. There also seems to be a yearning to project himself as a charismatic leader of exceptional personal qualities, heroic accomplishments and extraordinary insight into Indian society and ways to transform it.

Analyse each incident of Modi’s public communication, and one finds that the attempt is to set him apart from others. The architecture of power is always skewed in his favour in these public events. Whether addressing the nation from the Red Fort, or meeting his Council of Ministers and party MPs while sitting on a single chair on a raised podium. Commandeering an obedient audience of schoolchildren was a masterstroke since Indian schoolchildren almost naturally respect and fawn on authority. The questions asked by the children seemed so rehearsed as to make the exercise of “consultation” all about Modi himself.

The emphasis on his origins as a tea-vendor’s son is meant to project him as an exemplary achiever. But is he the only one in that league? Consider that Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s father started as a low-paid school teacher who later became a revenue clerk at Allahabad in a bid to improve his financial prospects. He died when Shastri was only a year old. In Shastri, we have had a prime minister who was raised by a single, unemployed mother. Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s father was a poor school teacher in Bhadeli village in Bulsar in Gujarat who had to raise eight children. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s father was a refugee from Pakistan who became a dry-fruit seller in Amritsar and because of his wife’s untimely death, he had to send his son to be raised by his grandmother. This boy from a poor family not only went on to do an Economics Tripos from Cambridge University but also a D Phil from Oxford – all on merit scholarships.

Millions of Indians from most walks of life have risen and continue to rise from poverty, deprivation and non-urban backgrounds. We take our hard work and its rewards in our stride whether we are sons or daughters of daily wage earners, railway vendors, poor farmers, fishermen, farm labourers, plumbers, electricians, shopkeepers, low-paid teachers or clerks. Why then does only Modi feel the need to wear his parental profession on his sleeve? Why does this make him an exception, a hero with exemplary achievements who stands above his peers?

It could be to distinguish himself from those who have inherited political leadership – more particularly, those of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. However, that battle was won the day Modi became the prime minister. The reasons for Modi’s self-projection, therefore, have to be sought elsewhere.

Modi perhaps knows better than anyone else that his last electoral win was only partly because of his persona. Modi also won because of the misrule of the previous government, its weak leadership, a declining economy in which the corporate sector felt as if it were under an existential threat and ordinary citizens looking at a dismal future with shrinking incomes, rising prices and looming unemployment. In the face of the hype created about Modi’s achievements in Gujarat, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chose him as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prime ministerial candidate since it felt there was no other option. This is not to undermine Modi’s electoral achievement but merely to point out that there were strong contextual forces propelling him forward.

The next general election, however, will not be about the Nehru-Gandhi family or its direct or indirect misrule. Modi must be acutely aware that it will be a truly plebiscitary election – about his persona and leadership. Strategically, he will want it that way since it rules out any challengers by 2019, both within the BJP and within the polity. Therefore, he needs to convert his prime mastership into an unchallengeable brand over the next five years.

His high centralised manner of functioning will ensure that responsibility for success or failure of the government will be laid on his doorstep. Because he wants to succeed, he will pursue an agenda that is his own and not that of the party or the RSS. If it benefits any interest group, that will be because Modi thinks it helps increase his prestige and entrench him as a leader. He is already emerging as an extraordinarily independent decision-making authority – ministers either wait for him to take decisions for them or try and second-guess what will please him.

Modi’s leadership style within the government and the party is essentially based on coercive power, which is highly personalised. It is not socialised power – it involves acceptance and fear, but not respect. Not tempered by the perspective of his peers, it grows at their cost – as Modi grows, they shrink.

Modi may feel answerable to only himself but to legitimise his style of functioning, he has to project that he has the confidence of the people. His communications strategy – whether on radio or elsewhere – is aimed at creating the impression that he is intimately connected to the people, that his actions are governed by their views. It is aimed at eliciting their trust and forging an emotional link with them. But in effect, it is he who wants to create public opinion – his leadership will not be a result of what the citizens think but the other way round. He seems convinced that the leadership of India is his calling and that he already is or can grow into a charismatic leader who knows what is good for the public.

By trying to create a charisma around his persona, however, the coercive aspect of his relationship with his peers and the public will only be reinforced. Unequal communication where only Modi is in monologue, orchestrated events in India or abroad of his playing the drums in Japan or playing the flute with schoolchildren and pulling the ears of a child playfully are all picture opportunities aimed at eliciting flattery and praise and creating the image of an extraordinary people’s leader. Soon, there will be pictures of him shaking hands with US President Barack Obama and other world leaders. The carefully crafted images of the acceptance of his leadership on the international stage, he hopes, will shape opinion within the country too.

However, the downside of this pursuit of charismatic leadership is that it is also contextual. If the economy does well, social relations remain harmonious and India develops into an equitable and just society, the charismatic image that Modi seeks to invent around himself might survive. If things go wrong, however, then one has seen what happened to an Indira Gandhi, who had unquestioned charisma in 1972 but had lost her halo by 1977. Or, one can see what has happened to the once charismatic Obama within seven years of riding high to the US presidency. Meanwhile, however, Modi will have perhaps transformed the way a leader elected in desperate times relates with the public.

The writer is a journalist based in Delhi


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