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India's Modi resorts to symbolism as virus spreads

PM plans to reap rich dividends from symbolic acts as a strong leader for India's 1.3 billion people

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Updated: May 04, 2020 08:14 AM GMT
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India's Modi resorts to symbolism as virus spreads

Pointing the way: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a government function in Allahabad on Feb. 29. (Photo: AFP)

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Military helicopters showered petals on hospitals and medicos as army bands played outside medical buildings and police stations across India on May 3 in a rare event.

The gesture, which aimed to encourage and honor frontline warriors fighting coronavirus, was proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a known protagonist of the politics of symbolism.

Air force, navy and army personnel joined in expressing the nation's gratitude to healthcare workers, police and paramilitary forces.

The leaders of the ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enthusiastically supported the gesture, but critical comments on social media questioned what Modi sought to achieve by such acts.

The exercise "looks like a political orchestra," said an article in the National Herald daily, backed by the opposition Congress party. Others have called it a political circus.

Critics say such gestures waste the defense budget and manpower at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is spreading fast. The number of positive cases in India has doubled in the past 10 days to 42,500 on May 4, killing more than 1,300 people.

The May 3 show by defense forces came on the 40th day of a nationwide lockdown enforced on March 24. The lockdown has been relaxed in some areas, but cases continue to spread in most cities, especially in national capital New Delhi and business hub Mumbai.

It was the third such display of symbolism to express gratitude to health workers. Earlier Modi had made a personal call to citizens to light lamps and blow conch shells, as if following some Hindu prayer ritual, to encourage Covid-19 warriors from their balconies.

In the first such exercise, he asked Indians to clap from their balconies. Most in villages and slums, who live in homes without balconies, marched in groups on the streets, chanting "go corona, go."

What does Modi gain from such symbolism? Those who know his politics will contend that the committed Hindu nationalist has always reaped rich dividends from symbolic acts.

"Those of us who have followed Modi's politics know that his politics has been akin to throwing some pebbles into a large pond and seeing ripples. He not only enjoys this but it has also actually helped him in the past as well," says Varanasi-based educationist Tushar Bhadra.

He cites one example. When Modi first selected Varanasi, the city on the banks of the holy River Ganges, to contest the parliamentary election in 2014, he had said: "I am here amongst you at the directives of the Mother Ganga." Hindus regard the Ganges as their mother god.

Modi, who comes from Gujarat state in western India, decided to contest from Varanasi so that he could consolidate Hindu votes for his party's kitty.

Varanasi is not only an important spiritual city for Hindus but is also part of India's most populous Uttar Pradesh state, having some 80 of India 543 parliamentary seats. In 2014, Modi's BJP won 71 seats in the state.

The symbols of blowing conch shells and lighting of lamps to fight the coronavirus help him push his strong Hindu nationhood idea, some observe. Modi cares little about the violation of social distancing norms if it helps him build leadership.

"Post Covid-19, Modi will emerge as the tallest leader in the country of 1.3 billion people. Various international surveys have also hailed him as a best-performing world leader against the virus," says BJP leader Virendra Sachdeva from the Good Governance cell.

Modi's popularity has risen to the highest among global leaders, according to Morning Consult, a US-based research body. It claimed that around April 21 Modi has a net approval rating of 68, up from 62 at the beginning of 2020.

Not all are amused.

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, often seen as Modi's chief rival, said last month that it would be erroneous to start celebrating. The lockdown against corona is only a "pause" and the virus can leave its gory impact with long-term results, especially economically.

Modi plays to the gallery and it has kept his core voters intact, even during a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. He systematically built up his image with symbolism.

For example, in 2012, as Gujarat state chief minister, he declined to put on a Muslim skull cap given to him by a Muslim cleric. Accepting it could have diluted his well-known image as anti-Muslim and a strong Hindu leader.

However, he does not mind putting on a Sikh turban when he visits their gurudwaras, especially in Punjab. Sikhism has a history of being closer to Hinduism.

"Modi knows the power of symbolism and an Islamophobic campaign. He has also sustained it well, targeting his vote bank," Ahmedabad-based Congress leader Ilyas Qureshi told UCA News.

BJP leaders and supporters say the criticism against the recent joint action of defense forces to encourage corona warriors shows the opposition's poverty of ideas and lack of understanding.

"It is the right time to lift morale," said Modi supporter and retired army general G.D Bakshi in a television debate.

"Military men like me fully understand the importance of morale ... the psychological strength in the face of wounds, disease and deaths. Please do not underestimate the psychosomatic aspects," he said.

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