Guest post by RAMA SRINIVASAN
As the crisis of fake degrees blows over I want to be the one to ask the naïve question: Why would Narendra Modi lie? I know it is a naïve question because lies are the most banal political strategy ever. There is a man in US today who repeatedly states that he will make the Mexican government pay for a beautiful, great wall on the border of US and Mexico and people believe him with a degree of sincerity that is frightening. In 2014, at least 31 percent of eligible Indian voters believed in Modi’s promises of development and some of them still do. There may be some who, at the end of the five years, actually believe that Modi has delivered on those promises. But such lies are different. My question is simply: why would he lie on an affidavit which functions as a legally-binding oath?
In his previous election affidavit filed for 2012 Gujarat elections he had left the spouse’s name column empty but following ‘strict legal advice’ he agreed to mention his wife’s name on the affidavit filed for Lok Sabha elections. Technically he had withheld information in previous affidavits which amounts to a legal offence since he had not filed his papers to ‘the best of his knowledge’ but this is not the same as actively lying as it now turns out could be the case with his educational qualifications. Legal experts will determine what is tantamount to punishable crime but if Modi did have legal counsel, who advised him to “come clean on the marriage” as this Times of India article states, why would he continue to provide inaccurate information on other aspects of life?
One speculative answer could be that he knew he was being closely watched as he made his bid for the PM’s post and that his papers would be scrutinised and compared with previous drafts. So it made sense to remain consistent with some of the information even though he had obviously been cornered on the question of his marital status. And yet, as the story of how Modi came to acknowledge the existence of his wife Jashodaben proves, if he had to reveal inconsistencies in previous records, 2014 would have been the best time to do this. No amount of exposés could have hurt the man at that time – his bhakt army, on and offline, on Twitter, were efficiently managing the show and could provide a useful media spin/misdirection to take the focus away from the affidavit that declared to the world that Jashodaben’s repeated claims regarding her marriage and abandonment were not unfounded. Even as the Gujarat Congress urged the state Election Commission, unsuccessfully, to reject his application on the grounds that he had not provided information regarding his spouse’s assets or PAN card number, Modi cruised to victory since his deliberate inconsistencies seem to matter very little to voters.
At that point Modi, indeed, seemed invincible. He was giving explosive speeches and deftly avoiding uncomfortable questions from journalists. In an interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, Modi replied to an indirect question on 2002 with this classic deflection tactic: “My best wishes are with you, Rajdeep Sardesai. You have been living off this issue for the last 10 years … I have heard that those who curse Modi get Rajya Sabha seats or Padma awards. So you have my best wishes to continue this campaign (against Modi) and reach Rajya Sabha or win Padma awards with help of your friends.” What was apparent in the interview is now widely acknowledged as the process of constructing a larger-than-life image, where the man referred to himself in third person.
As US presidential-style elections go (which consultant Prashant Kishore is now credited with for having pulled off for Modi), this strategy appears familiar but with a key difference: the people around them construct the political image while the man himself (I use the masculine pronoun deliberately) is required to stay modest (with George Bush I noticed that he revelled in his ‘average Joe’ personality while Barack Obama displayed a casual elegance and a breezy sense of humour). In presumptive Republican Party nominee Donald Trump’s case, one can see that he already had this image, a brand in fact, when he entered the presidential race. Trump is known to give inaccurate information on everything, including his net worth that depends on his own fluctuating estimates of his personal brand.
What happened in Modi’s case, I suggest, is that he had started believing in this image that was constructed for him during the 2014 election campaign – his chaiwala references that were indeed a clever plot device in 2014 never ceased even as serious doubts were raised about the authenticity of this story. In election rallies held in Assam this year he was reported as saying that he served Assam tea during his tea-seller days. His claims of developing Gujarat continued with election campaigns in many states: in Haryana he claimed he will set Haryana on a growth track the way he did with Gujarat even though Haryana is higher up on the state-wise GDP per capital rankings. That was still 2014 when his image helped BJP win three state elections but there is no excuse for using the same election tactic in 2016 in Tamil Nadu and claim that BJP alone can bring development to Tamil Nadu when the state has consistently registered high growth rates over the past two decades. I have refrained from quoting examples of Modi’s campaign in Kerala, which has a much better human development index than Gujarat, since with the cases of Haryana and Tamil Nadu Modi’s promises of bringing development are unfounded even on the measures he might be referring to, that is, growth rates.
