Narendra modi has become a prisoner of his own politics

Modi sees any retreat as surrender. Sometimes, not surrendering gets you taken hostage.

(Yamraj at India Gate. Illustration by Orijit Sen)

The ten years the Congress was in power, leading the UPA coalition, it used to be quick in making people resign to diffuse any scandal. Yet no resignation seemed to stem the political decline of UPA-2. Au contraire, the government only looked weaker for it. It looked like the government was pleading guilty and asking for forgiveness.

In the Modi-Shah system, firing people is rare. Even rarer is Modi going back on something because he is pressured to do so by the media or opposition. And apologising? Out of the question. 

In 2013-14, a section of the media was after Modi to apologise for the 2002 riots but Modi refused to do it. He would only have looked weaker for it, and liberals wouldn’t have forgiven him either.

Rare retreats

The incidents when Modi has made a retreat are so rare you can count them on your fingertips. There was the first act, amendments he wanted to make to the land acquisition law, which he dropped after Rahul Gandhi said Modi’s was a suit-boot ki sarkar. Since then, Modi hasn’t dropped any law. He enacts them through ordinance or last-minute surprise in parliament, causing a furore. If the public reaction makes the law untenable, he just doesn’t issue rules, putting the law in abeyance. Technically, nobody can say Modi’s gone back on CAA or the farm laws. They’re just not being implemented. 

When a junior minister, MJ Akbar, faced sexual harassment charges from a number of women journalists, the Modi government tried to hold off on sacking Akbar for many days. Eventually they had to do it only because the headlines won’t go away. The Himachal BJP chief was sacked recently on corruption charges, the Uttarakhand chief minister was changed because MLAs threatened revolt. 

Surrender is suicide 

These exceptions only prove the rule. Even as BJP chief ministers get low popularity ratings, they are not changed. Be it ML Khattar in Haryana, Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, Biplab Deb in Tripura — nobody is a liability for Modi and the BJP. Be it Sadhvi Pragya’s statements against Mahatma Gandhi or Devendra Fadnavis’ nephew getting an out of turn vaccination, nobody seems to have to pay a price. The economy may keep sliding but the finance minister won’t be changed. A Covid second wave may wreak havoc on Modi’s image but the health minister won’t be fired. Yogi Adityanath can oversee an incident like Hathras that threatens Modi’s Dalit outreach but he won’t be changed. Any sacking, any change, would be an acknowledgement of error. It would amount to capitulation. 

The Modi playbook doesn’t allow for capitulation. That makes him look weak. Not retreating makes him look strong. It makes people say, ‘Look how powerful he is, he gets away with so much’. He gets away with demonetisation and a poor implementation of GST, he gets away with unemployment and with hiding away an unemployment report, he gets away with rising fuel prices and with migrant labour dying while walking back home, thousands of kilometres. He gets away because he makes sure he doesn’t buckle under pressure and  finds a scapegoat. He doesn’t stand before reporters to offer a poor explanation. He just moves on to the next jazzy slogan. 

Sometimes you need to surrender 

Yet, Modi has now become a prisoner of his own politics. The idea that one must never come across as surrendering, is behind the crisis he finds himself in with the second wave of Covid. 

As the media and opposition demanded Modi to suspend rallies in West Bengal, he just wouldn’t do it. When people are worrying about Covid spreading through rally crowds, he was praising the size of the crowds. The least he could have done was to not extol the size of the crowd, but then he does it in every rally. In every election rally Modi says this is the biggest crowd ever, like Apple describes every new iPhone as the best iPhone ever. It’s Modi’s way of creating an election hawa for the BJP, so why should he not do it just because a few liberals are screaming about Covid? 

The SARS-COv-2 pathogen is not as predictable as our politicians. The cases and deaths started rising so fast, like a street dog who comes charging at you slyly and bites you from behind. Modi was sure the dog won’t bite because 1.6 lakh deaths wasn’t considered a dog bite. It was considered an achievement.

Modi needed to cut his losses, cancel his rallies for the fifth phase of the West Bengal election. But doing what critics want him to do would be conceding, retreating, capitulating, surrendering. And surrender is suicide. Doesn’t go with the logic of power. 

