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Was Modi Worried About Shyam Rangeela?

May 23, 2024 09:59 IST

Rangeela's presence in the fray could have been trifle uncomfortable for Modi.
He may not have posed an electoral challenge to the prime minister, but Rangeela's public meetings could have seen people flocking, if only to hear him mimic Modi.

In a completely Modi-centric election, the presence of a 'rival' -- if only for a smattering of audience at his meetings -- would not have been particularly appreciated by Modi, asserts Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi during his roadshow in Varanasi, May 13, 2024. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Multiple media reports and Shyam Rangeela's X feed make it unambiguously clear that Varanasi's Returning Officer and District Magistrate S Rajalingam questionably rejected the mimic's nomination papers thereby ensuring that Narendra D Modi, in the course of the election campaign, was not laughed at in his 'own' voice.

Unambiguously, the Surat spirit 'infected' several other returning officers, surely for instance, the one in Indore.

In the case of Varanasi too, it was the officer's nomination rejection spree which ensured that there are the lowest number of candidates in Modi's constituency, compared to 2014 and 2019.

By rejecting more than 80% of the total number of 41 nomination papers filed before the last date, Rajalingam ensured that just seven candidates were left in the fray, including Modi.

This depleted field is in sharp contrast to 42 candidates in 2014 and 26 in 2019. Besides Rangeela, at least three other candidates cried foul over the rejection of their nomination papers.

One of the reasons cited by the returning officer, when declaring the mimic's papers as invalid, was that he had not taken the oath, mandatory for all candidates.

Rangeela and the Election Commission officials provide differing versions regarding this 'non-compliance', but as always, the 'authority' is forever 'correct'.

Another prospective candidate, the Akhil Bharatiya Parivar Party's Harpreet Singh, said he asked the returning officer's staff to administer the oath to him thrice, but they did not heed his request.

Another candidate, Sunil Kumar Bind, despite spending six days at the district magistrate's office, was merely handed a rejection slip on the day of scrutiny.

In critical comments to a journalist, this candidate from the community of boatpersons said that people were being asked to stay mum in return for rations for two square meals.

There were other reports too of others desirous to contest against Modi either not being issued nomination forms in time, or the other important paper, the treasury challan, which has to be filled with details of the mandatory security deposit of Rs 25,000.

Undeniably, it is clear that the local administration, holding dual charge as Election Commission officers, was driven by the objective to minimise the number of candidates against Modi.

What purpose this serves is anyone's guess because even after riding roughshod over the right of people like Rangeela, Singh and Bind, there will still be an election on June 1, denying Modi another record -- the first incumbent prime minister to be elected unopposed.

Many would contend that holding elections when the outcome is foregone, is little but waste of national resources.

This argument was made by Modi for well above a decade when peddling the one-election-one-nation idea.

When the government appointed the committee headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind last September, to suggest ways to introduce this system of elections, the cost of unsynchronised polls was prominently flagged.

But if the country, depicted by Modi, as the 'mother' of democracy does not invest in ensuring free and fair elections, what should it be spending resources on?

If the government wishes to cut down government spending, possibly a beginning can be made by trimming cost of mounting campaigns to publicise leaders and schemes.

Among those whose form was rejected by the Varanasi returning officer, Rangeela's candidature was the most important because his presence in the fray could have been trifle uncomfortable for Modi.

He may not have posed a serious electoral challenge to the prime minister, but Rangeela's public meetings could have seen people flocking, if only to hear him mimic Modi.

In a completely Modi-centric election, the presence of a 'rival' -- if only for a smattering of audience at his meetings -- would not have been particularly appreciated by the prime minister.

India's current political regime does not appreciate the public presence and skills of Rangeela.

He burst into the public limelight with his performance in 2017 on the Great Indian Laughter Challenge television show where he mimicked Modi and Rahul Gandhi.

But after the show was recorded, the show's producers decided to run it past people who matter.

Rangeela, whose actual name is Shyam Sunder, stated that the video was never aired on television and that the channel informed him that 'they didn't get approval from people in the government'.

However, the performance is easily available on the Internet, although several media Web sites deleted that video.

There is no way that Modi or his team, which keeps track of anything written on or about him, would have missed reading about the incident.

If he was a large-hearted accommodative leader, Modi would have taken the video in his stride, and got officials to okay the episode for telecast.

Modi's double standards and soft corner for the well-heeled is evident from him agreeing to be interviewed by Akshay Kumar in 2019 despite the actor roaring his heart out while watching Rangeela mimicking Modi live on the set.

In contrast to Akshay Kumar's jet-setting milieu, Rangeela is a small-towner and self-taught man of modest means, a person of the kind of background from which Modi emerged.

Yet Modi did not give a push to the mimic's career despite never losing any opportunity to claim that his heart beats for those from less privileged backgrounds.

IMAGE: Shyam Rangeela steps out of the Varanasi collectorate after filing his nomination papers which were rejected later. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shyam Rangeela/Facebook

Even though he did not stand with the mimic, Modi has taken advantage of his position and office to lampoon other political leaders, either verbally or by gesticulations.

Name calling has been his consistent trait over decades. Back in 2004 he labeled Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, as Jersey Cow and hybrid calf (bachhra).

He had hurled the invective of Surpanakha at Renuka Chowdhury in the Rajya Sabha.

On the floor of the Lok Sabha in February 2019, he also mimicked Rahul Gandhi's infamous wink after he hugged Modi. Evidently, the sanctity of Parliament mattered little.

Previously, in November 2013 at a public rally in Chhattisgarh, Modi mimicked Rahul Gandhi's style of forcefully pulling up his shirt or kurta sleeves while delivering a speech.

Quite clearly, Modi does not shy away from mimicking his adversaries.

But, when any professional mimic copies his style and ends up making fun of him, Modi does not like it.

Modi has used the audio-visual medium to his advantage.

Quite like Indira Gandhi, whose clips of dancing with tribal and other local communities were regularly used in Films Divisions documentaries, Modi too has played musical instruments in India and broad while also joining step with folk dancers.

Modi is one of the most performative politicians in the world today and he can go to any extent if the act will shore up his popularity.

But if the same medium and same techniques are used by anyone to crack a joke at his expense or laugh at him, then it becomes an impermissible act that has to be shut down.

If one looks at even the least entertaining formats -- interviews -- it becomes clear that this format too is used as entertainment television by Modi.

This way, Modi connects with potential voters by enabling people to connect between what Modi claims is the 'truth' and their own experiences by treating them as being physically present with him on the proscenium.

In several of his videos, Rangeela copied even the format of Modi and has through this process bared the performative persona of Modi and conveyed that everything about his public facade is artificial and an enactment -- right to the manner in which Modi claps in his characteristic manner.

Humour is often used in Indian politics in a mean manner. Social media has also been used to ridicule or mock rivals and this has legitimized such behaviour in actual 'live situations'.

IMAGE: Modi flanked by astrology and Vedic scholar Ganeshwar Shastri, Dravid and UP BJP leader Yogi Adityanath files his nomination for the Lok Sabha elections at the district magistrate's office in Varanasi, May 14, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Rangeela may not have polled voted in thousands or lakhs in Varanasi, but his performances would have been a draw with the people and the prime minister would not like these reports when they would have reached him.

Given this, it is not a surprise that his candidature was rejected.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an author and journalist based in Delhi-NCR. His latest book is The Demolition, The Verdict and The Temple: The Definitive Book on the Ram Mandir Project. He is also the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/