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Modi's Edifice Complex

Last updated on: April 18, 2024 11:49 IST

To understand Modi, listen to what he does not say, suggests Prem Panicker.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Narendra D Modi, Amit A Shah, Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman and J P Nadda release the BJP election manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections, April 14, 2024. Photograph: Shrikant Singh/ANI Photo

You can read the post that follows. Or you can just listen to the song embedded (external link) -- as comprehensive, and damning, an indictment of Modi and his regime as a thousand editorials.

Few voters bother to read a party's election manifesto -- what little is known of the contents comes from the post-release back and forth between the party and its opponents, and the spin the media choses to give each party's promises.

And for the BJP, that is a good thing -- that people will not read. If they did, what would they make of a manifesto whose promises include lines like this:

We will simplify GST

Seriously? You might as well have released a one-line manifesto that read: 'We will undo the damage we caused over the last five years.'

But I'm getting ahead of my story. The BJP on Sunday released its manifesto, almost like it was ticking one of those irritating but necessary boxes before getting back to the business of gaslighting.


It was only on March 30 that the party got down to forming a committee -- headed by Rajnath Singh, with both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah absent -- to put the document together. The resulting manifesto, released with just five days to go for the first round of polling, is an extraordinary example of the party's belief that it can get away with just about anything.

It begins with a recap of what it calls '10 years of good governance', and every other line is jaw-dropping. My personal favourite is this one, from the section Surakshit Bharat:

Zero major terror attacks in any city since 2014

The Press Information Bureau of the Government of India had, on 31 December 2018, released a list (external link) of terrorist incidents from 2018 till that date.

The screenshot below relates only to Jammu and Kashmir; the list contains even more:

According to the government itself, there were 1,708 terrorist incidents in just the first five years of the Modi regime, accounting for 138 civilian casualties and 339 security personnel killed in action.

Remember that the cut-off date for the government's press release is the last day of December 2018. Since then, and only counting J&K, there was a 12 June 2019 attack in Awantipora where 5 security personnel were killed. Then there is the Pir Panjal region, where terrorist attacks began on 1 January 2023 and have continued unabated since -- attacks that have, as this report (external link) points out, resulted in the killing of 52 people in Poonch and Rajouri alone, while the other 20 districts of J&K accounted for another 82 deaths.

The BJP could have just skipped any and all references to terrorism, but no -- they chose the Big Lie (external link).

The point is this: A party that even today talks up the dushman ke ghar mein ghuskar maara trope simultaneously claims that the dushman never did anything to merit retaliation.

While on the ghar mein ghuskar... line the government and its chicken-hawk loud-hailers trot out with irritating regularity, remember The Guardian story (external link) suggesting that India ordered targeted assassinations in Pakistan?

By way of making lemonade out of the Guardian's lemon, Modi has revived the ghuskar maara line on the stump. At a 11 April rally in Rishikesh, for instance, the PM said:

'Whenever we have had a weak government in the country, our enemies have taken advantage. Under this strong government, atankwadiyon ko ghar mein ghus ke mara jata hai.'

If you boast in public that you are carrying out cross-border killings, it weakens your own case that the plot to kill Khalistani separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York was the work of 'rogue elements' without the official sanction of the Indian government.

Despite the government's best efforts, Washington has shown no inclination to drop the subject -- as recently as 31 March, US Ambassador Eric Garcetti said that attempting to assassinate the citizen of another country was 'just an unacceptable red line'. And here is the PM, no less, admitting -- boasting -- that India has crossed that line.

The mysteriously missing NRC

IMAGE: A protest against the NRC and CAA in West Bengal. Photograph: ANI Photo

On social media and in some sections of the press, I noticed muted triumphalism in regarding the dropping of any mention of the NRC from the BJP manifesto.

Aakar Patel, that most clear-eyed of commentators, posted on Twitter (external link) that those assuming the Shaheen Bagh protests haven't had an impact should take note of the axing of the NRC project. He is not the only one to take that line.