Yet Modi had to surrender anyway, because power ultimately needs the legitimacy of public opinion.

It was the same with the Kumbh in Haridwar, it was the same with opening up vaccination for 18+ people. The mutant forms of the virus have also upended Modi’s standard playbook. 

This time it’s different

Modi continues to make this mistake with the Central Vista redevelopment. It is clear that the making of a new capital for Modi’s vanity is not going to look good as Covid ravages India for many months ahead. But Modi’s script says he can’t let his critics have their way. It’s bad enough that Rahul Gandhi gets to say Modi is following his advice on Covid. If Modi retreats now on Central Vista, who will think of him as all-powerful? And if Modi doesn’t appear all powerful, how will we say there is nobody to replace him? How will anyone say ‘Aayega to Modi hi’? How will the leader appear invincible, inevitable? 

Yet this time, Modi is over-estimating his playbook. It’s not a lynching or a riot. It’s not one man lynched or even 1,000. This time it’s much, much bigger. And a new house for the prime minister, a new parliament to show off, a new row of government offices is not going to make Modi look powerful. It won’t have the legitimacy of public opinion. If we are still having elections, that will matter.

A building is set on fire. The Indian media and commentariat respond.

[This is a Whatsapp forward doing the rounds. I am not its author. I hope the people named below take it in its stride and are not offended at my posting this here. — Shivam]

The Hindu: Building set on fire

TOI and HT: Page 1 single column with 100 words on fire. Page 2 full page analysis of every fire and why we keep seeing fires. No one to blame.

Indian Express: Features the fire in the city pages.

The Wire: This is what is happening in Modi’s India. The building manager neglected his duty to go attend an RSS shakha.

ThePrint: What the building fire tells us about how well Modi understands Indian politics and how he is redefining it.

Quint: Here’s our video on who said what about the fire.

Scroll: Here’s a chronology of building fires since 2014.

Swarajya: As Vajpayeeji asked: Who started the fire?

OpIndia: Aag kaa badlaa aag.

ANI: ‘picture of shakha men dousing fire’.

AltNews: ANI uses old photo…

Rahul Kanwal: This fire is a masterstroke by BJP’s Chanakya strategists.

Sudhir Chaudhry: Rashtrawadi Zee News aapko bataeyga ki des ke kis kis gaddar ne yeh mag lagayi hai.

Amish Devgn: Kya sirf Hindu hi aag laga sakta hai? Kya mulleh-maulana aag nahi laga sakte? Aaj ki bahas. Kya.. kya kaha apne? Thodi to maryada rakhiye…

Rubiqa Liaquat: Modiji, aap to aag ki tarah athak sulagate rahte hain har samay, kabhii dhiimii aanch pe to kabhii prbal ujjwaltaa ke saath ke puure andhere kaa naash kar aag bhuja deN. aap thakte nahii hain?

ABP News: Kya alien ne lagayi thi aag? Janiye ABP news par.

Aaj Tak: Aag ke peecha Dawood Ibrahim ka haath.

India TV: Kiski bhatakti aatma ne lagayi yeh aag? India TV ne kari atma se do-took baat.

Navika Kumar: Viewers and friends, today Times Now has exclusively accessed Rhea Chakraborty’s private Whatsapp chats! Every third message by her to her friends says ‘lit’ with a fire emoji. Clearly proves her role in the fire.

Smita Prakash: Sources tell me the fire is a handiwork of anti-Modi forces.

Shishir Gupta: Revealed: How NSA Ajit Doval facilitated the paradropping of bravehearts from RSS at site of fire.

Praveen Swami: New group called Gali Mohalla Mujahideen had been planning fire, secret IB intercepts show…
…On the disaster that followed this hubris, the historian Thucydides wrote: “Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all.” This, he explained, was because “that which is farthest off, and the reputation of which can least be tested, is the object of admiration”.

Arnab Goswami: Jalaa do inhe! Jalaa do! Ye aag nahii bujhegii friends! Ye aag nahii bujhegiiiiiiii!

