Performances from the Red Fort


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constant efforts to undermine Democracy and instate himself as an absolute leader

Four years ago when Narendra Modi became the prime minister of India, he entered the parliament with unprecedented pomp and show. The propaganda that worked day and night prior to him becoming the Prime Minister, concentrated on the portrayal of economic development of Gujarat and equating Gujarati asmita to his own identity.

His key strategy has been the preference of addressing large gatherings over a debate or television interviews, therein reducing the chances of having to be accountable as a prime minister of the nation. In fact his dictatorial functioning is now, being criticised amongst his own party leaders.

I attempt here to analyse Modi’s Independence Day addresses, post 2014 general elections, as prime minister of the nation, specifically studying the impact of the political rhetoric therein. His speeches have been regarded as powerful oratory performances where his audience remained convinced of his tropes of development and progress. It is my attempt to demonstrate that language and its use in political speeches determine, not only the purpose but also, the intention of the speaker to convey the nuances of his aspiration as an absolute leader.

A common feature in all his Independence Day speeches, when he addressed the nation from the Red fort, is his references in Hindi about the political sanctity of the space he is standing on. As a member of Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which believes in good oratory skills to propagate its ideology, Modi uses the language and switching of codes to his benefit. He speaks in sanskritic Hindi, the preferred language of RSS, but switches to English, when he wants to convey certain messages to the urban and semi-urban middle-class youth, which assures his popularity amongst the same.

Language Performance

Narendra Modi’s four addresses to the nation after becoming the prime minister, are also his projection of self and the idea of nation embedded in the right-wing Hindutva ideology. His carefully crafted image of ‘chappan inch ki chaati’, a sign of his manliness and strength to lead the nation and choice of clothes, where his penchant for brands like Bvlgari are also the middle-class aspirations of upward mobility. The choice of colours of his turban from yellows, pinks and peaches, define his assertion of Indian values and aspirational dressing. More than two decades after the economic liberalisation in India, he is an inspirational figure for Indian middle classes, who are enamoured by his success story which is carefully crafted by himself – from chaiwallah (Tea-seller) to Prime Minister.

In his first Independence Day speech in Aug 2014, he started with the assertion and insistence of calling himself Pradhan Sevak not Pradhan Mantri, he insisted that he is the servant of the People. He went on to talk about the nature and character of this nation by invoking ideas of ‘ancient Hindu India’ which according to him has been shaped my Rishi-Munis. In doing so, he attempted strengthening and glorifying the idea of a mythical ‘golden past’ that was eroded by various invasions by “outsiders” which has to be recreated in order to “..make India great again!..”. This invocation of a halyconic past of India has become a regularly recurring trope, borrowed from the 19th century reform movements of Hinduism and is successfully used to re-create a mythical past of Hindu valour and spirituality. He does this in Sanskritic Hindi; a language promoted by the RSS and in doing so, is clearly addressing his voters who already believe in his ideology and leaving many citizens, from the religious minority, Dalits and socially marginalised communities out of this discourse. He reaffirms his image of a successful man from a lower middle class, by mentioning his humble background and the fact that he has reached where he has by sheer hard work and honesty. Again, the qualities that are admired and edorsed by the middle classes to achieve social and economic upward mobility, who are often against the social justice policies of reservation.

In his later addresses of 2015, 2016 and 2017, he consistently started his speeches in the Hindi where he stressed upon the unity and integrity of the nation. He proclaimed, Ek Bharat Shreshth Bharat – One India Great India, thereby subtly negating the idea of cutltural, religious and ethnic diversity and in doing so once again promoting the ideology of Akhand Bharat which is Sangh parivar’s ultimate goal. In these speeches, again, a switch to English is made when he claimed to be an “outsider” in Delhi. Here he cleverly used the word outsider for himself who does not understand the workings of an elite political class which provides him the closeness to the common people of the country. At the same he is addressing the middle class younger generation of the society which has been exposed to English as the lanuage of modernity and progress and mixes codes comfortably to assert themselves in the new India.

In his addresses in the years 2016 and 2017  his code switching and liberal use of English words and phrases continues whenever he needs to address the service class, middle class and young entrepreneurs. Electronic goods import, digital India, team India, corruption, value addition and foreign direct investments are the few topics he chose to address this middle class directly. The use of language is carefully thought and applied by him to make maximum impact on the audience. While mixing codes he is constantly appeasing the middle class through several references of commitment to their issues like Real Estate Bill and OROP (One Rank One Pension) for the Armed forces. He uses catchy phrases like – One Nation, One Grid, One Price (while referring to the electricity supply) to allure this class and reach out to them through the promises of economic growth and a decisive position as a nation in the World Economic forum. This successful use of code-switching and the performance around it creates an illusion of concern and integrity, which is in turn used by him to popularise himself as a leader of the nation.

Virility and Rhetoric

During his first Independence Day address he began with repeated positioning of himself as Pradhan Sevak, some one who has been elected to serve the nation. The nationalist rhetoric is something that has remained potent in all his speeches in the following years. The repetetion of –Bhrashtachar Khatam Kiya ki Nahi (Did I not end corruption, three times and applause thereafter by the school children sitting in the audience is overtly staged. But for his audience who watched this on televsion, had a trememndous impact. He clearly understands the effects of telecasted speeches and his performance has remained as much, if not more, for the camera as for the audience present at the Red Fort. The middle class obessesion with corruption as the only problem faced by a developing nation is well understood by him, when he kept repeating this trope of Bhrashtachar khatam again and again. It will be interesting to see how will he address corruption this year when his government is already under the cloud of the controversial Rafale deal.

