Narendra Modi’s solitary splendour

Tavleen Singh | Updated on February 27, 2020 Published on February 26, 2020

Look at me: PM Modi at the inauguration of Bogibeel — the longest bridge in India   -  PTI

Journalist Tavleen Singh on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and what she calls the ‘messiah syndrome’

Modi’s isolation as Prime Minister cost him not just his well-meaning critics but also his friends. In Mumbai I found myself constantly running into people who had helped him win in 2014 but were bitterly disappointed that he dropped them immediately after winning. Why did Modi not notice that as Prime Minister he needed friends much more than he ever had before? Why did he not notice that by isolating himself he was allowing other people to take charge of a story that should have been his to write? The more I thought about this the more I noticed that he was starting to suffer from what I think of as the ‘Messiah syndrome’. It is a syndrome that makes political leaders forget that they are in office only at the will of the people. They begin to see themselves as having an old-fashioned divine right to rule. Instead of concentrating on their administrative duties they develop delusions of being above mere mortals.

Modi could have been forgiven for having a Messiah syndrome. His political successes were spectacular. After becoming Prime Minister it was his personal appeal that helped the BJP win elections in nearly every major state. This was no small achievement. But instead of being treated as par for the course, these victories began to be celebrated in a style that was dangerously reminiscent of despots, not democratic leaders. If the victory was stunning, as in Uttar Pradesh, Modi would drive through Delhi in a cavalcade of cars bedecked with garlands of marigold. If he saw people lining the streets, he would open the door of his vehicle, step on to the footboard, and raise his right hand as if in benediction. Then he would drive into the splendid new party headquarters that the BJP had built after he became Prime Minister and walk ceremoniously on to a stage on which beside him sat only the highest officials of the party. Usually, instead of members of his Cabinet, the person given the position closest to him was Amit Shah, who never pretended to affect the humility that politicians should have.

Messiah Modi? A Tale of Great Expectations; by Tavleen Singh; HarperCollins; Non-fiction; ₹699


The humility Modi affected before becoming Prime Minister seemed to disappear totally and even his admirers started to whisper about how ‘messianic’ he was beginning to sound. Having personally been an admirer and a vocal supporter, I started paying more attention to his body language when he addressed public meetings and began to notice that he seemed to feel the constant need to remind those who came to listen to him that it was he who had bestowed upon them the bounties they had: You have bank accounts now because I made this possible. You get money in these accounts because I insisted on this. Corruption has come down by half because of me.

The only thing that he gave anyone else credit for was when he reminded them that India’s respect in the eyes of the world had risen ‘not because of Modi but because of 125 crore Indians’. His isolation slowly made him lose his sense of what would appeal to the people and what would not. So in the middle of his last full year as Prime Minister he released a video that was meant to be a testament to his physical fitness but ended up making him look alarmingly weird. In it he was seen barefoot and wearing an Indian version of sports gear, a short black kurta worn with knee-length tight cotton shorts. He wore a scarf around his neck that hung all the way down the kurta. Dressed in these clothes he walked round and round a tree in his garden, jumping from stone to stone on a circle of stones that were set in a small pool of water. The commentary said that he used the elements of fire, water, air and light in his fitness routine because this was the Indian way. There was no explanation for why he later walked backwards on bare feet at so strange an angle that he looked like a marionette...

...When he went to Assam to inaugurate the longest bridge in India on the Brahmaputra river, he was shown by Doordarshan cameras driving on it alone. There was no sign of the Chief Minister of Assam or of the engineers who built the Bogibeel bridge. As he drove in solitary splendour along the entire length of the bridge he appeared to wave to an invisible crowd.

There were people below somewhere but Doordarshan cameramen are trained to focus on the leader, so he seemed to be acting rather than waving to a real crowd... When he went to inaugurate ‘the tallest statue in the world’ of Sardar Patel in Gujarat, he posed alone beside one of its giant feet and looked like such a small white speck that he was ridiculed for it. When people start laughing at political leaders it is often a sign that they are no longer invincible.

I had personally seen this happen more than once. Long before Indira Gandhi lost her own seat in 1977, because of the Emergency, jokes had started being made about her and her son. They said the party symbol which at that time was a cow and calf was really a depiction of her and her son Sanjay. When Morarji Desai, who became Prime Minister that year, became the butt of jokes about his habit of drinking his own urine every morning, it became clear that even if his government had lasted a full term he would find it hard to become Prime Minister again.

From Messiah Modi? A Tale of Great Expectations by Tavleen Singh

Published on February 26, 2020
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