Barkha Dutt: How I braved 1042 kms when I heard about the fire and could not stop my tears on the way thinking about the heartbreaking agony of the victims who have been singed in this singular catastrophe to have befallen north 24 Parganas

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: The duopoly of fire and water in a majoritarian democracy like India is a dangerous, unprecedented slide. It will take India decades to recover from it.

Abhijit Iyer Mitra: This is a new kind of threat. It’s ‘Fire Jihad’, and the libbie-lobby is whitewashing it.

Swati Chaturvedi: I had already exposed this fire in my book, people. Go read it. Here’s the link.

Rajdeep Sardesai: As Kishore da poignantly sang, Chinagri koii bhadke to saavan use bujhayye. Saavan jo agan lagaaye, use kaun bujhaaye. G’night friends. Shubhratri.

Karan Thapar: You may question why this fire took place. You may also question why a fire and not water. But can you question? I will now question the fire.

Shekhar Gupta: You may have seen all these reports on all these things and I’m sorry I’ve not been able to deal with it in Cut the Clutter earlier. But why is this an issue? For this we need to look at Indira Gandhi’s decision in 1975. (does jazz hands)

Rana Ayyub: I have some wonderful news to share. The International Fire Reporters Collective have just selected me for an award. Its an honour. I am humbled and will keep fighting untruths.

Sadanand Dhume: Unless Indian liberals come clean and condemn arson, such fires will keep taking place.

Yogendra Yadav: We need samnavaya and samvaad and not vivaad. English-speaking urban elite are incapable of comprehending it and need to introspect. Rashtra bhasha meN karnaa hogaa. KaThin hai prantuu ho saktaa hai

Vir Sanghvi: I interviewed Sonia Gandhi in Allahabad in 1999 and she told me Rajiv Gandhi was most concerned about the fires that plague India.

Ravish Kumar: Aag mein jhulajhte Huey gareeb kisan aur bhooke majdoor ki kahani kaun batayega? Kya Modi ji ke New India mein unki kahani raakh ke neechay dab ke reh jayegi?

Rohini Singh: Before I go to Khan Market and take one more selfie with my iPhone, will the UP Police please explain me why such fires are still taking place despite my Twitter activism against them?

Swapan Dasgupta: I was a firsthand witness to the fires that Sri Advani’s rath left in its wake – a reminder that historical wrongs need immediate and urgent redressal, as Nirad Babu reminded us quoting Churchill about the Great Fire of London 1666.

Aatish Taseer: I know what it’s like when a building is set on fire. It is this fire of hate that I lost my Pakistani father to. Did I tell you about my Pakistani father?

Aakar Patel: That one time when Hanuman set fire to the Dravidian Scholar Ravan’s Palace.

Devdutt Patnaik: Indians have long worshipped Agni, the Vedic fire god of the Vedas. Their refusal to take responsibility can directly be traced to this ancient practice

Shivam Vij: If only Rahul Gandhi had taken my advice and bought fire extinguishers…

Addendum based on suggestions after publication:

The News Minute: While an empty building set on fire in Delhi has become the centre of a national debate, what about fires that have caused severe devastation in South India? 20 years after Carlton towers….

R Jagganathan: The fire incident has to be studied with nuance. For one, it is not Indic enough.

Rahul Gandhi should adopt Modi’s scripted political communication style


By Shivam Vij for ThePrint, 30 April 2020

Rahul Gandhi’s 30-minute chat with ex-RBI governor Raghuram Rajan on a video call has made the former Congress president look better than any interview or press conference he has ever done.

He would do well to engage in many more such interactions on video call chats and put them out for public consumption. He could have such chats with Congress chief ministers and workers, with experts around the country and the world. This format suits Rahul Gandhi for many reasons. For one, it is not designed to make him face tough questions. Continue reading “Rahul Gandhi should adopt Modi’s scripted political communication style”

Mahatma Gandhi is arriving shortly

By Shivam Vij for The Print, 30 September 2019

When the scorching heat of the Indian summer gets beyond unbearable, the monsoon rains arrive. No matter how little or how abundant the rains are, they carry with them the promise of life.

