`The show goes on’ – is a popular saying. The shows conducted by our Prime Minister – whether in public space or within Parliament – are excellent illustrations of his versatility as an `artiste’ (the term used to describe talented professional singers, dancers and other performers). His recent tearful performance on the floors of Parliament , on the occasion of bidding farewell to Ghulam Nabi Azad (the Congress leader from the Opposition) was a `tour de force.’ It won over the Kashmiri Congress veteran to such an extent that he also joined the chorus by wiping his eyes, and claiming that he was proud to be a patriotic Indian Muslim ! Taken in by Modi’s performance, Azad forgot that it was this same person who had deprived his own people in Kashmir of their rights by his arbitrary abrogation of constitutional guarantees.

Watching Narendra Modi’s successful career as a political artiste, I remember a story about another artiste – an old stand-up comedian of Calcutta in the 1950s. In his performances, he used to sing songs in the `vilambit laya’, (at a slow tempo), but winked at his accompanists, the `tabalchis’ (drum players) to beat at the `droot taala’ (fast tempo). This created a confusion of sorts among his listeners, not knowing which tune to follow – but made the comedian laugh up his sleeve at their bewilderment. Is Narendra Modi having the last laugh at the expense of his audience, a confused lot ? Or, is his audience waking up from their confusion and beginning to have their last laugh ?

Some months ago, Narendra Modi demonstrated his talents, like the above-mentioned stand-up comedian, by delivering two speeches – one at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on December 22 last year, the second at Vishva Bharati University two days later . While reading his two speeches, I could not but help admiring his attempts at inventiveness – and keeping the minds of his listeners in a state of suspension of disbelief.

Modi’s speech at Aligarh Muslim University

Let me first examine the tone and contents of the two speeches, and the context in which they were delivered. To start with his Aligarh address, here is one quote from it: “…Aligarh Muslim University has shaped millions of lives, giving them modern and scientific thinking and inspiring them to do something for the society and the nation…” When reading it, I scratched my head and wondered whether I had read it correct. Did Modi’s speech- writer make a mistake, forgetting that the Modi-appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath right at that time was unleashing a reign of terror on the students of that very university, condemning them as terrorists ? I however continued reading, and then came across this sentence: “ …no citizen would be left behind because of their religion and everyone would get equal opportunities so that everyone can fulfil their dreams…” He made this promise just at the time when his party’s government in UP was hounding Muslim young men who married Hindu women (both wanting to “fulfil their dreams”), on the dubious charge of `forcible conversion’ to another religion ! What am I expected to make out of this dichotomy between prime minister Modi’s flaunting assurances about “equal opportunities” on the one hand, and the ground reality in Uttar Pradesh on the other, where the young Muslim male members of his audience are being denied “equal opportunities” (to choose and marry their Hindu women friends) ?

Was Narendra Modi in AMU, performing a role in a burlesque ? He delivered his speech in the `bilambit laya’ of slow tempo preaching peace and harmony on the stage, while behind the scenes he was, for all that one knows, winking at his RSS-Bajrang Dal followers in UP, allowing them to continue beating the fast tempo of `droot-laya’ on their drums of hatred, that can fast mobilize gangs of Hindutva fanatics to lynch Muslims on charges of cow slaughter and inter-faith marriages, to rape and murder Dalit women and assault human rights activists who dare to question the misdeeds of the UP chief minister, who enjoys the prime minister’s patronage and protection . So, at the end of Narendra Modi’s performance at AMU, I was left wondering – may be he should have chosen the role of a a stand up comedian, which would have gained him more popularity , instead of occupying the post of a prime minister, which has landed him now in unpopular sticky situations – like losing battles with China in Ladakh, and with farmers in Delhi ?

Modi’s speech at Vishva Bharati University

On the eve of the centenary of Vishva Bharati University in Shantiniketan in Bengal, Narendra Modi delivered (virtually from the capital) an address on December 24 last year. In an attempt to connect with Bengal’s religio-cultural history, he recalled in his speech the tradition of the Bhakti movement, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda – and of course, punctuated his address with the obligatory quotations from Rabindranath Tagore !
There is however a problem with Modi’s speech , whoever scripted it. His speech-writer Hinduized the Bhakti movement in Bengal . On the contrary, if we look back at the history of the movement, we find that it was developing into a syncretistic amalgamation of both Vaishnavite and Islamist Sufi beliefs, and embraced the Dalits in its folds too. It gave birth to a rich crop of songs that urged people to rise above religious, caste and gender barriers. Leading among the Bengali folk poets (known as Bauls and Fakirs) who composed these songs were Lalan Fakir (1774-1890), who all through his life refused to catergorize himself as a Muslim or a Hindu , and Balaram Harhi from the so-called `untouchable castes,’ (as evident from his surname, which was used for those engaged in the occupation of scavenging) who founded the `Balarami’ sect, whose members openly demonstrated their defiance of Brahmin orthodoxy. To give an example of their courage to lampoon the divisive and irrational rituals imposed by both the orthodox Hindu clergy and the Muslim mollahs, let me quote this funny song of Lalan Fakir’s, posing two innocently sounding queries, which is even today popular in the Bengali countryside:

“Chhunnat diley hoy Musalman/ Narir tobey ki hoy Bidhan ?/Bamun chini payiteye proman/Bamuni chini ki prokarey ?”

(A Muslim man can be identified by the sign of circumcision. But what is the rule by which we can identify a Muslim woman ? One can recognize a Brahmin man by the sacred thread that he wears. But how can we recognize a Brahmin woman ?). In a similar vein, another contemporary Baul poet Pagla Kanai, in a song , described Hindus and Muslims as children of one father with the same blood running through their veins, although may be carrying separate identification marks , and then lamented:

“Why then are you brothers fighting among yourselves, and going to the dogs ?”

