Public Opinion

The Cult of NaMo

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject. He is the Political Editor of Open.
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For millions, reality does not seem to count

AHMEDABAD ~ Performing for the Modi campaign in rural areas of Gujarat as an entertainer, Arvind Vegda would occasionally improvise, breaking away from a routine cleared by Narendra Modi.

CONGRESS VOTER: Mere paas ghar hai, sasti dawai hai, Chinese laptop hai, muft ki bijli hai. Tumhare paas kya hai?

BJP VOTER: Mere paas Modi hai.

It would be laughable if this were said of any other politician in any other state of India. Here, however, it summed up the campaign—the overarching image of Modi decimating the offer of freebies that had won so many recent elections in other parts of the country. But the subtext that actually allowed Vegda’s skit to work went beyond the campaign. In Gujarat, the old ‘maibaap’ idea of government has become embodied in one man, Modi, 62. Everything stems from him.

Vegda experienced this truth four months ago, in September, when he got a call from Modi’s office soon after his Gujarati single Bhala Mori Rama, a pepped up version of a 400-year-old devotional Bhavai tune, had become hugely popular. “They told me, ‘Narendra Modi wants to see you’,” recalls Vegda, an engineer by training, seated in his tiny office in a grimy building in Ahmedabad, where he runs his air-conditioning and refrigeration business.

“He told me he had seen my video.” Vegda’s face lights up as he recalls the moment, “He said the young really liked my song and he wanted me to compose videos and jingles for his campaign.” When a team of Modi’s close confidants saw the campaign videos he put together, they asked whether “I was promoting Modi or myself. The matter went up to Modi. He said he did not want his face appearing in my campaign videos or campaign posters. He told them I represent the idea of fun for the young in Gujarat. They would come to hear me, listen to me not because of politics, but because they would enjoy doing so.”

Through the campaign, the visage of Modi dominated every poster but for the ones featuring Vegda. His hit song, modified to Bhai Bhai Mori Raja because the Election Commission would not permit the word ‘Rama’, became the theme for the Modi campaign on radio and television.

Campaign ads that featured Vegda—with his outsized screen presence, thanks to his 100 kg frame, arm tattoos, shaven head and beads strung from his goatee (“The idea came to me after seeing Johhny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean; earlier people used to say I look like Pritish Nandy”)—would appear every 15 minutes or so on NaMo Gujarat, the Modi campaign’s television channel.

The programming was slick, and the channel’s audience far exceeded what any channel devoted to an election campaign would have attracted in any other state. Modi’s speeches, crisp and to the point, were intercut with video clips making the same point. Modi would speak of keeping the Congress out of Gujarat, and an ad that followed would talk of keeping Gujarat corruption free. Modi would speak of how outsiders from states such as Odisha had come to Gujarat to make a living, with a Vegda video up next on air, the Bhai Bhai theme song playing on the Congress’ failings (‘The Central government deserves a gold medal for the Commonwealth scam’) and ending with how things were better in Gujarat (‘We are better off with the way things are in Gujarat’).

The same team of Modi aides that examined the campaign videos also handled the day-to-day operations of NaMo TV. Perhaps the most important of these, certainly the man closest to Narendra Modi, was the lawyer Parendu Bhagat, or Kakubhai.

“I won’t recognise myself if you call me Parendu,” he told me in his cubicle at the BJP office. We had met a few hours earlier at a restaurant exit. I was leaving, he had just arrived in the company of Arun Jaitley. “I have family relations with Arunji. He is my samdhi, my son Moulik is married to his wife’s sister’s daughter,” he offered, as if in explanation.

It is Moulik who handled the Modi online campaign on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “He understands technology much better than I do,” said Kakubhai, “The idea of the Bhai Bhai remix was to reach out to the young. And it works well on YouTube and Facebook.”

The pitch to the young voter, through the internet and popular culture, is not a recent innovation. Covering the 2007 election, I had met Shashiranjan Yadav, a Mathematics professor who had taken over the Modi cyber campaign in 2006. Within a year, he had ensured that 22,000 BJP members had set up active email IDs. Well before Facebook took over, Yadav had ensured these recruits were seeding Modi fan clubs on Orkut. In 2009, Yadav was appointed vice-chancellor of Kutch University, but his work has served as a base for people like Moulik to build upon.