I don't know so much. My attention was drawn to what the manifesto does say -- and it clearly says that the CAA stands, and that it will, emphasis mine, 'give citizenship to all eligible persons'.

That leaves a key question unanswered: How will the government determine eligibility? The NRC, of course.

What the BJP has done is merely hidden its intent, not given up on it. It knows that it is already fighting for its future (ignore char sau paar for the narrative-setting it clearly is; the party itself knows that it is not getting anywhere close), and any overt mention of NRC will be a red flag that will ignite a fresh wave of protests just when the BJP can least afford it.

To assume that the BJP dropping any mention of the NRC from its manifesto is a sign of capitulation is to ignore everything we have learned about the party, from the evidence of its own actions, over the past ten years.

From around the country, reports speak of how people are demanding accountability; how they are asking BJP candidates to account for the promises made by the party five years ago.

So this time, Piyush Goyal and other BJP worthies have taken to the airwaves to point out that this latest manifesto is not for the next five years but for the next 25 -- as neat a way of forestalling accountability as any.

To understand this government's modus operandi, read Aesop. Specifically, read the fable of The Horse, The Stag And The Hunter (external link).

A quarrel had arisen between the Horse and the Stag, so the Horse came to a Hunter to ask his help to take revenge on the Stag. The Hunter agreed, but said: "If you desire to conquer the Stag, you must permit me to place this piece of iron between your jaws, so that I may guide you with these reins, and allow this saddle to be placed upon your back so that I may keep steady upon you as we follow after the enemy."

The Horse agreed to the conditions, and the Hunter soon saddled and bridled him. Then with the aid of the Hunter the Horse soon overcame the Stag, and said to the Hunter: "Now, get off, and remove those things from my mouth and back."

"Not so fast, friend," said the Hunter. "I have now got you under bit and spur, and prefer to keep you as you are at present."

Firing blanks

This is not by a distance the most egregious item in the manifesto, but for me it is indicative of just how vast the gulf is between what the Modi government's priorities are versus the very real, pressing concerns that animate the country:

The manifesto promises three more bullet train corridors (external link).

The question that occurs is, what potent stuff is this government smoking?

Work on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train began in 2020. In just two years, the cost had escalated from the originally budgeted Rs 1.1 lakh crore to Rs 1.6 lakh crore. (The most recent estimate available is Rs 1.8 lakh crore.)

In what NDTV called a 'big update', Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnav announced in November 2023 that the first stretch of the bullet train would be inaugurated in 2026. Here's the kicker: That first stretch will cover a distance of just 50 kilometres, between Bilimora and Surat.

A cursory search on the railways booking site tells me there are trains that cover the distance in anything from 47 to 56 minutes -- who needs a 'bullet train' for that? Again, what is not stated is the key: Vaishnav did not say when the train would be ready to run the full distance. And here is the BJP promising more -- three more -- of the same.

For the existing project, the central government contributes Rs 10,000 crore while the governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra are to contribute Rs 5,000 crore each. The rest is a loan from Japan.

How does the government plan to fund the three more bullet trains promised in the manifesto -- more loans, at a time when the central government's debt alone was pegged at Rs 155.6 trillion (57.1% of GDP) by end March 2023?

IMAGE: Visitors take pictures of a Bullet Train model at a National Highspeed Rail Corporation Limited stall at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Trade Show at Gandhinagar, January 11, 2024. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

The thing is, Modi himself knows that the bullet train project is a gigantic white elephant. He said so, in as many words, during an interaction with the IMC back in back in May 2013 when he was chief minister of Gujarat (translation):

One day I had a chat with the prime minister (Manmohan Singh). I told him look, no one discusses all of China -- they only show you Shanghai, it is not like they show you all of China (prolonged applause). I told him we too should do things to show our strength to the rest of the world. So I told the prime minister, sir, do one little thing: Start a high-speed bullet train service between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. (More applause) The world will come to know of our strength. No one is going to travel by the train, but we will have shown the world that we too are someone to reckon with, and for that we have to do these things.