It became increasingly clear to me that Modi is not a compulsive liar because his election strategies have hardly changed with time and place and the same inaccuracies and jumlas continue. In other words, there is a certain consistency to his inconsistencies. Unlike Trump, who came to the game already in possession of a brand image to sell, Modi acquired his brand during the election process and his brand is specific to 2014. It is for this reason that Trump appears to take wildly inconsistent positions (often being both for and against on many issues) while Modi’s inaccurate statements and tales are by now predictable. It maybe that his jumlas are not adapting to these shifting political landscape because he is, as Arun Shourie claims, ‘narcissist’ and ‘delusional’, unable to tell which way the wind is blowing. To push this further, I want to ask whether he is even capable of exceeding his imagined persona. The ultimate causality of his massive, media-managed election-bid might be that he is now trapped in the performative role he was playing and cannot break out of it. The script he was handed out in 2013-14 was so compelling, so self-affirmative that he appears, for the moment, incapable of transcending that Modi in third person. But as professor Veena Das told us in Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, most often we cannot transcend from a momentous event – we simply descend into the ordinary. But for Modi, there has been no return to or descent into the ordinary after 2014.
So the real question on his degrees should be whether he is silent on the controversy because silence is convenient and adds to the enigma of that ‘Modi in third person’ or because he is operating in a completely different realm, an alternative reality even, where very few of us can reach him – either with words or in person. I think the answer is that it can be both. The careful micromanaging of news in the run-up to LS elections ensured that little negative news got published or telecast in mainstream media. I have read (though I cannot find the reference right now) that Modi began every day of his campaign scanning media for all the positive news stories on him. I wonder if he was not just as gullible as the 31 percent which believed the news coverage and voted for him. Did he unquestioningly believe all the articles that celebrated how he developed Gujarat and how he has wonderful oratory skills? Did he also believe that he had a BA in Political Science from Delhi University and a MA in (Entire) Political Science from Gujarat University as he had claimed for many years?
That having degrees on resumes that mean little but are still ‘necessary evils’ is a reality that many in India know and acknowledge. But when he had already been advised to admit uncomfortable truths about his past, such as his marital status, in his election affidavit, he could have walked the extra mile and written a truthful affidavit at a time when he was invincible instead of waiting for his credibility to fall as people get disillusioned with his governance. The answer clearly is that Modi, miraculously, did not expect that people would stop believing his grandiose speeches. He did not think realities of anti-incumbency applied to his larger-than-life image. He believes not in himself but a third-person Modi, invincible in the face of criticism by people like Rajdeep Sardesai, who apparently only got ahead in life because attacking Modi can be a full-time job with lucrative remuneration prospects.
In 2014 it proved to be a great election strategy but in 2016 the rhetoric wears thin. Fewer people care about who Modi says he is and what his detractors are about. But for Modi the image constructed in 2014 is still paramount. I am not sure if he ever expected to be questioned on the authenticity of his degrees but he had projected himself as a postgraduate in political science with many years of experience in politics in 2014. It may have been a minor part of his overall image but it is part of the whole. The sanctity of his image is still important to him as we even now catch him speaking about himself in third person and complain about his detractors. His (and the PMO’s) silence on the authenticity of his degrees suggest that he hopes to keep his enigmatic image above and untouched by the rigors of everyday politics or the ordinary but, on a more abstract level, I also seriously wonder if criticism or the now widespread ridicule on social media really reaches him. It perhaps does reach him but very slowly (his comments on Dadri or Rohith Vemula’s suicide came too late and were vague). Is it a strategy to not immediately respond to criticism or is he still only scanning the media for positive news and ignoring the rest?