Minority report | Mr India


Minority report | Mr India

For years, this country has tried to find a larger than life cultural ambassador to embody Incredible India. Someone mighty and well-known, who would sell yoga and religion, sanitation and space science, power and poverty, women’s safety and youth issues in one wonderful package.

We have Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, and Sachin Tedulkar, of course, but it seems Satyamev Jayate, Binani Cement, Kaun Banega Crorepati, Chyavanprash and Life Insurance, even when combined, can’t compete with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cultural stock, which makes all our stars pale in comparison.

Like many others, I am an admirer of Modi’s communication and people skills and his oratory. Even when he repeats the core premise of his speeches—”my country, my party, my promise, our responsibility, our daughters, our children, our economy”, he laces them with newer twists, engaging our attention time and again.

He is a gifted master of ceremonies. When he used the words “G-All” in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) during his hyper hyped official trip to the US, they felt so right. Terrorism (or its shadow), peace, yoga, philosophy, he rolled them all in one to suggest a holistic, happy India.

If you only listen to Modi, India sounds like an exhilarating haven where tribal children dying of malnutrition, farmers committing suicide, girls getting raped, a chief minister sent to jail for owning copious amounts of gold, village women deprived of dignity and healthcare, the scary struggles of the homeless and cruelty to animals are issues that have already been dealt with.

As if the desperately needed social and political change is already in motion and we have reason to celebrate. In reality, there appears to be a promise of the positive for which Modi’s aura may well be thanked but fundamentally things remain the same.

That’s why, watching Modi’s reception speech on TV telecast live from Madison Square Garden in New York, I felt that the real India and the idea of India served through the PM’s oratory are deeply split. For one, the event itself that is being hailed as historic was actually an average production if you looked at the formulaic elements that held it together. It was predictably Indian-American; an impossibly sweet pudding with so many ingredients that you were left wondering which flavour you actually liked.

Interlaced with Bollywood tunes like Jai Ho and Chak De, last year’s Miss America Nina Davuluri as one of the hosts dressed in a lehnga-choli, classical singer Kavita Krishnamurthy singing (without any lilting depths or heights) I Love My India, Yeh Mera India and Jana Gana Mana with music by her violinist husband L. Subramaniam, people holding Modi’s posters and wearing Modi T-shirts, it had a bit of everything.

There were garba, Rajasthani folk songs and Mohiniyattam costumes. Intervening audio visuals not only showed rushes of Swami Vivekananda and Indira Gandhi but were mixed with Modi’s Gujarat achievements tweaked to portray his work for India as if he had completed many successful terms as a statesman who instilled lasting change. Who produced these? Could the Prime Minister’s office back home have passed those audio visuals? They were really not in tandem with the straight and square steps Modi seems to be taking over how lobbies with agendas and assorted sycophants treat politicians and why there is no room for them in a good day’s work.

In effect, there were bhajans, saris, lehngas, sherwanis, Bollywood, Hollywood, classical dance and the feverish pitch of electioneering, thus creating a fusion event.

It was a mix of Republic Day parade, a filmi awards night, a cricket match (where India had won the toss) and a political rally.

If that didn’t punch India into an overdone, plus-sized formula, Modi, who generously praised—in Hindi—his own party as “India’s need for change” (forgetting that he had to no longer appeal for votes) went on to New York’s Central Park. There, at the Global Citizens event, he opened his brief address—in English—in true starry style asking: How are you doing New York? Minutes later, he quoted a Sanskrit scripture on peace for the world. Ouch. So much showmanship?

At the end of this Americanized, Sanskritized, globalized event, what remains intact—as gushing newspapers tell us—is Modi’s popularity and influence.

But his brand kind of showmanship also puts India’s ruling political party in a hitherto untried space. Where the PM is prime time performer, cultural mascot and philosophy-chanting king getting used to heavy crowd cheering. A tricky act to get comfortable with. He will still have to deliver on his many developmental promises.