From ‘Padmaavat’ to Davos: Method in Madness of Modi’s Politics

PM Modi is a ‘born performer’ who knows what his audience wants to hear, writes PhD student Ritwik Agrawal.

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PM Modi is a ‘born performer’ who knows what his audience wants to hear, writes PhD student Ritwik Agrawal.

Contrary to the opinion of many commentators on Twitter and elsewhere, there is no mismatch between the government’s ‘failure’ at handling the violence over Padmaavat and Modi’s red carpet entry to the ‘Big Capital’ at Davos, Switzerland.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a ‘born performer’ who loves to frequently showcase his considerable abilities in this area. The latest stage for PM Modi to occupy was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he interacted with business leaders, other heads of government, and invited the world, with his usual pomp, to invest in India.

Back home, Modi’s own federal government as well as several provincial governments ruled by his party, the BJP, have ‘failed’ to control large-scale violence unleashed by upper caste ‘armies’ against the release of a recent Bollywood film which has ostensibly hurt their sentiments. The incidents of violence include an attack on a school bus in Haryana, a state ruled by the BJP.

Indeed, Modi’s home state of Gujarat has seen some of the worst acts of violence. The film in question, Padmaavat – supposed to be loosely based on Indian Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s eponymous poem – has been certified (with edits) by the censor board.

No less an institution than the Supreme Court of India has adjudicated upon the matter and has deemed the release of the film legal. The apex court has in fact lifted the ban on its release imposed by the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, both ruled by the BJP.

None of this has affected the zeal of organisations like the Rajput Karni Sena who continue to threaten and carry out violent acts in the name of the Rajput community’s ‘honour’ unless the film is banned or withdrawn.


India’s Image Under Threat

Commentators on social media and other platforms alike have remarked on the ostensible irony of the situation: while Modi harps upon India as an ideal investment destination, his government and the states run by his party seem to have failed at maintaining basic law and order.

Among these commentators are those like journalist Tavleen Singh, who have conventionally been pro-Modi. For these commentators, one of the main negative fallouts of the Padmaavat controversy is that it is hurting India’s global image as a stable location for business and industry.

As things roll in social media, it has not taken much time for this position to become the almost-accepted view. Let us examine what this position would entail were it true. Either Modi means well and his government has been unable to control the situation despite its best efforts.

Or, Modi is unable to understand that the continued violence is hurting India’s ‘image’ and nullifying his efforts at attracting investment.

Both these hypotheses are unwarranted. Regarding the first, evidence shows that the government has not, so far, taken on the protesters. Recently, the Uttar Pradesh police went through thousands of phone records to catch ‘potato dumping’ protesters. So far, in dealing with the protests over Padmaavat, such enterprise has been in short supply.

The usage of hard tactics and even deployment of the army are fairly routine in the volatile world of Indian politics when governments actually want to contain violence.

Electoral Mileage & ‘Pressure Tactics’

It is exceedingly clear that the government is looking away, until and unless things slip out of hand. After all, there is potential electoral mileage to be drawn in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which have a sizeable Rajput population, and are due for polls later this year. Perhaps the ‘school bus incident’ could have been avoided, from the government’s point of view, as that brings things close to the point where it would be forced to act, and hence, run the risk of being perceived as “anti-Rajput”.

What about the second hypothesis? Is Modi unable to understand that these protests are hurting India’s chances of attracting investment? No, for the simple reason that the protests, at least in their current scale and intensity, are likely not hurting India’s chances of attracting the kind of investment that Modi is interested in.

As is the case with much of Modi’s stint as PM, instructive lessons can be drawn from his past. Through the 2000s, films starring one of India’s major superstars, Aamir Khan, could not be released in Gujarat. The ostensible reason was that he spoke against raising the height of the Narmada dam. Incidentally, he was one of the few film stars who financially and materially committed to NGOs which were working towards relief for Gujarat riot victims.

No Aamir Khan film was officially banned by the government of Gujarat.

But things were so arranged such that theatre owners would “spontaneously” (the kind of spontaneity mastered by some Eastern bloc countries in the 20th century) choose not to screen the films of one of the country’s most bankable stars, in deference to the “sentiments” of the Gujarati people.

What Corporate Giants Truly Worry About

Interestingly, through this time, major corporate and industrial investments continued to flow into Gujarat, mostly by the same people who were in attendance at Davos this year.

Many corporate titans hailed Modi as the ‘new hope’ and a future Prime Minister as well.

Certainly, the situation over Padmaavat has not been handled with the same finesse as the ‘Aamir Khan situation’ was. After all, the interests of Modi and the Karni Sena align only partially, and the latter have to maintain some ‘nuisance value’ to be taken seriously. However, it would be a gross exaggeration to think that such things as protests or even some incidents of violence would deter the large corporate investments that Modi is wooing at Davos.

What big corporates are likely to worry about are ‘ease of business’ factors:

  • relaxing labour and environmental regulations
  • cutting taxes & fees
  • providing captive markets
  • guaranteeing security of their assets and investments
  • dangling the juicy prospect of privatising ‘inefficient’ assets like Air India (which happens to control prime land all over the world)

A ‘Reformist’ PM’s ‘On Point’ Political Messaging

On virtually all these parameters, Modi’s government has a distinct record. The same goes for most BJP-ruled state governments. Environmental regulations are being gutted at an extraordinary pace. Recently, the country suffered the ignominy of ranking 177 out of 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index. Labour law ‘reforms’ are promised every other day by government economists.

The government has committed to reducing the corporate tax rate in every budget. Examples can be multiplied – in the name of making things easy for business, important regulations have been eliminated or ignored.

While the people are fed ‘morsels’ of nationalism, sacrifice (for example, suffering without cash in the name of ‘national interest’) and ‘Hindu pride’ by a well-oiled corporate-political-media machine, the real stakeholders of the economy are kept pacified through ‘reforms’.

Since Modi continues to be a ‘reformist’ PM in the ways that actually count for those at the World Economic Forum, he is accurate in his political messaging.

His intended audience knows that, on Modi’s watch, their investments are protected, and their profits guaranteed, notwithstanding an apparent retreat in liberal values in society.


(The writer is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Missouri, USA. He has taught philosophy at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. He can be reached at @ritwik_agrawal. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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