June 20, 2018

India: Image making videos of PM Modi now include his excercise and fitness work is packaged for wider echo

From Business Standard

Fitness challenge: How PM Modi can politically gain from the exercise
Bharat Bhushan

Watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi wade through patches of water and walk gingerly over pebbles, gravel, mud and grass before sprawling on a rock in a 1.48 minute video unleashed on the nation, viewers might well ask why the Prime Minister felt compelled to publicise his morning routine.

Modi then tagged police officers, film stars and sportspersons into his fitness challenge. That covers all those with any social capital to invest. But as in any Ponzi scheme, only the man at the top of the pyramid reaps a profit. While those down the food chain are given hope, it is the initial investor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will benefit by burnishing his fading image.

To believe that he was only responding to a challenge by cricketer Virat Kohli is to test credulity. Would Virat Kohli have had the gumption to throw a fitness challenge to the Prime Minister of India had it not already been ‘gamed’? The Fitness Challenge began with Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore. Was it mere coincidence that he began his fitness video by first invoking Prime Minister Modi as his inspiration and praising him for following a hectic schedule “effortlessly”?

The orchestrated public relations exercise is not about a self-indulgent prime minister’s exercise routine. It has several political objectives. In the run-up to the next general election, it tries to shift public attention away from the social crises facing the country to bring the focus back on the prime minister; it packages him as someone in the pink of health at 67; and it showcases him as a leader rooted in ancient Hindu traditions, so essential to his image as a ‘Hindutva’ leader.

If indeed society could be transformed by self-improvement of the individual as suggested by the hashtag Hum fit toh India fit (If I am fit, India will be fit), there would be no need for politics, Parliament or governance. Unfortunately, social, political and economic issues require collective action and not running around on pebbles holding a wooden club.

The Modi government has little to show for itself on matters of everyday concern to the citizens after four years in power.

The Prime Minister’s record in Parliament is dismal. A public interest litigation filed in the courts reports that in the last four years he has spoken only on 19 occasions in Parliament – once on a government Bill, 5 times to introduce his ministers, 6 times on thanksgiving motions and twice in special discussions. He has avoided democratic accountability to Parliament and he does not address press conferences where he will have to take questions. Even Zen masters answered questions however abstruse their replies.

The prime minister has, on the other hand, mastered every form of one-way communication: the radio monologue called “Mann ki Baat”, pre-recorded speeches on TV and abusing the Opposition in public meetings.

The fitness challenge not only diverts political criticism but can also be used to target political rivals. Why else would Modi have chosen to tag Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy who it is widely known, has had two open-heart surgeries – the last one in 2017. Anyone who thinks this was a “friendly gesture” should stop to ask whether the prime minister would have posted a fitness challenge to some of his own ministers and chief ministers recovering from serious health issues.

The Karnataka Chief Minister was unfazed and retorted that he was more concerned about the development of the state than himself.

It is also significant that the prime minister threw the fitness challenge to Indian Police Service officers above the age of 40 – i.e. officers in the top echelons of the central and state police forces. Expectedly, some of them like the Director General of Police of Jammu and Kashmir, responded with a five push-ups video and in turn threw a fitness challenge to all his men. The Prime Minister immediately retweeted “Shaabash Jawan! (Well done, Soldier!)”.

In a hierarchical organisation like the police force, there is an overwhelming desire to curry favour with one’s superiors. An Inspector General of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), Mukesh Singh, also accepted the fitness challenge and posted a video of himself doing one-arm planks. He has invited all NIA officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police and above to do the same. Similarly a 1987-batch IPS officer Sanjeev Kumar Singh, serving as Additional Director General of Police, Anti-Naxalite Operations in Madhya Pradesh, has posted three exercise videos of himself.

There are more than 2.4 million policemen in the state police forces in India while the central armed police forces number more than 1.1 million. If a large number of them start sharing workout videos to please their bosses, they will all get into the Twitter timeline of the prime minister.

Perhaps Modi chose not to draw the Indian armed forces into the challenge because they do not allow use of the social media.

Prime Minister Modi also got to embellish his Hindutva credentials by harking back to the ‘five elements’ in his workout – “Prithvi, Jal, Agni, Vayu, Aakash (Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky)”. In the Vedas, they constitute the basis of all cosmic creation. Prime Minister Modi’s ‘fitness walk’ over pebbles, water, etc, before stretching himself over a rock exposing himself to the sky is like a ritual establishing his connection with the ‘pancha-bhootas’ (five elements) that form the basis of Ayurveda.

This will surely go down well with the gullible lot who pop untested and uncertified Ayurvedic pills, glug unpalatable vegetable juices and munch on plants, leaves and seeds every morning for their health benefits. This is a huge constituency of voters and consumers as the various Babas and God men with double honorifics have realised. However, many unbelievers out there are having a hearty laugh at the prime minister’s antics. But isn’t laughing also good for one’s health?
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi