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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Will Modi stop marching to the beat of his own drum?

Narendra Modi's Africa sojourn is sinking like a stone. With his penchant for wardrobe gaffesplus his inability to shake off the "suit-boot sarkar" image, Modi's safari has become an object of criticism and more important, ridicule in the media, traditional as well as digital.

Consider the following:
1. His intriguing trip to Mozambique was billed as the first by an Indian prime minister in 30 years. No verification of that claim is available on the website of the ministry of external affairs. In the event, various media outlets ran stories outlining the interests of the Adani group in that country.

The Janata Dal (United) was quick off the block, charging the decision to import pulses would benefit mostly Adani's port operations. Clearly, the "suit-boot sarkar" descriptor has stuck. Modi is finding it is hard to shake off, as hard perhaps as the persistent  questions about his r0le in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

2. Continuing his embrace of sartorial extravagance, Modi appeared at a function in South Africa wearing a version of the "Madiba shirt," made famous by Nelson Mandela, among the tallest leaders in the world, right up there with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

It became a major trend on social media, compelling even the traditional media to take notice of the derision it evoked. It revived the memory of the monogrammed-pinstripe suit he wore to a meeting with US President Barack Obama. He is now seen as a rube.

3. Modi also went to Pietermaritzburg, symbolically by train. It was here that Gandhi underwent a transformation after being thrown out of a train in May 1896. His inclusion of this in public remarks caused widespread outrage, given his umbilical links to the RSS, the Hindu nationalist organisation that was responsible for the Mahatma's assassination.

4. His visit to Durban's Phoenix Farm, where Gandhi developed the Satyagraha concept, drew an immediate response from Tushar Gandhi, his great grandson: "I feel violated."

5. As if that wasn't bad enough, Modi trolls pitched in with a tweet that had two pictures: one of Modi and another of Manmohan Singh in South Africa.

The picture with Modi was black and white, showing him alone; the Singh photo was in color and included his wife and several officials. It's not clear what was intended but it backfired when the Modi picture was photoshopped with a ghostly picture of Ishrat Jahan sitting behind him. Jahan was the young girl killed in fake encounter by Gujarat police while Modi was chief minister.

1. In Kenya, he told a youth audience to be wary of hate preachers in an obvious reference to the fuss his acolytes in the media are making over the preacher Zakir Naik. The digital space was immediately overwhelmed:

"Modi didn't name any particular person or ideology in his speech. And Naik is far from the only preacher of hate in the country.Indeed there are many closer to home, whom Modi has much more control over. Never mind the prime minister's own speeches soon after the Gujarat riots, members of his party and its larger parivar almost take "preacher of hate" to be a vocation... here are people in Modi's own council of ministers that could easily be accused of 'threatening the fabric of our society' through hate and violence," said one commentator.

Clearly, Modi has been overwhelmed. The BJP'sfabled "media management" skills have failed miserably in the social media. It is true that that Lalitgate, Vyapam and others incidents of government bungling and criminality have disappeared off the screens and pages of the traditional media.

But they are alive and kicking in digital world. In fact, one of the most remarkable turnarounds since the government assumed office has been its denouement in digital media.

This space was hitherto monopolised by the BJP and its "tech-savvy" cadres, who used these channels to vilify opponents and spread Modi propaganda about the "Gujarat model;" achche din; maximum governance, minimum government; rooting out corruption; bringing black money back from overseas stashes and what not.

The disillusionment began with Modi's no-holds-barred speeches before NRI audiences.

"Earlier you felt ashamed you were born Indian," he said in Shanghai in May 2015, adding gratuitously, "There was a time when people used to say we don't know what sins we committed in our past life that we were born in India. What kind of country is this, what kind of government is this, what kind of people this country has. There was a time when people used to leave, businessmen used to say we can't do business here. These people are ready to come back. The mood has changed."

Appalled by his comments, Indians took to social media to trash his remarks. He repeated the performance in Seoul, South Korea. The hash tag, #ModiInsultsIndia, trended through May and June of last year.

Before that, in September the previous year, some critical voices questioned the triumphal nature of his rally in New York's Madison Square Garden but were swept away in the wave of adulation that followed.

For instance, a clearly spellbound journalist, who writes for The Times of India from Washington, was over the moon.

With no pretence of objectivity, he prattled, "India came of age in the United States with an epic show of political, social and economic clout, and cohesion…Chants of "Bharat Mata ki Jai: and "Modi, Modi, Modi" rocked the... arena that has witnessed many a great sporting battle and entertainment show, but nothing like this event…the 18,000-plus audience erupted in joy and pride in a show of strength that will almost certainly be factored into US perception of India, now and forever."

It has been downhill from that outburst of hyperbole. Modi's most recent trip to the US was not only mocked but serious questions were raised about the deals he brokered; the undercurrent of the criticism suggesting they gave him baubles: an impressive White House reception and an address to a specially convened joint session of Congress and he agreed to a flawed agreement on the purchase of nuclear power plants from Westinghouse.

Earlier in France, he got a haute welcome so he would sign a lucrative one-sided contract with Dassault Aviation to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets, which boosted the company's export sales by more than 2,000 percent.

Disillusioned by Modi's consistent indulgence in hype, the bulk of informed opinion has begun to ask questions. Thus, his ongoing trip to Africa has already been overshadowed by ridicule and criticism.

The more hype he generates in response to growing scepticism, the faster it will be converted to cynicism. And that is a death knell in the snake oil business.

 (An edited version of this post will appear in Education World, July 12, 2016.)