At a public rally in Rajasthan on November 20, 2013, Narendra Modi called Mahatma Gandhi “Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi”. That wasn’t a one off. At his speech to the Indian diaspora at New York’s Madison Square Garden in September 2014, Modi yet again called the Mahatma “Mohanlal”.
On both occasions, Modi was ridiculed for not knowing that the full name of the Mahatma was ‘Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’, and not ‘Mohanlal’.
While Modi may not know the full name of the father of the nation, he has lost few opportunities to bask in the reflected glory of his fellow Gujarati.
On Sunday in Lucknow, the PM again took recourse to the memory of the Mahatma to try get out of a tight corner.
Trenchantly criticised for his personal equation with a few industrialists, Modi said: “Mahatma Gandhi never hesitated standing beside (Ghanshyam Das) Birlaji because his intentions were right. But those who do things behind the curtain and wish not to be seen publicly (with corporates), they are afraid,” the PM said.
This was the PM’s response to Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who has for the last several weeks upped the ante on the Modi government purportedly facilitating the award of the Rafale fighter jet deal to a firm with no experience of aircraft manufacture.
In February 2015, Rahul Gandhi had described Modi government as ‘suit boot ki sarkar’, a government of and for money bags. That jibe had affected the PM sufficiently to have gutted his government’s land Bill, jettison his reform agenda and make ‘garib kalyan’, or welfare of the poor, the leitmotif of his government.
Sunday’s speech also isn’t the first occasion in the last four years that Modi has aspired to be spoken of in the same breath as the Mahatma.
Commemorating 150 years of the Mahatma’s birth anniversary in 2019 is something that Modi has pushed his government to work on.
The PM had launched the ‘Swacch Bharat’ or ‘clean India’ campaign within months of taking over as the PM, and that too on the birth anniversary of the father of the nation on October 2, 2014.
As part of the campaign, the PM swept a street in a Balmiki colony in New Delhi’s Mandir Marg. In the last days of his life, the Mahatma had either lived at the Balmiki colony or at the Birla House, located at what is now a memorial in his memory on Tees January Marg. In the last four years, Modi has taken visiting dignitaries to the Sabarmati Ashram, has espoused the cause of khadi, has sat spinning on a charkha and unveiled Gandhi's statues or plaques in countries he has visited.
The PM’s remarks on Sunday are also indicative of a couple of other things. Modi isn’t someone who easily gives his opponents the pleasure of knowing that their attack has left him worried. If at all he decides to respond, Modi takes his time. It would seem the fact that elections are drawing nearer might have hurried the PM into replying to the Congress president's attack.
Secondly, Modi is known to back his loyalists to the hilt. It was true in the case of BJP chief Amit Shah, and several others in Gujarat, and it seems to be true with few industrialists. Even in the face of the criticism, the PM isn’t balking at his association with some of the industrialists.
But the Modi government is under intense pressure to bring back Vijay Mallya and jewellers Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi. The Ministry of External Affairs on Monday said Choksi’s passport was revoked in February 2018. According to reports, Choksi has got himself an Antigua passport. The MEA said the Indian High Commissioner in Antigua and Barbuda would be meeting relevant authorities on Monday, and has already asked the authorities to detain Choksi and prevent his movement by land, air or sea.
The PM’s speech in Lucknow on Sunday was combative. Modi turns aggressive when he is under pressure, whether in the weeks subsequent to him having announced the demonetisation decision on November 8, 2016, or during the campaigning for the Gujarat assembly polls in November-December 2017.
On both those occasions, the PM won the day by expending his charisma and credibility and singlehandedly pulled his government and party out of the morass. Would his charm work again on the people? The assembly polls to three north Indian states are not far away. We would get our answer soon.