Barbara Spackman in her book- Fascist Virilities states, how the question of the relation between rhetoric and fascism is answered in a circular way, where fascism has no fixed ideology, but is instead a sheer rhetoric- by which is meant empty, insincere speech. It stands true in case of Modi’s own party- BJP, which orchestrates different stands on consumption of beef in different states of India. His silence on lynchings of Muslims based on the rumours of beef consumption also a marker of  his unwillingness to condemn the same.  Speaking of virility, the emphasis on the physicality of a leader has never been so much a matter of dialogue as it has been in the case of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His 56-inch chest pomposity was literally taken as the sign of a strong leader and a strong nation. As he had earlier carefully and craftily manoeuvred his identity with the state of Gujarat, now the same has been achieved with the identity of the nation. In a fascist discourse a strong leader is the symbol of the strong nation. Again, Spackman stresses upon how the obsession with virility is one of the distinctive traits of fascist discourse, a common place that is sometimes psychologised, sometimes simply taken for granted as a sort of linguistic. In all four addresses from the Red fort, he has consistently harped about the hard work and dedication he possesses and his commitment towards the progress of the nation. His vigour and stamina are always the topic of discussion amongst the middle classes in India and diaspora abroad. Quoting from the Fascist Virilities by Spackman again, it is interesting to note how the lights left burning late into the night in his Piazza Venezia office signalled not only devotion to Mussolini’s “duties” but also his vigour and stamina.

In his 2015 and 2016 addresses, he has questioned again by mixing codes- Dignity of women kya hamari zimmedari nahin hai? – Isn’t the dignity of women our responsibility? This question is posed to the men at different occasion, like building toilets in the villages and again when he referred to the increase in violence against women. The concern for women is a strategy to fit into the image of a modern, virile and yet sensitive man, one who can protect women. An alternative reading of Mussolini’s virile display might suggest that his public speeches addressed to women were designed less to persuade women to do voluntarily what his less flamboyant decrees coerced them to do than to demonstrate one aspect of his virility to quite another addressee: other men.

Trope of Purusharth (Masculinity) Today:

Today when Mr Modi, addressed the nation from the Red Fort, the empty rhetoric and show of masculinity was visibly more pronounced than last four years. He kept harping on his achievements and dismal conditions of government offices prior to 2014.

If the word ‘freedom’ somehow finds itself on Modi’s tongue tomorrow, then the word ‘Dalit’ is sure to find a place of pride in his address. The word ‘Adivasi’ may also be spoken. And because it is an election year, a new definition of development through reservation may come into being.

One realises that on August 15, the word ‘freedom’ undoubtedly infuses citizens with a pulsating energy. The evocation of patriotism/nationalism and moreover the sacrifice of the armed forces in maintaining the integrity of the territorial borders has been part of Independence Day address through the decades. Under the present dispensation, the country witnessed and understood the import of the ‘surgical strikes’ carried out in peacetime as well as the political uproar that followed it. Against this backdrop, the country is waiting to see what shade of nationalism Modi foregrounds from the ramparts of the Red Fort tomorrow by attacking the idea of secularism that the opposition speaks of.

Words Like ‘freedom’, ‘Dalit’ and ‘Adivasi’ found themselves in his self-congratulatory oratory performance. Since it is less than a year for general elections, there were several references to development that has taken place supposedly at an unprecedented speed. It is a fact that on August 15, the word ‘freedom’ instills citizens with an effervescent enthusiasm, and these tropes have been used by all the prior governments and their prime ministers while addressing the nation from the Red Fort. But in absence basic democratic rights in the country and lynchings that have become our everyday word of usage, his speech re-confirmed what it has been for last four years-  A Performance!

He said he is dedicated to SamajikNyay (social justice), reservations and Dalits, which sounded so empty, that our prime minister is soon becoming a caricature of himself. When four judges of Supreme Court four senior judges of the Supreme Court havecome forward publicly to say that Indian democracy is under siege, the supreme court on several occasions has questioned the delay by central government to appoint a Lokpal, which he and his government have sidelined for four years and mob violence has become a quotidian experience in the largest democracy that the Supreme Court was compelled to condemn acts of lynching and issued directives to deal with the same.

With this backdrop prime minister Modi decided to collude all the facts and resort to a narcissistic display of his achievements, as usual switching codes while speaking, addressing issues like OROP, GST, ‘ease of doing business’ and so on. His toxic virility had reached new heights with him harping about ‘his’ achievements for an hour and half. His empty rhetoric directed at the middle-class youth of ‘reform, perform, transform’ was more of his own performance of masculinity from the Red fort.

At the same time, one must realise that his language performance, rhetoric, and display of a virile image is a fascist deal wrapped in the attractive package of development. His oratory enactment is cleverly presented to steer the audience away from the facts and figures, which a statistical survey might give. His theatrics will work as long as the citizenry is kept away from the real economical and developmental issues such as job creation and divisive politics, which is being regularly harnessed by the so-called fringe elements of the SanghParivar.

Rutuja Deshmukh Wakankar is currently pursuing Masters in South Asian Area Studies at SOAS London. She is a former journalist with Indian Express. She has taught Cinema Studies at Allahabad University.


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