India’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has mounted a lavish three-week birthday bash for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who turned 71 on September 17.
The festivities include “thank you” postcards from citizens, vaccination drives, cleanliness and environmental campaigns, and Hindu ceremonies to pray for his long life. The celebrations, which will also mark Modi’s 20 years in public office, will culminate on October 7, the day in 2001 when he was sworn in as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.
Over 140 million food packets with Modi’s photograph emblazoned on them will be distributed to the poor. Some 50 million “thank you” postcards will also be sent to him from party workers as an acknowledgement of his “service” to the country. Hoardings and posters will reinforce the prime minister’s “effective” leadership.
Also on the agenda are token efforts to “clean” the holy Ganges River, which, despite India’s various bids to clean the river over the past 40 years, involving millions of dollars, still remains one of the world’s most polluted.
The BJP has dubbed these drives “Sewa Aur Samarpan Abhiyan,” or a campaign to “service and dedication.” “The idea is to pay a tribute to Prime Minister Modi; thank him for his contribution to the country and highlight the key moments of his career from a party worker to CM and then the country’s PM,” said Ram Kishore, a BJP worker from Noida, Uttar Pradesh.
A 2.4-meter-long portrait of Modi crafted using food grains as well as another giant sand sculpture with seashells have been made by artists hired by the party. Thousands of Modi’s supporters also lit 71,000 earthen lamps to pray for his long life. There was also a 71-foot-long cake, shaped like a COVID-19 vaccine syringe, with the words “Thanks to Modiji for Namo Tikka” — tikka is Hindi for vaccine — scrawled on top.
The BJP has also instructed all workers to host exhibitions on the prime minister’s life and achievements at every district office. A specially launched NaMo (an abbreviation of the PM’s name) app will relay a virtual version of his birthday celebrations.
As a part of the bash, India’s Ministry of Culture has announced an auction of over 1,000 items – all gifts given to the Indian leader, including sporting equipment from Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic medal winners. The money from the sale, which is open from September 17 to October 7, will be funneled into the Namami Gange Mission, aimed at conserving and rejuvenating the Ganges River.
“It is quite a spectacle and we have not seen anything on this scale before in India. It’s akin to a monarchical tribute reserved for royalty or maybe dictators like Kim Jong Un of North Korea,” said Dr. Jagdish Pandey, a professor of sociology at Delhi University. “It is ostensibly an image building exercise to boost the PM’s image but amounts to a personality cult hitherto unseen in contemporary Indian politics.”
To counter the BJP’s extravaganza, critics have lashed out at Modi, pointing out how such festivities are at odds in a country assailed by divisive politics, rising fundamentalism, crime against women, and a flailing economy. Some also used trending hashtags on Twitter to draw attention to the government’s other shortcomings, including a mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, which has killed more than 440,000 people in India. The country was ravaged by the pandemic between March and June, when millions were infected as the country’s fragile health care system collapsed under a severe shortage of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders.
Members of the Congress party – the BJP’s principal opposition – put out a series of tweets urging people to mark the prime minister’s birthday as “National Unemployment Day.”
“What a shameful happy birthday for Indian Prime-minister Modi. The whole of India is wishing him #NationalUnemploymentDay,” the Congress’ youth wing chief, Srinivas BV, wrote in a series of tweets lambasting the government on joblessness, slow growth, and fuel prices.
However, many feel Modi’s detractors are in a minority against his supporters, who count on him to pull in the crowds with his passionate oratory and “charismatic personality.” A right-wing Hindu nationalist, Modi is counted among independent India’s most powerful and popular leaders, whose image as a strong leader has helped him win two elections in the world’s largest democracy of 1.4 billion people.
Born Narendra Damodardas Modi in 1950 in Gujarat state’s Vadnagar district, Modi had a humble upbringing, with his father running a tea stall at a local railway station. He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the hardline arm of the BJP, in the 1980s as a party worker and rose through the ranks to increasingly take on more positions of responsibility. In 2001, he became Gujarat’s chief minister, a post he held for nearly 13 years.
His ambition to become the prime minister was fulfilled when in 2013 the party announced him as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections despite allegations that he fueled an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister.
However, analysts say that his tenure since 2014 has been at best a mixed bag. He profits from a fractious and weak opposition and the paucity of strong regional leaders who can take him on as a prime ministerial opponent.
Be that as it may, there’s also an undercurrent of fear within the BJP camp that the government’s terrible handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising discontent over many of its economic missteps – including demonetization and the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax that wiped out thousands of small traders – may have eroded the prime minister’s political ratings. And so, with elections in six Indian states looming on the horizon, what better occasion to boost the Modi brand?
The most important of these election states is in Uttar Pradesh, ruled by hardline Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a close colleague of Modi’s. Also the country’s most populous state, UP sends the most parliamentarians (80) of any state to India’s lower house (Lok Sabha), which has 543 seats.
Given the high stakes in the upcoming elections, Yogi has launched a publicity blitzkrieg to reinforce his image as a good administrator. His government has invested millions in full page ads in print and TV media to advertise his “successful” tenure under the leadership of Modi.
“If Yogi manages to pull off a resounding win in his state, it will cement BJP’s position in the run up to the 2024 general elections and make Modi’s task easier,” said Pandey.