Branding a new image


June 23, 2015

This file photo shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi admiring a painting during the inauguration of ‘Ummat Business Conclave 2014’ as the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, in Ahmedabad on February 7, 2014 (PTI)

In recent times Modi has made consistent efforts at presenting a Muslim-friendly face. But the image makeover that the Prime Minister (thus far seen as a Hindu hardliner) is attempting will not be rendered effective unless it is matched by a change in attitude on the ground

One of the most interesting aspects a journalist gets to see is the transformation of politicians from one avatar to another, particularly after coming to power. And, some evolve with such panache that it leaves many surprised. In this respect, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a class apart. His excellent communication skills have been effectively utilised in a public relations exercise which could well make a difference in bilateral relations with other nations, more so, the Muslim countries.

He has, in recent weeks, sent signals with remarkable consistency to the domestic audience that negate the image of a Hindu hardliner that his persona has come to represent on the political landscape and, thereby, to the rest of the world. He started off the process just before his visit to the neighbouring Muslim nation, Bangladesh. He assured a delegation of Muslim clergymen that he would be available even at midnight to attend to their problems. That these clergymen were not the usual Moulvis who get an audience with the Prime Minister as representatives of the Muslim community was a different issue. The fundamental point was the message that the Prime Minister sent by way of an assurance to the community that he was available in any exigency.   

Soon, this was followed by an interesting point that he made to representatives of countries like Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar and Indonesia. That ‘knowledge’ was the most repeated word after Allah in the Holy Quran. More interesting for him was the fact that so many faiths speaking the same language lived together in harmony in India. This was after he had told an international magazine that his government would ‘not tolerate or accept any discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion’. His latest move has been to talk to his counterparts in Pakistan and Bangladesh and President of Afghanistan on the eve of the beginning of the holy month of Ramzan (as Ramadan is called in India). He also tweeted the release of 88 Pakistani fishermen-prisoners. 

All these moves are clearly to communicate to the world that Modi truly represents the 1.25bn Indians, which obviously includes the Muslims and the Christians and other minority communities. And, that there was no need for any apprehension about the intolerance towards religious faiths  (as stated publicly by President Barack Obama after his visit to India six months ago). This was because he believed in and followed only the Constitution of India which, for the uninitiated, gives equal rights to all citizens irrespective of caste, creed or religion. In all these moves, what stands out is that the political rhetoric of the past has been replaced by a pragmatism keeping the country’s interests at heart.

It goes without saying that a sectarian image will not help globally and could even affect bilateral relations. This is not something that Modi will wish, given his passion to give that much needed edge to India’s foreign policy and build India’s image abroad. But, over the years he has played a significant role to build up a support base of people whose thinking is completely sectarian. It was this section that came to be, almost, dictating terms to the leadership over issues like conversion and calling those who did not follow their path as ‘illegitimate’. This section was loosely described as the fringe element within the Hindutva forces that was not being, apparently, controlled by the country’s finest political communicator.

On Sunday, it became clear that his efforts to reach out to the minorities were getting thwarted, not by the fringe element but, by people considered close to him. In fact, Ram Madhav is somebody who was shifted from his party’s ideologue, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to the Bharatiya Janata Party. His importance can be gauged from the fact that he was the architect of the BJP forming the alliance with the Progressive Democratic Party led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in the border state of Kashmir.

The most surprising aspect is that the normally cautious Madhav should have fallen to a tweet by a senior journalist known to be ideologically close to the BJP without checking facts. Madhav tweeted to question the absence of Vice President Hamid Ansari from the International Yoga Day event, and as to why the Rajya Sabha TV channel (of the Upper House of Parliament in India) was not telecasting the event. The Vice President is also the chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the television channel is controlled by his office.

Madhav realised much later that the channel had not only been showing the event live but also that it had three special documentaries and a couple of programmes on yoga as well. He apologised for his earlier tweet by stating that he had been informed that the Vice President was unwell but made it worse by stating that he had respect for the office of the Vice President. It implied that he had no respect for the person occupying that seat. This was before he deleted the tweet. The former RSS spokesperson was unaware, and so were many who had come out with all the vitriol on social media, that the Vice President was simply following protocol.

It was protocol again that he had followed on India’s Republic Day when he had come in for similar attack for not saluting when the national anthem was played. To say that the Vice President is being targeted because of his religious belief would be an understatement. And, this is the man who used his knowledge of Islam and his diplomatic skills to convince his counterparts that India remained very much a secular country when he was suddenly shifted by the government to the United Nations as special envoy after the demolition of the Babri mosque.

All this boils down to a simple point. That the image makeover that the Prime Minister is attempting will not be of much help, both internally and globally, unless he immediately does something to control this mindset from going awry. All in national interest.

Yoga for health

Finally, a proposal of India has been accepted globally and the world celebrated the international yoga day. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, led the event that would make it to the record books. The event itself was carefully handled by the government to ensure that no religious sentiments were hurt by all sections of people doing yoga. The entire debate has focussed around whether the Surya Namaskar (salutation to the Sun) hurts the sentiments of Muslims and whether it can be forced upon the community. And, whether the word ‘Om’ must be uttered or not.

Two interesting points have been made by two people, co-incidentally residents of Bengaluru, which are worth pondering over. Sri Sri Ravishankar of the Art of Living Foundation observed that objections to use of a word or a posture saying that it was against a religion only showed how weak their faith in their religion was. In other words, the religious beliefs of a person cannot change just because he or she was mentioning a word or following a posture. The other was the youthful minister for health of Karnataka, U T Khader. An ardent yoga practitioner, Khader had a simple solution to the issue of Surya Namaskar. If anyone does not want to do it facing the Sun, they can do it facing the other side. The point he was making was that yoga was good for health.

The bottom line is simply that. With diabetes and heart ailments rising by the day among the people, the finest of stretches to ward off illnesses and to keep fit is to adopt yoga. Those who want to gain spiritually from it could do so. And, those who want to keep fit by simply perfecting these postures, shorn of all spiritualism, could also do so. Either way, you are not the loser. That much is certain.

 

Tailpiece

There are ways and ways of smuggling in the most favourite commodity of Indians. The directorate of revenue intelligence (DRI) has cracked a gang which has used couriers to smuggle in gold resembling parts of electronic goods like magnets in amplifiers or other parts in music systems, ovens, mini washing machines, induction stoves etc. The modus operandi was that these people would be sent out from Chennai to countries like Malaysia and Singapore. These passengers would return at less frequented airports like, in this case, Vizakhapatnam. The haul: 63kg of gold valued at R168.5mn (RO1mn approx). The craze of Indians for gold seems to be insatiable.

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]