Quite predictably, while delivering his Vishva Bharati address, Modi ignored this syncretic tradition of the Bengali Bhakti movement that challenged the religious orthodoxy of both the Hindu mohants and the Muslim mollahs. His speech-writer knew well that evocation of that tradition would go against the dictates of Modi’s political parent, the Sangh Parivar, which is today bent on reviving and reinforcing those very divisive practices , rituals and prejudices , against which the Baul and Fakir folk singers rebelled. These songs of peaceful melody and messages from the past, sound jarring today to Modi’s ears, which are attuned to the shrill voices of `love-jihad.’

Let us see how Modi carried off as a performer in Vishva Bharati. In the course of his address, he quoted (as prompted by his speech-writer) a few lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem: “Orey Grihabashi, khol dwar khol, ….” (Dear householders, open your doors…). His speech-writer probably wanted his audience to open their doors to listen to Modi’s speeches.

Ironically enough, Modi himself has refused to open his political doors to listen to the complaints of the Muslims and Dalits who are being harassed by his followers ? Or, to the demands of the farmers who after months of patient peaceful sit-in on the borders of the national capital, marched into Delhi on Republic Day to make their voices heard ? Instead of following the tune of Rabindranath’s song, Modi prefers to perform in a burlesque show – posing in various postures and singing in different tunes to appeal to his audience – as a perfect artiste.

Narendra Modi’s political upbringing and performances

It is not surprising that Narendra Modi would keep his doors shut to the Hindu-Mulim harmonious syncretic tradition of the past, and to the voices of protest in the present. He was brought up on a tradition that was totally different from the liberal environs of Vishva Bharati or Aligarh university – however much he may pretend to laud them in his performaces. He still remains faithful to the lessons of strict adherence to the beliefs and norms of a divisive and violent Hindutva, that he learnt in a guru-shishya parampara tradition of an RSS outfit when he was a boy. In fact, Modi’s doors had been shut from the beginning. The religio-political nursery of Hindutva within which Narendra Modi grew up and was nurtured, was structured by the architects and carpenters of the RSS. They made it sure that the doors and windows remained shut from the winds of those songs of the Bhakti-Sufi tradition which expressed voices of sanity and rationality, that came up some hundreds years ago in a society that was more tolerant and civilized than what Modi has created today .

During his youth, his mind and voice came to be shaped by the same outfit, which trained him in lecturing at BJP political rallies in Gujarat. Later, he was found to fit the bill by the Nagpur RSS headquarters – and was nominated the chief minister of Gujarat, where he faithfully carried out the RSS agenda by presiding over the massacre of Muslims in his state in 2002. His upbringing and education according to the syllabus of Hindutva, have shaped his record as a prime minister, which had seen the worst communal and caste-based atrocities on Muslims and Dalits in India during the 2020s under his regime. The invitation to such a man to address the Vishva Bharati University sounds as incongruous as inviting Donald Trump to address Oxford University.

After being promoted to the position of a Prime Minister, recognized as a dyed-in-the-wool Hindutva devotee by the Sangh Parivar, Narendra Modi found to his chagrin that running India was not an easy job as governing his fiefdom in Gujarat during his chief ministership there. He therefore resorted to the usual gambit that he is an expert in – the role of a shouting performer. He introduced the drama of `demonetization,’ promising the audience to fulfil their dream of the return of black money. His next act was urging the citizens to beat cymbals to beat off the Covid pandemic. For a while, the magical performer held the Indian audience mesmerized, and kept the electorate suspend their disbelief in the false slogans and promises that he announced – whether demonetization or GST – to enable him to return to the stage for the second term. But when he realized that these performances of his were no longer popular, he abruptly brought the curtains down by imposing a lockdown . India is yet to recover from the chaos that followed.

Is the audience booing at an ageing artiste ?

But then, how long can Narendra Modi continue with his style of performing – the weekly `Maan ki Baat’ exhortations, the tear-jerking speeches in Parliament, and the provocative speeches in public rallies ? The farmers’ agitation is posing a challenge to his hitherto successful role as an artiste. He is still to find a new style of performance that will soothe the angry farmers. True to his role as a double faced performer – he wooed the aggrieved farmers by inviting them to enter the capital (to the sweet tunes of the `vilambit laya’ of slow tempo), and then followed it up by directing his police and party’s goons to beat the drums (at the fast tempo of `droot taala ’ ), to resist the farmers’ entry into the agreed upon routes , where the police set up barricades leading to confrontations with the tractor-driven protesting farmers.

The facts about the happenings in Delhi on January 26 are yet to be fully ascertained and should be investigated into by an independent commission headed by a judge – a demand made by many. There is a suspicion in the minds of the agitating farmers that the BJP planted its agents-provocateurs in their midst, who raided Red Fort and hoisted a religious flag to defame their movement. Their suspicion is well-based, since the person accused of the act – Deep Sidhu, an actor-turned-political activist – was seen till recently campaigning on behalf of a BJP candidate during elections. Under pressures from social activists who released CCTV footages that showed Sidhu raiding Red Fort, the Delhi police have arrested Sidhu. It is yet to be seen how the Union Home Minister Amit Shah (who presides over the Delhi police) rescues his party’s one-time protégé.

Meanwhile, how is Narendra Modi going to reinforce his role as a performing artiste ? His audience seems to be getting increasingly disenchanted with his old theatrical `mudras,’ as evident from the mass upsurge of the farmers. Other discontented sections of the people who are still silent, may break out into protests. Is his image as a political artiste wilting under these pressures ? How will he reinvent himself in yet another role as a performer during the next three years to win over the audience in 2024 ?

Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).


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