Before the proponents of Shuddh Hindi bop me on my head for using the Urdu phrase Mubarak Ho! instead of the Hindi Badhai Ho! let me clarify that the reason I use this phrase to wish our Prime Minister a very happy 70th birthday is, that Bollywood has already stolen the traditional phrase, “Badhai Ho!” and given it an avoidable spin.
On your 70th birthday today, you, sir, command a powerful image: An uncommonly honest man, scrupulous about material affairs who has risen from the ranks. An ordinary family in a small town where the men work in factories or tea stalls and women cook and clean for their own family and often for other families too, few sons were lucky enough to complete their education and luckier still to get that coveted college degree. You, Mr Prime Minister sir, have told us that hard work is above Harvard. True. You yourself have imbibed most of your deep insights into human nature, not at Oxford or Cambridge, but in India from your seasoned, kind and wise mentors of the Sangh Parivar.
This reminds one of a story. An arrogant scholar who had studied at various metaphysical schools came to the fabled Mullah Nasruddin and expressed a wish to share ideas with the great teacher since he had spent so much time in studying in the best schools of philosophy. “Alas,” said Nasruddin, “you have studied the teachers and teachings. What should have happened is that the teachers and their teaching should have studied you”.
In the Jewish tradition, 70 is a very significant number. Seventy elders were assembled by Moses on God’s command in the desert. Psalm 90:10 allots three scores and ten (70 years) to an age that spells strength. Strength such as this brings a serenity and calm within the heart and leads to a certain detached view of the world. Truth be told, since the ad man Prasoon Joshi located a certain fakir like soul in you, the nation too has glimpsed that. We have all witnessed your soulful journeys into remote epochs via hill shrines and forests of the beautiful Devbhumi of Uttarakhand.
The trip to the jungles in the Corbett Park was particularly a treat to sore urban eyes. Accompanied by Bear Grylls, you spoke all through in Hindi, translated into English, we were told, simultaneously by a device planted in Grylls’ ears. That and the unfolding images in pristine surroundings set a really holy surrealist tone, almost crossing into the territory marked by great painters like Magritte or Chagall. But then harsh political realities cut the dream trip short. As you rushed back to Delhi to meet a crisis, we realised how the pedestal upon which the nation places a great leader, can be such a lonely and demanding place. Not many there do get to embrace Mother Nature for long.
But with your well-targeted strike against the Enemy, sir, you taught the nation of peaceniks that, in 2019, the only lasting path to regional arms control, is the one where instead of turning the Gandhian cheek, we let them have it on both cheeks. By abandoning your idyllic trip half way, you turned an “apada” into an “avasar”, and ensured that a resounding electoral victory followed at home later.
The nation has learnt much from you since.
You have, for example, helped millions of us realise that electorally speaking, God may be said to be in details, but the Mother Goddess lies in questions. So at each election rally you raise prickly questions about your no-good rivals: Isn’t liberalism cowardice? And what about the Lutyen’s lifestyle? TRP ratings escalated each time you roared: “Bhaiyo, behenon, un logon mein zameenee Bharat ka agyan/ bhrishtachar/ vanshvaad etc, tumne bhi dekha hai ki nahin dekha? Dekha hai ki nahin dekha? Bolo meri baat sahi hai ki nahin?’’ And till even those who had climbed trees and poles to see you, yelled back, “Ekdum Sahi!”. And, as though on cue, a roar went up chanting your name like a mantra.
Many of your detractors may try to sully the narrative here by pointing out how the Indian economy stands considerably weakened by the pandemic, global climate changes, trade deficits and shrinkage of jobs. But with the wisdom age brings we senior citizens know better. Hasn’t (Groucho) Marx sung in Duck Soup: “The world is but a stage, my friend, and life is but a game…/For whether a man is right or wrong/A woman gets the blame.”
Don’t let them sully your birthday mood by petty nit-picking. It is you who has also opened gates to popularity on the social media, where what the Germans call the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, resides. You have also entered young India via the twin popular arenas of cricket and Bollywood. A few joyous photo-ops and you made more youthful and talkative friends there, outstripping even your biggest Bollywood admirer, Big B, or the cricketing legend, M S Dhoni.
Even in the matter of citizenship, you have injected vast changes. Under the rule of the law as spelt out by our Constitution, we had been told we were equals. But the amendments to the British Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, and a timely promulgation of the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) ordinance, has ensured that in these difficult times, for our own sake, we must be treated as unequal when need be. The word “police” has once again been made synonymous with its Middle French meaning, that is government. The state of Uttar Pradesh, as always, leads here from the front by example.
So a grateful nation wishes you a very happy 70th birthday with lines from a birthday poem by Samuel Johnson: “Wealth, Sir John, was made to wander,/Let it wander as it will:/See the jockey, see the pander,/Bid them come and take their fill.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 17, 2020 under the title ‘Mubarak Ho! Modiji’. The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati.
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