The COVID-19 Crisis and the Cult of Narendra Modi

Trinanjan Chakraborty

There is a very iconic photograph of London during the early years of the 2nd World War. It shows few English gentlemen looking through books in a library ravaged by German bombing. As inspiring as it looks, the reality is that the whole image was stage managed on the orders of the redoubtable Winston Churchill. The British Prime Minister had realized the importance of symbolism in the face of adversity. This was the time when the German 3rd Reich was steamrolling Europe and the bombers of the Luftwaffe were terrorising the British Isles. To boost sagging public morale, Churchill conceptualized this image – symbolizing the sturdiness of the English character.

The above is but one of many instances of authoritarian leaders using adverse situations for the country or population at large to benefit personally in terms of boost in image and prospects. The rise of Adolf Hitler can be traced back to the humiliation meted out to Germany at the end of the Great War (1914-1918) and Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans felt humiliated by the terms of this treaty – this latent discontent and anger was exploited by the Nazi party to storm to power and bring Europe to the brink of destruction. In more modern times also, several such instances abound. One of the classic examples is that of Victor Orban – president of Hungary since 2010. Orban and his Fidesz Party stormed to power using the global financial crisis of 2008, capitalizing on the active discontent among Hungarian public with the then ruling socialist regime. Similarly, American billionaire Donald Trump played on the illegal immigrant crisis and the rampant islamophobia among Americans post 9/11 to script an unlikely Presidential victory four years ago.

Today, for the first time in almost a century, the world is facing a truly global epidemic. Advancements in medical science had possibly lulled the human race into a false sense of security. Yet the novel coronavirus (SARS-COVID 2) is raging like a wildfire across the globe. Close to 9 lakhs are infected across the globe while the death tally has now crossed 43,000. India got it’s first covid19 (as the disease is formally termed by WHO) on the 31st of January, 2020 in the form of arrival from China – the origin of the virus. Through February and early March, it didn’t appear that India was in the throes of crisis – as recent as 14th March, number of active cases of covid19 in India stood at 84 as per official estimates.

However, the flow of the coronavirus narrative in India took a dramatic turn with the announcement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi coming on air live at 8 pm on 19th March to address the nation. For many, it revived memories of a November evening not long ago, when in a similar address, the prime minister had announced the demonetization of 500 and 1000 denomination notes. The jury is still out on the success of that move. In the event, Modi’s speech was less dramatic. He asked his countrymen to observe a 14-hour voluntary stay at home the coming Sunday (22nd March) and at 5 pm, clap or bang utensils for 5 minutes to show solidarity and support to medical personnel fighting the deadly diseases. In one instant, coronavirus became the talk of the nation. Most dissected and debated was Modi’s plea for 5-minute appreciation through clapping and banging utensils. It was neither novel nor unique – already several European countries like Italy and Spain had seen a similar thing happening, although not on an elected government’s appeal. But instead of discussing the country’s preparedness to tackle this epidemic, the whole nation went into debating the merits of the 5-minute appreciation plan. And come the anointed hour, an amazing sight was observed – one man’s appeal got practically the whole nation to come out on their balconies and terraces and bang utensils like they had never done before. It is another matter altogether that many forgot the diktat to stay at home and came out with processions on the street – thus increasing the risk of infection. The only comparable phenomenon is the scenes usually observed when Indian cricket team wins the world cup. A nation divided for eons by religion, caste, sect, class, language, food habits, income and what not was suddenly brought to one common tune. From the watchman guarding your house to the mightiest superstar of Bollywood, from the glamorous first couple of Indian cricket to the humble vendor on the street – for 5 minutes it is as if the nation forgot it was staring at the onset of a deadly epidemic. Somewhat akin to the English gentlemen calmly perusing books forgetting the danger of getting bombed to oblivion. In essence, the power of the cult of Modi was on full display. In the words of Professor Makarand Paranjpe, Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study – “When it comes to the pandemic, he (Modi) made us feel that we can win against it. He rose to the occasion to be greater than the pandemic. This no other world leader, from Donald Trump to Xi Jinping, has quite managed to do”

Narendra Damodardas Modi assumed the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014. In eerie similarities to the rise of Victor Orban, Narendra Modi and BJP’s dramatic victory was based on promises of ending the ills of corruption, mismanagement and policy paralysis that was made out to be a hallmark of the previous Congress led government that was in power for a decade. But most importantly, the BJP and its spiritual guide organization RSS played on an age old Indian cultural trait – the love for icons. Since time immemorial, India has always loved and needed an icon. This is widespread across all facets of life in the country – from politics to sports to our films – we love our icons. The BJP rightly calculated that give the Indian public an icon who is believable and they will follow him en masse without question. Narendra Modi emerged as that icon. A narrative was carefully woven that everything wrong in the country can be attributed to rule of the Congress party – which was in power nearly 80% of the time the nation had spent as an independent country. And the only redressal to all these was one man – the icon Narendra Modi. The parallel to the concept of Vishnu avatar in Hindu mythology would not escape the careful observer. Questioning Narendra Modi’s actions or intentions was akin to sacrilege – doubters had to be “anti-nationals”. Anyone who loved the nation had to support Modi – was the narrative created.