That, in Modi's own words, is his theory of development -- build things to show off, not because it is actually of any practical use.

The man has an edifice complex, which I wrote about (external link) in a blogpost a while back. It's a wide-ranging post, so I'll clip the relevant extract here:

The term 'edifice complex' -- a play on 'Oedipus complex' -- was coined in the 1970s and applied to Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines, to describe her tendency to use public funds to build projects aimed at election propaganda.

The building of grandiose structures to showcase political power was not limited to Imelda Marcos. Deyan Sudjic in his book The Edifice Complex: The Architecture of Power chronicles instances ranging from Hitler and Stalin to Saddam Hussein and Trump and everyone in between. Sudjic writes:

'Architecture feeds the egos of the susceptible. They grow more and more dependent on it to the point where architecture becomes an end to itself, seducing the addicts as they build more and more on an even larger scale.

Building is the means by which the egotism of the individual is expressed in its most naked form: the Edifice Complex.'

I was reminded of all this while reading the news that the seaplane service has been discontinued. The Gujarat government told the assembly this week that it has spent Rs 13.5 crore on the project, and was forced to terminate it on finding that the operational costs were too exorbitant.

It was Modi, who was then experimenting with a faux Tagore look, who had launched it (external link)by taking the first flight -- which, as usual, was a 'first of its kind'. The event was timed to coincide with the Ekta Diwas celebrations at the Statue of Unity, on Sardar Patel's 145th birth anniversary.

It turned out that there were various issues with the SpiceJet-operated flight (which, by the way, includes the fact that craft and crew both belonged to a foreign entity, to wit, wait for this, the Maldives).

A feasibility test had been conducted by the government before embarking on the project -- but when, a couple of months after launch the service began to run into difficulties, the Airports Authority of India in a response to an RTI refused to share the results of the feasibility tests, and also refused to disclose the expenses incurred by the government.

The reasons cited for not sharing information included that revealing such information would directly impact 'commercial confidence in the state' -- another way of saying that letting you know what was spent will tell you how the people running the state and the country are.

This was not by any means the only Tughlaqian scheme of Modi's that had to be walked back after the expense of enormous sums of money.

Remember the Ro-Ro (roll on roll off) service Modi inaugurated in late October 2017? (The Gujarat assembly elections were held in early December of that year.) Remember the gush in the media? NDTV had ten points on the 'invaluable gift to India'. One of them was Modi's 'new mantra' P-forP which, we are told, stood for Ports-for-Prosperity. The Times of India had top facts -- with the words 'world class' punctuating the listicle.

In another article, the Times of India quoted Modi saying this was his dream project, and 'No one can imagine how I feel when my childhood dream has come true." (Modi must have been a rare sort of child -- others dream of playing cricket for India or flying planes, he dreamt of creating a Ro-Ro service. Then again, we know he was a rare child -- they even made a movie, Chalo Jeete Hain, to show just how rare. [Here, watch (external link).]

Now for the sequel: Island Jade, the ferry Modi rode on to launch the service, was put up for sale in January 2020. The service itself had been suspended three months prior since there wasn't enough draft to run the vessel. (By the way, if you find yourself in Cochin, try the Ro-Ro service (external link) there -- it was running long before Modi's 'I had a dream' moment, and it continues to operate long after the Island Jade was interred.)

The Times of India piece linked above had, in passing, the inconvenient fact that the project cost had doubled and, when Modi inaugurated it, the tariff stood at Rs 615 crore.

A few dozen crore here, a few hundred crore there, it all begins to add up.

And when it is all added up, guess who has to pay the price for this fantasist's follies?

This post began with a video; I might as well end it with one. Here is a clip from the movie Jawan (external link), where Shah Rukh Khan lays out the case for why you should vote wisely.