BJP candidate Pragya Singh Thakur, at a campaign rally in Bhopal, on April 26, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Elections 2019: Did Modi Use Akshay Kumar To Neutralise Political Frankenstein(s)?

BloombergQuintOpinion

I am still reeling from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s iconic, monumental (no, HE is not going to be happy with only two bombastic adjectives, so here goes a third), and ‘path-breaking’ interview to Twinkle’s hubby. While everybody is scratching their heads over the ‘big why’, I think I’ve got it figured out. It was a clever (synonymously, also desperate) ploy to wrest the initiative back from the hotheads in his party.

Elections 2019: Did Modi Use Akshay Kumar To Neutralise Political Frankenstein(s)?

But if the prime minister had read Mary Shelley’s 18th-century masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (“I used to read so many books at the village library”, Modi told the star struck Twinkle-hubby), he need not have done this embarrassing cameo. As per Wikipedia, it’s “the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a hideous, sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment”; but the monster murders Victor’s wife Elizabeth and brother William. Ever since then, ‘Frankenstein’ has become a noun in English, describing a creature that turns violently upon its own creator.

Now to the billion-vote question: when and how did Modi lose the narrative to his political Frankenstein(s)? Let’s begin at the beginning…

When his re-election campaign started early this year, Modi was pitching the classical fifty:fifty stump speech.

Jingoism/Pakistan/terrorism/‘traitorous’-Nehru were equally balanced against a ‘thriving’ economy and cheering youth/poor/farmers. But his post-truth budget, which fudged the deficit by nearly two percentage points, and a sputtering economy gave away the latter lie.

I mean, you can’t fool all the people all the time when investments and farm incomes have hit a 14-year low, youth employment is at a 45-year low, foreign direct investment as a percentage of GDP is at a decadal low, real interest rates are sky high, manufacturing and auto growth are plummeting… Ouch! I shall stop now.
The Pulwama tragedy and Balakot air strikes came as a life-saving bolt from the blue. Modi’s sagging approval ratings soared by over fifteen percentage points.
People raising slogans during a march after the Pulwama terror attack, in Jaipur, on Feb. 16, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
People raising slogans during a march after the Pulwama terror attack, in Jaipur, on Feb. 16, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Elections 2019: Balakot As ‘Kargil 2.0’ Re-Election Strategy? No, Modi Sir, No

The self-avowed chaiwala (tea-seller) shrewdly read the tea-leaves: just junk the economy and amp up the jingoism to lethal levels.

Modi’s scriptwriters screened Sholay, and he picked up Veeru-talk (I shall give the gist): Modi aantakiyon ko unkay Pakistani ghar mein ghus kar unkay haath kat dega (Modi will strike deep inside Pakistan and cut the hands of terrorists hidden there). Modi nay yeh parmanu astra Diwali main patakhey chalaanay kay liye nahin banaye hain. Ab Pakistan Modi ko nuclear bomb say nahin dara sakta hai (India’s nuclear arsenal is not like harmless Diwali firecrackers. Modi will not hesitate to drop an atom bomb because Pakistan’s nukes don’t scare Modi).

But Then Came Congress’ Manifesto Surprise…

For a while, it seemed that Modi had shoved his opposition into a nuclear winter. But then, just as some of the tough talk was wearying out, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress sprang its manifesto surprise. Unlike the tired clichés of yore, here was a document sprinkled with fresh, bold, liberal and politically risky ideas. Its minimum income programme, NYAY (Justice), promised an unconditional Rs 40 every day to 25 crore Indians living below the poverty line (Rs 72,000 per average family of five per annum). If implemented successfully, it could become the swiftest lift-up of the poor anywhere on our globe, even bigger than China’s celebrated achievement.

Elections 2019: Did Modi Use Akshay Kumar To Neutralise Political Frankenstein(s)?

Also read: Elections 2019: Five Takeaways As Modi-Rahul Square Off At ‘Interval’

But the manifesto did not stop there. It fearlessly espoused some long-forgotten and ‘impossible’ reforms. It promised to amend AFSPA in the middle of raucous jingo-talk. It committed to decriminalising defamation and erasing the truly draconian sedition law written by our colonial masters.

