Throughout its 96 years of existence, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of the Hindutva-oriented Sangh Parivar, has time and again proven its skills to launch “special purpose vehicles” in the form of dedicated outfits or special programmes designed to carry out specific political and organisational tasks. The Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, which were instrumental in developing and advancing an emotive and aggressive communal campaign on the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue since the mid-1980s, are cases in point. As the second wave of COVID-19 rages, inflicting unprecedented misery on large segments of the population and exposing the multiple deficiencies and criminal negligence of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, the RSS has launched yet another “special purpose vehicle” titled the Covid Response Team (CRT). The CRT, self-professedly, is a collective formed by the RSS and a number of affiliates, including civil society groups. As the name suggests, it was formed after the pandemic set in and its convenor, Lt-Gen (retd) Gurmeet Singh, told the media that it had initiated several relief activities for COVID victims.
However, the CRT captured widespread attention on account of a big-ticket lecture series titled “Positivity Unlimited”, which was broadcast daily on 400 media platforms, with live shows in the government-controlled national television broadcaster Doordarshan and also Lok Sabha TV and Rajya Sabha TV run by Parliament. Held between May 11 and 15, the series paraded a number of well-known individuals such as Wipro chairman Azim Premji, Infosys Foundation chairperson Sudha Murthy and “spiritual leaders” like Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Sri Sri Ravishankar, and Jain Muni Prananath. RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat delivered the concluding speech. The aim of the lecture series, according to Gurmeet Singh, was to “boost the morale of the public and encourage them to fight this together and give hope that we shall win eventually”. He added: “Inculcating confidence in society, setting aside fear, hopelessness, helplessness and negativity, motivating people to brace up for a long haul with huge societal changes after COVID-19 is the idea behind the ‘Positivity Unlimited’ talk series.”
The social and political context in which “Positivity Unlimited” was pushed through, however, laid it open to many other interpretations. Many of these recalled the Sangh Parivar’s history of unleashing multiple voices in the public sphere, causing confusion among the people, side-tracking real issues and advancing its own vested interests, social and political. The natural conclusion in these interpretations was that the CRT was designed to divert public attention from the Modi government’s multi-dimensional failures and gloss over the undeniable political fallout that the administrative fiascos were having on the BJP and its allies.
The CRT came in the wake of stunning reverses the BJP suffered in the recent Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala at the hands of the Trinamool Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam ( DMK)-led Secular Progressive Alliance and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front respectively. The results were announced on May 2. Three days later, the results of local body elections in Uttar Pradesh signalled a further decline in the BJP’s political fortunes. The Samajwadi Party (S.P.) won as many as 804 seats, whereas the ruling BJP got 601, smashing the big expectations of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Mayawati got 355 seats and the Congress, led by Priyanka Gandhi, got 72 seats.
Sangh Parivar insiders see this defeat in a State considered to be a Hindutva bastion as “more serious” than the setbacks in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. These States have not historically shown any proclivity for Hindutva ideology and political practice and the reverses were perhaps “more or less expected”. But the reverses in Uttar Pradesh cannot be explained away that easily. A senior RSS activist based in Lucknow told Frontline : “Even more shocking is the way we suffered reverses in the renowned Hindutva strongholds of Ayodhya, Varanasi, Mathura and Gorakhpur as well as in the State capital of Lucknow.” The BJP was humbled by the BSP in Mathura and by the S.P. in all other places. In Varanasi, the S.P. won 15 of the 40 wards, the BJP and the BSP won seven each and the Congress won five. In Ayodhya, the S.P. got 24 of the 40 wards, while the BJP won six and the BSP five wards. In Gorakhpur, the BJP won 20 of the 68 wards, just one more than the S.P.’s 19. The S.P. has come up with a stellar performance in Pilibhit, Kasganj, Amroha, Rampur, Meerut and Aligarh districts. It has the upper hand in Hapur, Bijnor, Moradabad, Sambhal, Bareilly, Etah and Firozabad.
Several leaders of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar across the State admitted to Frontline that the mishandling of the COVID pandemic was one of the most striking and immediate reasons for the serial setbacks in the Assembly and the local body elections. The senior RSS activist said: “For the first time since his ascent to power in 2014, there is a big question mark on Prime Minister Modi’s administrative abilities and his commitment to the people and the tenets of good governance. There is an increasing number of people in society who believe that the Prime Minister is just interested in his image and self-protection. This perception and the consequent political fallout were evident in the three Assembly elections. And now Uttar Pradesh is showing that even intense Hindutva cannot be an antidote for this reversal of political fortunes.”
International agencies and media platforms such as the renowned medical journal Lancet and popular dailies in different continents, including London Times and Australian have also been critical of the Prime Minister. In a damning editorial critique, Lancet pointed out that “at times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the Covid-19 pandemic”. It went on to add: “Modi’s actions in attempting to stifle criticism and open discussion during the crisis are inexcusable. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that India will see a staggering 1 million deaths from Covid-19 by August 1. If that outcome was to happen, Modi’s government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe.” Lancet added that India squandered its early successes in controlling COVID-19 and that until April the government’s COVID-19 taskforce had not met in months. “The consequences of that decision are clear before us, and India must now restructure its response while the crisis rages. The success of that effort will depend on the government owning up to its mistakes, providing responsible leadership and transparency, and implementing a public health response that has science at its heart,” the editorial said. Earlier, London Times and Australian had published similarly strong worded criticism of the Modi government’s track record. The overall perception was that the Modi government has lost control over both the pandemic and the economy.
