The answer may be a big ‘no, if the current popular out-reach packaging of the prime minister is unaccompanied and not followed up with pragmatic work on the ground, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Leave aside the unmistakable presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the recent bilateral informal summit with his Indian host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, there is no denying the fact that much of the media focus, and hence popular imagination, continue to lie near exclusively on the latter.
It may also have to do with the fact that high-level diplomacy of the kind is not for the common man, as much as even more high-octane optics, where once again Modi stole the show, this time in ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu.
Be it his appearing in the local attire of ‘veshti’ and 'angavastram', Tamil style, or going about ‘cleansing’ the famed Mahabalipuram beach of the wastes that seemed to have accumulated overnight, Modi did all that used to be on the PR books of predecessors Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, whom his BJP campaign managers have made known to the new generation for all the wrong reasons.
Yet, the question remains if all of it would go beyond the short-term optics that they have served, or would help create a new constituency, other than the small, committed constituency of urban middle-class, and possibly upper caste/class voters, that too ahead of the state assembly elections that are due by May 2021.
The answer, however, may be a big ‘no, if the current popular out-reach packaging of the prime minister is unaccompanied and not followed up with pragmatic work on the ground.
This should include governmental initiatives at the Centre and in the state, going beyond all the tax sops announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, to revive the nation’s ‘sagging economy’.
People in the TN industry towns of Chennai and Coimbatore, Tiruchi and Tiruppur, Madurai and elsewhere want a demand-centric resolution to their own economic woes, if only to help improve ‘money supply’ all round. Those answers are still seen as wanting in the Centre’s package of the past weeks.
Thanks to the fact that Modi and his brand of BJP have been in power at the Centre for more than five years now and are well into their second term in office, the TN voters at least seem to want more of the governmental kind.
There is no denying the sudden rush of local tourists to Mahabalipuram after the Modi-Xi summit, as much to see the light effects at the stone temples from the Pallava era, the kind of which they did not always get to witness over the past decades, as to know what they may have missed that Modi saw worthy of showing off to Xi, as part of the great Indian heritage.
It is now for the state tourism authorities to be able to build on Modi marketing on their behalf, but the same cannot be said of the PM wearing the local attire as boosting the sale of Tamil Nadu handlooms. For the real picture to emerge, the cooperatives and other authorities concerned may have to wait and watch until after the end of the current festive season, when anyway, sales would register an upswing.
Independent of cheering Modi for his marketing imitative, if it could be called so, on Tamil Nadu’s behalf, the locals are not unaccustomed to such tactics by their own Dravidian and/or not-so-Dravidian political class, especially over the past 50-plus years of ‘Dravidian rule’ in particular. They got used to Indira Gandhi’s style of greeting them with a ‘Vanakkam’ in Tamil, before and after her pubic speeches in the state, whether at rare government functions when she was PM or at every other election or party rally that she addressed.
Yet, Modi became the first Indian leader to speak in Tamil at the UN General Assembly this year, when he quoted ancient poet, Kaniyan Poongundranar’s line. ‘Yaadhum ooraey, yaavarum kaelir’, which was very apt for the occasion. Translated, it means, 'All places are ours, all people are ours' -- or, better still, 'We belong everywhere, and every human is our relation'.
For all this, however, the political class in the south Indian state did not fail to give credit to Modi where it was due. Opposition DMK president M K Stalin was among the first to thank the PM for choosing Mahabalipuram for the summit. Ruling AIADMK ministers, starting with the man in charge of the department of Tamil language and culture, ‘MaFoi’ K Pandiarajan, acknowledged that Modi's choice of Mahabalipuram would help boost the state’s image internationally and also bring fresh investments.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Initiative.