Like the summer heat, people suffer growing oppression as a test of their patience. Eventually, a hero emerges, overthrowing the oppressors. Continue reading “Mahatma Gandhi is arriving shortly”

Is Jealousy The Reason For Hindutva’s Biryaniphobia?

By Shivam Vij

(This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 8 September 2016.)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

On orders of the Gau Sewa Ayog, or the Cow Service Commission of the Haryana government, the state’s special task force to check cow smuggling and slaughter will go around collecting biryani samples in Mewat. The Mewat district is 79% Muslim, and is always an area of suspicion in Hindutva eyes.

The Cow Service Commission says it has received many complaints of beef in Mewati biryani. Whether or not anyone needs to support their complaint with evidence to get the Gau Raksha Ayog and the Haryana police into action, is not clear. But now they want to look for evidence.

The troubling question is, why only biryani? While they are at it, why not collect samples of curries too? Continue reading “Is Jealousy The Reason For Hindutva’s Biryaniphobia?”

India should revert its citizenship laws to Jus Soli – citizenship by birth

[This article first appeared in ThePrint on 2 January 2020.]

We have all heard of NRI families who consciously choose to have their baby in the United States so that the child is automatically a US citizen from day one. For this ‘privilege’ of jus soli, or citizenship by birth, NRIs must thank this man:

In 1857, when Indians were mutinying against the British Raj, Dred Scott was a slave in the United States who appealed to the US Supreme Court for his freedom and that of his family. The US Supreme Court ruled that African Americans like him were not US citizens, even if they were born in the US and lived all their lives there, in slavery.

Read more.

Indian liberals must reconsider their rejection of Mahatma Gandhi

By Shivam Vij for The Print, 2 October 2019

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Westminster Square in London. Photo by Shivam Vij

Was Gandhi gay? Was he racist? Did he assault his nieces? Wasn’t his food faddism a bit too comical? Was he the enemy of Dalits? With questions like these, over the decades, Gandhi has been assailed and brought down by the holier-than-thou radicals of the world. In doing so, they have helped the world forget the central reason why Gandhi mattered: his political techniques of resistance.

You don’t have to agree with Gandhi on anything at all, and you could still be inspired by satyagraha, by non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. Some years ago, when Anna Hazare sat on a fast, there were people who were irritated by his use of Gandhian means of politics. What a fraud, they said, he is not Gandhian, he’s an RSS agent. Yet, even Narendra Modi once sat on a Gandhi-style ‘Sadbhavna’ fast. Continue reading “Indian liberals must reconsider their rejection of Mahatma Gandhi”

What Priyanka Gandhi Vadra could learn from Mahatma Gandhi

By Shivam Vij for ThePrint, 6 September 2019

Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint
Illustration by Soham Sen for ThePrint

When Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in January 1915, someone asked him how much time it would take him to start a people’s movement in India, just like he had done in South Africa. He thought about it and replied, “five years”.

As it happened, it took him only two-and-a-half years. Continue reading “What Priyanka Gandhi Vadra could learn from Mahatma Gandhi”

How Narendra Modi uses narrative as a political tool to retain his voters and win over new ones

(This essay has appeared in the July 2019 issue of the journal ‘Seminar‘ under the title ‘Modi was the message’.)


Narendra Modi’s use of narrative as a political tool is akin to how a versatile batsman plays cricket. He can deal with any kind of ball thrown at him, exploiting opportunities to score sixes and warding off threats to remain on the pitch. Continue reading “How Narendra Modi uses narrative as a political tool to retain his voters and win over new ones”

Why BJP will rule India uninterrupted for the next 30 years, till 2049

(This article first appeared in ThePrint on 5 June 2019.)


In a job interview, the hiring manager decided to put the candidate at ease with small talk. He asked the candidate, what’s your favourite fruit? Considering it is the season of mangoes, surely you like mangoes?

Instead of giving a simple answer, the candidate replied, “I do Vipassana”. The manager was flummoxed. What’s Vipassana got to do with any fruit? Continue reading “Why BJP will rule India uninterrupted for the next 30 years, till 2049”