PM Modi's Speech on 1 Bn Vaccine Feat Only Shows Celebration, Not Contemplation

More than eight years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wowed India with the “glass is always full” allegory.

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More than eight years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wowed India with the “glass is always full” allegory.

In an address to students of Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce in February 2013, the then Gujarat chief minister and BJP’s prime ministerial face began the political seduction of middle-class India.

Theatrically, picking up a glass of water, he told the audience, comprising not just the students, but millions of Indians hooked on live TV, and said, an optimist would say the glass is half full, while a pessimist would say it is half empty.

"I have a third point of view. For me the glass is always full — half with water and half with air. We can turn over the situation, ” he said.


Modi's Branding as a Harbinger of Hope

For Indians fed on the diet of despondency created by the UPA’s political lassitude, Modi’s words sounded magical and he appeared to be the harbinger of hope that India awaited for long.

After much turning over of the same glass since then, Modi continues doing the same, wowing India and its people with the same ability to come up with a smart turn of phrase – and even what close aide and Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, eternalised in Indian political vocabulary as 'jumlas'.

Back then, as an ‘outsider’ and challenger to India’s political throne, the self-created image of an ‘eternal optimist’ blended perfectly with the two magical words Modi used with regularity during the 2014 election campaign: vikas and badlao (development and change).

But is it time to ask for the incumbent’s vocabulary to be different from that of the challenger’s? Especially when the nation remains in the woods while combating an unprecedented multi-dimensioned crisis?


Modi Predictably Ready to Harness the 1 Billion Vaccine Jab Mark

Never a person to waste an opportunity at self-aggrandisement, Modi was predictably ready to put himself centre-stage when it came to the 1 billion vaccination milestone.

His umpteenth 'address to the nation on Friday, 22 October, a day after crossing the watershed was, however, little more than a reiteration, or at best an elaboration, of points already made in a speech immediately after crossing the figure on Thursday, 21 October, and in a series of signed op-ed pieces published in several newspapers in the morning.

This was no accident, though. The verbal and textual combo underscored the importance Modi and his regime accord to the power of repetition, a ploy used by countless leaders prior to him and even in the present era of global populism.

The effort is to clearly keep emphasising the accomplishment of the milestone in the hope that it will erase memories of the various botches made in the course of handling the pandemic – botches which include the vaccination drive itself.

Even while accepting that the war against the coronavirus is yet to be won completely, Modi remarked that reaching the 100 crore mark, was “India’s victory, every citizen’s victory”. The obvious (but unsaid) corollary here is that it is also the government’s success.

From the time the pandemic became inescapable, no occasion has been spared to bolster the regime’s political support. Because of this constant objective, the occasion of reaching this crucial landmark was marked solely by celebration and not by contemplation of how we could have done things better.

The public interventions by Modi over the last two days, culminating in the address to the nation, are undoubtedly smart politics, and once again demonstrated the use of techniques that are key to the prime minister’s communication strategy.

Positives Over Reality?

Never shy of converting someone else’s ploy into his own, Modi has repeatedly since March 2020, stressed on the power of the collective. 'Jan Bhagidari' was once a signature of the long-forgotten Sheila Dikshit but has now become co-opted by Modi.

By saying that that the vaccine drive is a prime example of what a country can achieve if citizens and government come together, he suggests that they share both the kudos and the failures – though the latter of course did not get mentioned in the headline points, and were buried way down in the body of the articles. It is a smart device to share success, while apportioning blame that should ideally rest solely at the government’s door.

Everything that has been accomplished, or remains on the to-do list, is the cumulative result of sabka prayas (everyone effort), again a Modi coinage, introduced in this year’s I-Day speech while putting the task of seeking sabka vishwas (everyone’s trust), that he set out for party leaders after the 2019 Lok Sabha victory, on the backburner.

There is no doubt that achieving the 1 billion vaccines mark demonstrates the country’s capacity to deliver. But, can we afford to remain oblivious to other areas that require equal success, be it reviving national and personal economies or strengthening the public health system in the country?

Although reality points in another direction, Modi emphasised only the positives as far as economy was concerned.


“There is all round confidence, enthusiasm, and zest,” Modi said and blended the indisputable with the questionable: Good tidings in the fields of sports, tourism, and entertainment were mentioned in the same breath as claims of the same trend being seen in the economic sphere.

That’s the “glass always full” tact — we look only at the glass as being filled with water, no matter how much, while disregarding that there exists as a huge void of air or hawa. Yet this hawa provides ample material for the largest public relations and publicity machinery in the contemporary world, including official as well as non-state proponents.

There is undoubtedly a need to bask in the satisfaction of reaching this point. But it must be remembered that India remains nowhere close to reaching the government's own target of fully vaccinating the adult population by the end of the year.

Modi’s adversaries should take note of his innate capacity to reiterate the positives and blend each of these narratives into his own. The 1 billion mark has come at a time when India is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its independence, as 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav', phrase over which the prime minister has a copyright.

The hallmark of a successful political leader has unfortunately come to mean the ability to publicise issues solely from her or his perspective, rather than any objective evaluation of their successes. The ability to talk over reality is thereby essential.

Unconcealed Effort Made to Project the PM as Protector

That almost 90 percent of India's one billon administered doses have been of Covishield – manufactured under an acquired license from outside India – has not prevented Modi from claiming that India has achieved 'aatmanirbharta' or self-sufficiency and that people now willingly opt for Made in India (again a Modi slogan, although Swadeshi is a century plus notion) products. Which once again ties threads to one of his government's flagship policies.

India’s vaccination drive has witnessed careful choreography and management to ensure that high points have been reached on crucial dates. There was a record number of does on Modi’s birthday on 17 September, as well as the earlier ‘world record’ to mark India’s revised guidelines for COVID-19 vaccination that came into effect in June – revisions that were a result of the Supreme Court's intervention, though this was obviously elided over.

Coupled with the PM’s photo on vaccine certificates, this is little but an unconcealed effort at projecting the prime minister as protector and provider, fostering the cult of personality.

One might remember that his declaration of ‘victory’ over COVID-19 earlier this year was followed a few weeks later by the horrifying second wave of the pandemic.

While not taking away any of the achievements of the government and the country’s institutions built over decades, we can just hope that the celebration of the 1 billion vaccination mark does not turn out to be another premature jubilatory exercise.

(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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