Many well-wishers warned that this had recklessly exposed Congress’ flanks to an aggressive Modi, who called it a dhakosala (tissue of lies) manifesto. Others said it would “balkanise” India; some went over the top, saying “it’s written in Pakistan”; the ultimate jibe was a “manifesto celebrated by terrorists”.
Such an exaggerated criticism only betrayed the BJP’s panic. 

The Congress had broken the status-quo, gotten out of its 'politically safe' cocoon, and dared to take the socio-legal reform bull by its horns. Every liberal in the land (sorry BJP, however much you may wish it otherwise, over 60 percent of India had rejected your majoritarian, illiberal politics, even in the 2014 Modi wave) applauded and the buzz was growing louder.

Prime Minister Modi Was Now Scratching Around For A Counter-Move…

Modi let fly this time, unrestrained. His scriptwriters must have shown him a couple of Ramsay brothers’ horror films (Sholay is a pleasant walk in the park, by comparison). And before you could say Purani Haveli (old mansion), Prime Minister Modi had crafted his scariest dialogue to date. Speaking in Gujarat (where else), he said, menacingly, that the Americans had warned Pakistan – if Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was not returned to India, Modi would unleash a “qatl ki raat” (night of murder, mayhem and/or bloodshed).

It’s exactly at this time that Modi also made a Frankenstein-ian blunder. He trotted out a terrorism-charged Pragya Singh Thakur as the BJP’s parliamentary candidate from Bhopal. She neither had a ‘prime ministerial boundary’ to confine her, nor any sense of political propriety. She was a loose weapon of mass destruction.

Pragya Thakur demolished Modi’s carefully honed pro-martyr image by saying “my curse killed Hemant Karkare in the 26/11 Mumbai attack”. Karkare enjoys the highest honour in Indian martyrs’ hall of fame.

People stage a protest to condemn  Pragya Singh Thakur’s comments against martyred police officer  Hemant Karkare, in Mumbai, on April 20, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
People stage a protest to condemn Pragya Singh Thakur’s comments against martyred police officer Hemant Karkare, in Mumbai, on April 20, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Modi and the BJP were too dumbstruck to respond to their darling favourite’s hate-speech. They had barely recovered, when the 'righteous' lady let go again, claiming she had climbed the Babri Masjid dome to demolish it in 1992. It was an astounding confession of criminality by the 'chosen one'. Remember, BJP’s founder, LK Advani, being prosecuted for a criminal conspiracy, had called it the “saddest day of my life”. And yet here was the new lodestar of majoritarian Hindutva virtually showing the middle finger.

Suddenly, it was open season all around. One guy said I will cut off Rahul Gandhi’s hands; another said strap him on bombs; yet another said, “not any bomb but the one which struck Balakot”. Those who spat these words were not the loony fringe, but state chiefs, senior ministers and even a chief minister. This kind of hate speech, an open invocation to maim and kill, is punishable under India’s criminal law.

The furore was so deafening that, unthinkably, the prime minister was pushed off the front pages of dailies and the primetime shows of screaming television channels.

Modi Had The Political Smarts To Understand That He Was Losing Control Of Frankenstein(s) …

He also understood that he could not match these loonies in spewing hate. After all, he had prime ministerial boundaries to worry about, while these were ‘free radicals’. He had to put a stop to this venomous ratchet, or at least take it out of the national narrative (worse stuff was happening locally, but that was fine and dandy).

So, there he was, the perfect neutraliser. A bhakt (religious-political fan), superstar, heartthrob of young women and macho men in the 18-45 age bracket. Akshay Kumar was just perfect!

Have you noticed how, after the choreographed Akshay interview, Prime Minister Modi has rapidly done many more photo-ops where he is smiling, genially guffawing, touching feet, showing off his soft side, coming across as your regular cool/good guy? Got it?

PM Narendra Modi bows before Parkash Singh Badal, in Varanasi. (Photograph: PTI)
PM Narendra Modi bows before Parkash Singh Badal, in Varanasi. (Photograph: PTI)

PS: I am surprised he has not yet done a televised roadshow to see Avengers.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.