In defence of Modi
Under normal circumstances, Modi and his team are known to take such international opprobrium in their stride, even going to the extent of belittling and disparaging international experts and media commentators. However, the electoral reverses in recent times called for some counter-offensive. The “Positivity Unlimited” lecture series is evidently part of this project. Around the same time as the initiation of the series, the BJP’s propaganda outfit, including the IT Cell, launched concerted drives to boost the image of the Great Leader.
As part of this campaign, there was the mass tweeting of an article in a little-known online paper The Daily Guardian . The article titled “PM MODI HAS BEEN WORKING HARD; DON’T GET TRAPPED IN THE OPPOSITION’S BARBS” is attributed to BJP media relations convener Sudesh Verma. It said: “People cried for oxygen and the Chief Ministers cried too, trying to blame the Union government. There surely must be one person who is not allowing them to work for the welfare of people. To them it is the failure of the Central government to provide oxygen to the States. However, when asked to explain why different States have performed differently, they have no answer. So, the blame must lie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Why is he not crying in a country where talking is taken as acting, where bravado is seen as a sign of leadership? His critics are attacking with vengeance and creating optics that the pandemic has happened due to him and due to his inability to tackle the situation. Why did he address election rallies? Why did he allow the Kumbh Mela? Why did he not impose a nationwide lock down like last time? Most attacks hover around these issues.”
Verma’s article goes on to “understand what the Prime Minister has been doing when the Chief Ministers were crying and doing politics”. He says: “Here is a Prime Minister who tries to work silently when a crisis comes and does not react to political statements since this is not the time to take the bull by the horns.” “He focusses on channelising his energy into finding solutions and works with double speed. If he also becomes a cry baby like the others, who will come up with a solution? I would not have defended him since the person who is the best speaker in the country does not need a minion like me to defend him. But I am angry. Angry that we seem to be losing our critical faculty. Facts and logic work no more. Modi’s critics have been trying to systematically destroy him by painting a negative image. But he has come out with flying colours every time. This is because he believes in the philosophy of nishkaam karm (selfless work) and stithpragya (to stay steadfast in every situation)—the two ideals suggested by Lord Krishna in the Bhagwad Gita for a karmyogi. But we must ponder, are we doing the right thing by targeting a man without even a shade of civility? Society should not become so ungrateful. We should not crucify our saviour every time.” Verma goes on to suggest that an international conspiracyalong with the culpable dramatics of Chief Ministers led to the criticism of Modi and his COVID track record.
The Daily Guardian is of course a small-time publication not known widely. But the kind of redistribution Verma’s article got in social media platforms was mind-boggling, with Ministers and senior functionaries of the Sangh Parivar competing with one another to promote it. The reason is not far to seek. The counteroffensive had taken shape and was rolling. There were other signs of the orchestrated nature of this campaign. Just a week prior to the beginning of the “Positivity Unlimited” lecture series, some 300 officials of the Central government were called in for a workshop with the professed objective of enhancing the government’s image. The workshop, apparently gave guidance and training to officials to “create a positive image of the government”, manage “perception through effectively highlighting positive stories and achievements”, and make the government “seen to be sensitive, bold, quick, responsive, and hard-working”. The Twitter handle of “Mann Ki Baat”, which is used often by the Prime Minister, also sought suggestions from the public on the “power of positivity”. The subject, apparently, was to be one of the talking points of Modi in the next edition of “Mann Ki Baat” scheduled for May 30. The tweet said: “This month’s #MannKiBaat is back again—to celebrate the power of positivity and the strengths of 130 crore Indians! Have any inspiring story to share with PM Shri @narendramodi?”
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and poll strategist Prashant Kishor have come out openly against this mega push on “positivity”. “The false assurance of ‘positive thinking’ is a joke on those families and health workers who have lost their loved ones and are suffering a crisis of oxygen, hospitals and medicines. Burying one’s head in the sand is not positive—it is a betrayal of our citizens,” Rahul Gandhi tweeted. Prashant Kishor said it is “disgusting” to push “propaganda” in the name of spreading positivity. “In the face of a grieving nation and tragedies unfolding all around us, the continued attempt to push FALSEHOOD and PROPAGANDA in the name of spreading POSITIVITY is disgusting! For being positive we don’t have to become blind propagandist of the government,” Kishor tweeted.
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Such criticism had not deterred the propaganda machine. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev stated on the inaugural day of the “Positivity Unlimited” lecture series that the “daily number of Covid-19 cases were irrelevant now as so many people were suffering from it”. He added that “these numbers may be of guidance to the administration, but I think it is time to shift to a place where we educate people on how to handle this, how to handle the symptoms”. Clearly, the distract and digress games to make light of the gravity of the pandemic and its effect as well as minimise the social and political damage the current crisis is causing to Modi and his government are well on course and firing on multiple cylinders.
But even as these operations continue, there is skepticism within the Sangh Parivar itself, especially the BJP, about whether such obfuscation ploys will be as effective as they were in the past, given the public outrage and the overall political drift it is causing.