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NEW DELHI – When India gasped for air at the height of its Covid devastation, its leader appeared to be advising its people to just breathe normally.
The instructions, a bit of yoga advice for the stressed out, came from one of the many social media accounts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who with his powerful rhetoric and digital dexterity has become India’s most dominant leader in decades. But the tweet showed how India’s master of public perception increasingly struggled to get his message across, and exposed the limits of his ability to control the narrative.
The ubiquitous Mr Modi had largely disappeared from the public eye as his government proved powerless to stop the deaths and growing criticism of his performance. As his polls plummet and his allies scramble to make his case on India’s talk shows, he and his supervisors have increasingly pushed for “positive” messaging and wellness tips.
The campaign is struggling to connect. “Sit in a comfortable meditative position,” read a tweet from one of Mr. Modi’s many accountsprojecting his diverse personalities – this one the wise yoga guru. “Keep your spine upright. Put your hands on your thighs. Gently close your eyes and lift your face up slightly. Breathe normally. “
Answered one Commentator: “It’s like rubbing wounds with salt.”
In return, Mr. Modi tried to suppress dissenting opinions. His government has gotten into a chaotic showdown with social media platforms for removing critical content. Police in Delhi, the capital, arrested at least 20 people for posting posters denouncing Modi’s use of vaccinations. A Modi protégé, head of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, threatened those who complained of oxygen starvation.
On Monday as India’s official death and infection numbers fell, Mr Modi tried to seize the moment and change the narrative. In a rare televised address since the second wave began in April, he stated that the central government would help all 900 million adults get free vaccines, a reversal of his previous policy that had forced state governments into chaotic competition for limited supplies. A spokesman said Mr Modi was too busy “quiet work and work and work” to be public speaking during the pandemic.
The positivity boost from Mr. Modi appears to be an attempt to drown out the dissatisfaction. A survey found disapproval, as Mr Modi has gained around 10 percentage points since the second wave intensified. In another poll, one in six people said they had lost a loved one and blamed first central government and then “fate” for their loss.
“So much death, so much despair – children lost their parents overnight, older parents lost their young children, people lost their spouses,” said Shruti Chaturvedi, an entrepreneur who works in Goa state. “How dare we tell them to be positive?”
According to a survey, Mr. Modi’s approval is still over 60 percent. But growing dissatisfaction suggests that the Prime Minister may not be able to easily change public opinion by promoting emotional nationalist concerns or changing his image as he has done in the past. Rather, like any other politician, he is increasingly judged on his ability to perform.
“There was a template – when you make problems invisible, you don’t want to focus on the rest of the population and convince the rest of the population that only the visible part is the whole part that seemed to work in the past,” said Kota Neelima, the founder of the Institute of Perception Studies in New Delhi. But in a once-in-a-century disaster, she said, “You can actually tell that the government is absent.”
Perhaps the most illuminating criticism came from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful organization with millions of members that has long been committed to India’s conversion into a Hindu state and has its hopes on Mr. Modi.
The RSS recently attempted to help the Positivity campaign by giving a series of presentations from influential figures called Positivity Unlimited. But in his own speech, Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, could not completely avert the guilt of Modi’s government: both the government and the people have lowered their vigilance, he said.
Mr. Modi acquired many of his communicator skills as an RSS volunteer, said Badri Narayan, a social historian and political analyst who has written extensively on the group. His “language of mobilization” emphasizes storytelling full of symbolism that reflects thousands of years of history.
“He was trained in this pedagogy,” said Mr. Narayan. “He came to learn how to use storytelling for bigger messages, and he developed that training in his own way.”
How Mr Modi will emerge from the pandemic may depend on these talents who saved him in the past.
To become prime minister, Mr. Modi overcame a reputation tarnished by his alleged involvement in inciting religious violence when he was prime minister of Gujarat state two decades ago. For a while, he was banned from entering the United States because he violated freedom of religion. He successfully described himself as a Hindu nationalist who could become India’s development champion. Shortly after his election victory in 2014, he traveled to New York and spoke for an hour in the crowded Madison Square Garden to chants of “Modi! Modes! Modes! “
In seven years as prime minister, he has strictly controlled his image. He prefers choreographed rallies and selective interviews over press conferences, avoids vulnerability and at the same time offers a lot of content for his social media apparatus and his network of prominent supporters.
In the face of the crisis, Mr. Modi has demonstrated his talent for inventing a new narrative and changing personalities, including combative national champions, digital leaders, and spiritual leaders. Sometimes he could seem deeply associative, sometimes mostly. And he had what the opposition lacked: the ability to get his message viral.
During the 2019 election, when the economy was weakening, he highlighted the threat from Pakistan. Referring to an earlier remark Mr. Modi made, his party projected him as the toughest “guardian in the nation” and boasted of the size of Mr. Modi’s chest as a sign of his strength.
Shortly before the vote, he visited a temple and went into a cave to meditate to underline his religious devotion. The way was covered by a red carpet and surrounded by cameras. There were even photos and footage of Mr. Modi meditating in the little cave.
After the first wave of viruses last year, Mr Modi declared victory, saying India had “taken a proactive approach” and “saved all of humanity from a great tragedy”. He was transformed into the image of a wise man serving the nation. He let his beard grow. His office posted a video of Mr. Modi feeding peacock babies, walking adult birds with full plumage, and looking over documents with one at his feet.
When the second wave hit, Mr. Modi was on the campaign, bragging about the size of the crowd, and taking down opponents. Experts now say these rallies undermined social distancing warnings.
Mr. Modi and his allies have tried to drown out the negative voices as they strive to address catastrophic oxygen starvation and poorly managed vaccine deliveries. The main tactic seems to be the threat to get critics bogged down in India’s labyrinthine judicial system.
In Delhi, central government police arrested more than 20 people last month for hanging posters criticizing Modi’s handling of the vaccination campaign. The posters were made by the party governing Delhi, which has come into conflict with Mr Modi’s party. But the arrests for a simple protest in the country’s capital sparked shock waves.
Mr. Modi can now be judged less on his rhetoric and ideology than on his ability to provide services, historian Narayan said.
“The debate will shift to a policy of medicalization, to the safety of the body,” said Narayan. “He’s speaking as prime minister so he needs to talk about the delivery.”
Hari Kumar Reporting contributed.