After coming to power, in several of carefully thought out actions, this mythic quality about Narendra Modi was further reinforced, helped by a pliant media and a vigorous and constant social media campaign, masterminded by some of the country’s finest minds. Just like the common German scoffed at the unfair treatment meted out to Germany in the treaty of Versailles, a lot of Indians also had frustration and anger at the repeated instances of terrorist attacks that happened in the country since the turn of the millennium, usually with the complicity of Pakistan. The horrific images of 26/11 in Mumbai was still fresh in the minds of many Indians. In 2016, when militants entered an Indian army camp in Uri and slaughtered Indian soldiers, many Indians prepared for a similar resigned response as in the past. In shock and delight to them, it was announced within days that an Indian commando team had crossed over into PoK and destroyed the militant camps that had orchestrated the attack. For many Indians, this was a first. Old timers compared it to Indira Gandhi’s response to PAF bombing on a cold December night in 1971. The nation had a leader who would not turn a blind eye to iniquities committed against his people – he would hit right back. Media narrative was quickly drawn out to demonstrate how the prime minister was personally involved to the minute details of the whole plan. A Bollywood movie was made to further reinforce the story. The words “surgical strike” and “master stroke” became a part of the average Indian’s daily vocabulary.

Cut to 2020, the Narendra Modi juggernaut shows no signs of stopping. Less than a year from securing an even larger political mandate than 2014, the covid19 crisis pits Narendra Modi in probably the toughest challenge of his tenure as the supreme leader of India. Here, probably for the first time was something that could not possibly be attributed to follies of predecessor Congress governments. Success and failure had to be owned up to.

Ever since his address to the nation on the evening of 19th March, life as we know it has undergone a dramatic change. On 24th March, the prime minister again appeared on TV to announce a 21-day pan India lockdown – the largest of its kind in the entire world. Since then, Narendra Modi’s actions have been scrutinized, discussed and debated across the spectrum. Immediately after his first speech, a lot of critics called him out for lack of any clear planning, comparing his speech negatively to that of the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s clear, measured responses. Detractors of the government have criticized the Indian prime minister for not holding press conferences like leaders of other affected nations and instead delivering pre-scripted unilateral addresses. The plight of the migrant workers that came on our screens post the lockdown has been blamed on the lack of the government’s preparation. And yet through it all, the cult of Modi has only gotten stronger.

When observers criticize Modi for not holding pressers, they fail to understand the nuances of the Indian culture. India is a deeply personal society. To most Indians, a press conference appears impersonal and cold. In contrast, Modi through his TV addresses appears more personal and in direct contact. It gives a sense of the prime minister personally speaking to each Indian. The Mann ki Baat session which saw him calling up medical personnel in different parts of the country and empathizing with their efforts further reinforces this. When Modi appeared on TV to announce a lockdown, he appeared less a prime minister and more like the patriarchal head of a typical Indian family – capable of loving his family, giving them a lashing for disobeying his orders but also determined to protect his family at all costs. One of the most iconic demonstrations of the power of “soft touch” strategy employed often by Modi is in the image below – where he is comforting the ISRO chief after the much-anticipated lunar mission went astray.

When the air waves were being dominated by the difficulties faced by the migrant workers many of whom had to walk long distances to get to their villages, the prime minister promptly appeared live again and apologized with folded hands for the “inconveniences” caused to the nation. This was very similar to the approach he had taken in the difficult days post demonetization. Once again, the image of the elderly father or grandfather in the family got underlined in bold. The narrative that gets woven is that this person is only forced to take harsh steps because he wants to protect his family (all Indians) from an even worse fate. The fact that the migrant workers crisis has claimed 22 lives so far (2/3rd of coronavirus death count) becomes an obsolete statistic.

To borrow a phrase from Indian media, another “masterstroke” from the Indian prime minister came in the form of creation of a new voluntary contribution fund for raising money in the efforts to contain covid19. This despite the National Disaster Response Fund and the Prime Minister National Relief Fund existing for this purpose only. But the masterstroke was not in creation of the fund but in it’s naming – the new fund is named Prime Minister – Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund, in short PM-CARES. The whole naming exercise is targeted to further strengthen the power of the Modi cult. In no time, several big names of Bollywood, sports and corporate India who were sitting silently till then for reasons unknown, jumped in with big contributions. The narrative was spun to imply that all these contributions only happened because the “Prime Minister Cares”.

At this point in time, it is difficult to predict how the coronavirus pandemic would play out in the country. One certainly wishes it is well contained and does not reach the severe proportions witnesses in Italy and Spain. But one thing can be said with certainty – whichever way the pandemic plays out, the cult of Narendra Modi would only come out even stronger out of it. That is what history – recent and past – tells us. As do present stats. IANS CVoter in association with Gallup International conducted a telephonic survey on the coronavirus situation. 1187 adults (18+) across India were interviewed in the 3rd and 4th weeks of March. Between the weeks, while the panic went up (I am afraid I will get the virus – 39.1% in W3 vs 48.3% in W4), the trust in Narendra Modi government’s handling of the situation has also gone up (approval ratings up to 74.1% in W4 vs 70% in W3). The responses indicate that while Indians may be getting less optimistic about the situation, their faith in their supreme leader continues to grow. It is quite likely that in case of events going downhill, a lot of blame would fall on state chief ministers without causing a dent to the appeal of Narendra Modi. In fact, it will only go up further, in all probability leading to one of the enthusiastic newsreaders at primetime to declare “Modi’s surgical strike on corona” a “masterstroke”.

The author is based in Calcutta, and currently taking a break from his 13-year long corporate career, writes about social issues. Trinanjan co-owns a blog called Indian Political Drama (



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