When I asked Kakubahi if NaMo TV was also Moulik’s idea, he looked shocked: “No, no, of course not, it was Narendraji’s idea. Moulik is only here to help his Narendra kaka.”

Every detail to do with the channel, he told me, had been conceived by Modi. Even the name? I asked. Instead of responding directly, he told me a story: “Many years ago, when I first built a house for my family, it was Narendraji who suggested the name PARISHRAM. We thought it was because of the effort that had gone into building the house, but a few months later, he asked us if we knew why he had suggested the name. And then he told us, ‘Consider your names’, and then we understood. My name is PArendu, my wife’s name is RItu, my daughter’s name is SHRAdha and my son’s name is Moulik.”

In Jainism, ‘Namo’ is used as a term of honour for a liberated being. To find a comparable act of conceit by an Indian ruler, one has to go back to Mughal Emperor Akbar and his Din-i-illahi, a cult that required adherents to greet one another with the words ‘Allahu-Akbar’ (instead of, say, ‘Salaam aaleikum’), which could either mean ‘God is great’, or, as some suggest, ‘Akbar is God’.

It struck me then that the cult of NaMo must have been conceived by NArendra MOdi early on in his career in the Sangh Parivar, and he has spent the time since giving it shape. 

Kakubhai, clearly one of the high priests of the NaMo cult, seemed keen to have me join the ranks of its believers. “It is in his nature to monitor everything closely,” he said, “Not just every scheme of the government, but even the name of every scheme has to go through him. But one has to be prepared that if one submits five names, he will instead come up with a sixth and it will be much better. That is his nature. During this campaign, even the number of complaints that we file with the Election Commission is decided by him.”

“All you Delhi journalists who met him when he was a spokesperson for the party in Delhi would know that,” he added. 

I didn’t contradict him, and he carried on. “He has a political vision. Even the idea of the Advani rath yatra that started from Somnath was his.”

I looked up in surprise—and disbelief. “Confirm hai,” he urged, “likho.”

I asked him if this vision included a move to Delhi. In Gujarat, the word was that NaMo Gujarat would soon be airing as NaMo Bharat.

Kakubhai laughed. “Wait for the results, you will know soon.” And then unable to resist himself, he added, “The path to Delhi is now open, nothing can stop him.”

What if he gets less than 110 seats, I asked.

Kakubhai laughed again. “Even with 105, who will stop him? What this country needs is a benevolent dictator and in Gujarat we already have one.”

The next day when I called him to speak to Moulik, he fobbed me off and then refused to take my calls. Perhaps he had realised that he had said more than he was supposed to, but then his enthusiasm for Modi was commonplace in the state.

On the last day of the campaign, I travelled to Prantij for a Modi election rally. The gathering had already started swelling an hour before NaMo got there. Every few minutes, a man wearing a NaMo mask would stand up, waving the V sign that had become a NaMo trademark along the campaign trail, and the crowd would burst out in loud cheers.

The numbers continued to grow. Soon, people were standing on terraces along the street adjacent to the maidan. There were even a few women in the audience wearing NaMo masks.

Looking at this crowd of Gujaratis, it seemed odd that the people of the state had taken so readily to a personality cult. The campaign posters on display around the maidan, the backdrop on stage, everything in sight was about NaMo. In a state where everything is usually understated, expenditure and emotions are kept in check, money is accumulated quietly and overt displays of any sort are considered crass, NaMo seems to be a collective expression of everything that many Gujaratis think they are not.  

I recalled my first visit to the state in 2004, a couple of years after the riots. An advocate at a dhaba frequented by members of the VHP at Ahmedabad’s Paranthewali Gali told me, “Ab jaa ke Muslim dabein hain (Now finally, Muslims have been suppressed). Earlier, even two or three of them were enough to hold off six or seven people. Modi has shown that you can go beat them up and nothing will happen. He is a hero.” In this perverse way, NaMo seems to redeem Gujarati masculinity.

