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On the eighth anniversary of the Narendra Modi government, the BJP and the NDA government are embarking on hectic activities, most of which are aimed at putting the party firmly on the road to 2024. As a part of this journey, apart from the political activities of the party and the government, there’s a subtle yet concerted effort to mould the image of Prime Minister Modi into that of a more moderate, statesman-like leader.
Consider these statements by PM Modi – all delivered in the space of less than a month, with some even at the cost of the PM taking a position markedly different from that of other senior leaders:
* With Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin raking up the issue of alleged Hindi imposition, Modi, while addressing a gathering in Tamil Nadu on May 26, called Tamil an “eternal” language and Tamil culture “global”. The PM’s remarks came a few weeks after Home Minister Amit Shah was quoted in the Parliamentary Official Language Committee as saying that Hindi should be the official language to unite the country.
* On May 12, addressing beneficiaries of Centre-run schemes in poll-bound Gujarat, Modi hinted that he was ready for a third term, saying, “It is not enough that I should rest now, (thinking) that everything that has happened is good. No. My dream is saturation…meet your target 100 per cent. Get the government machinery into a habit, create faith in the citizens.” The focus of the PM’s speech, unusually for a poll-bound state, stayed on welfare measures.
* Last week, again in poll-bound Gujarat, Modi asserted that he has been working on fulfilling the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhai Patel. “Mahatma Gandhi wanted an India in which the poor, Dalits, tribals and women are empowered, where cleanliness and health are a part of life, where the economy is based on local solutions and the country is atmanirbhar,” he said, adding that his government had worked for all these in the last eight years.
* On May 29, in the 89th episode of his radio address Mann ki Baat, Modi again emphasised on the diversity of languages and scripts – a clear departure from the ‘one language one nation’ or ‘Hindi as unifying language’ trope of other senior leaders.
* At a time when BJP-ruled states have been eager in their use of the sedition law to clamp down on dissidence, the Union Home Ministry in an affidavit to the Supreme Court said Prime Minister Modi had expressed clear and unequivocal views in favour of protecting civil liberties, respect for human rights and believed that outdated colonial laws had no place in the country as it celebrates its 75th year of Independence. On April 30, at a joint conference of chief ministers and the chief justices of high courts, Modi said that laws that are “irrelevant for the common citizens” should be abolished.
While Modi, then barely two years in power and mindful of his domestic and international audience, had made a similar pitch in 2016, these fresh attempts at repacking Brand Modi come at a time when officials as well as the strategists of the ruling party are apprehensive about the impact of the current state of the economy on Modi’s image.
For the BJP, despite all its aggressive political activities and expansion programmes, Modi is the party’s only sure-fire trump card for the elections. Despite claiming that its success in implementing welfare schemes helped the party in the recent Assembly elections, BJP leaders admit that the win was made possible only because of Modi’s image. “Without Modi, BJP can be in trouble, especially with inflation and unemployment hurting the government deeply,” said a senior minister last week.
With the party keen to project Modi as the ‘best Prime Minister India ever had’ – for which the competition has always been with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru — BJP leaders have already begun doubling down.
Last week, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, reacting to Congress leader Siddaramaiah’s statement that Modi has undone all of Nehru’s “good works”, said, “Obviously, he (Modi) cannot be compared with Nehru, because when China invaded India (in 1962), without taking proper measures, Nehru gave away border areas while Narendra Modi stood strong and saved them.”
Asked about the BJP government’s unfinished tasks ahead of its eighth-year anniversary, a senior BJP office bearer, who enjoys proximity to the RSS leadership, said addressing joblessness remains a big challenge for the government.
With the Ukraine war creating hurdles on the road to achieving the projected 7 per cent GDP growth, officials are on a promotional overdrive. According to some officials, “the government’s campaign is so aggressive that it would seem like there’s an election next year”. Interestingly, most of these activities are not driven by ministries, but by the NITI Aayog and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), indicating that there is a conscious effort from the top leadership to bolster the government’s image.
At the level of the organisation, the party is launching an extensive fortnight-long outreach programme beginning Tuesday that will include Union Ministers, office bearers, state ministers and chief ministers, who are expected to communicate how the Modi government’s welfare programmes have touched the lives of people.
However, it remains to be seen if the PM the BJP has placed on a pedestal will descend to the level of ordinary leaders, as is often the case closer to elections — when he pulls out a different playbook, when his tone gets sharper and shriller.
A case in point is the recent UP Assembly elections, when BJP’s campaign managers said that Modi had strictly instructed them to focus the party’s campaign on welfare programmes and the Yogi Adityanath government’s developmental activities. Yet, when it came to his turn, Modi had attacked the Samajwadi Party for “shielding terrorists”to safeguard its “votebank”.
With two years to go for the 2024 elections, the question is: will this new packaging hold?