When NaMo finally arrived for the rally, the crowd went berserk. I had rarely seen such adulation of a politician (just five years earlier, the response he would get in Gujarat was more muted). The speech he made was baffling. Expectedly, the local candidate found no mention, neither did any local issue. A few wisecracks about Sonia and Rahul evoked some reaction, his attack on the Congress less so. A digression about Jawaharlal Nehru followed, and the last 20 minutes were devoted to Sir Creek, with almost no response from the crowd. It was a speech made by someone keen to focus on the national stage, but without any acknowledgement that he had been in power in the state for the past 10 years. Some people started leaving before the speech ended, but they did not seem disappointed, they had got what they wanted, a darshan of their idol.

When I went back to Ahmedabad, I related the experience to a Gujarati friend, someone who has been a long-time critic of NaMo. He told me my expectations were wrong to begin with. “You expect to judge Modi by the norms of rationality,” he said, “[but] a cult doesn’t subscribe to reason.”

“For the last six months,” my friend told me, “the most scurrilous rumours related to the origin of the Nehru Gandhi family have been doing the rounds in the state. When people hear a mention of Motilal Nehru, it is a cue.”  

“It is only from such a perspective that Modi makes sense. The closest analogy I can think of is one of those miniature paintings where the painter has used multiple perspectives, where each part seems to contradict the other, but it somehow all seems to come together for someone viewing it from the right vantage point,” he said.

Only when seen in the light of a cult that defies reason does the hype around NaMo’s claims of development make sense. No amount of careful analysis seems to dissuade his supporters that his performance was by no means extraordinary, that rather, the growth of Gujarat during his tenure was comparable to that of states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu where chief ministers had not been so hyped and which had actually done better on human development indicators.

They are even willing to disbelieve the evidence in existence before their eyes. The largest planned disaster in the history of Independent India has been unfolding under NaMo’s regime. The Narmada main canal that flows through the state passes not far from Gandhinagar. It is the largest irrigation canal in the world, and also just a very expensive alternate route for the Narmada water to reach the sea. Ninety per cent of the water in the canal goes waste. Two years after the 74,266 km long irrigation network was to be completed in 2010, only 27 per cent or 19,885 km has been constructed, and extremely few of the field channels that must take water to the fields are in place. In the last two years, less than 300 km of canals have been constructed. 

The Sardar Sarovar website places the project’s benefits at Rs 1,600 crore annually by way of higher agricultural production, once it is completed. As a result of an inordinate delay, at least 90 per cent of that money is being lost right now. While losses will reduce as the project nears completion, cost overruns will add up. Even if we expect the project to be ready by 2025, which is an optimistic timeframe, a ballpark estimate would put the cumulative setback at Rs 30,000 crore.

So much for an efficient chief minister. Confronted with this reality, NaMo’s innumerable supporters brush it aside as ‘pseudo-secular propaganda’. Online, an unthinking horde that owes its origin to Shashiranjan Yadav’s work is quick to descend on any such claim, much as it is quick to dismiss any mention of the 2002 riots. This horde claims that NaMo does not discriminate among citizens of Gujarat, and that everyone is a beneficiary of his genius for governance.

It is a disingenuous claim, as is obvious from a visit to NaMo’s Maninagar constituency. In the heart of this constituency, it is easy to spot Millatnagar. This is where the famed roads of Gujarat trail off, where the sewers don’t reach. It also happens to be inhabited by 20,000 Muslims. In his ten years as MLA, Modi has never visited the area even once. Only in the past year or so, after a few Congress Corporators were elected from the area, have residents of Millatnagar seen a glimmer of Gujarat’s much vaunted development. It is no wonder that the entire locality is dotted with Congress flags.

NaMo does discriminate against Muslims. It is just that he often has no way of setting up a power grid that tells a Muslim apart from a Hindu. Observers who visit Gujarat and are impressed by its factories et al are being taken in by ‘development’ as sugarcoating a much harsher reality.

It is a reality that Gujarat seems to have accepted, even applauded. The question that concerns us in the rest of the country is how well this cult travels. On the evidence so far, we have no shortage of credulous believers.