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Modi Equals ‘140 Crore’ Indians? No, Definitely Not.

It is a catchy hook to hold onto – in Gujarat, it was 'six crore Gujaratis,' to try and turn all criticism and concerns into a case of ‘hurt Gujarati asmita’. Modi has translated that to ‘140 crore’ now. But he does not speak for '140 crore’. Here’s why.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi told people in Dindori, Maharashtra on May 15, “The love and blessings of 140 crore countrymen are my real strength. I am addressing a huge public gathering in Dindori, Maharashtra.”

Modi has consistently been saying he is about the “140 crore” people; that he represents “140 crore”.

He told India TV on May 14, that “by describing me as dictator, Opposition is insulting 140 crore Indians.”

At a rally in Adilabad on March 4 he said, “140 crore people of the country are my family”.

On March 16, his handle on X, spoke of being “powered by 140 crore.”

In response to the Motion of Thanks to the President of India in parliament on February 8, Modi said “false accusations” – criticisms levelled against his government by the opposition – would not cut ice with the people of India, as “the blessings of 140 crore Indians” was his “Suraksha Kavach (shield)”.

140 crore works to buttress the “largest democracy” and “most populous country” global positioning Modi hopes to be an emblem of.

140 crore is the new “six crore Gujaratis” that Modi would use as the chief minister of Gujarat to deflect and try to neutralise criticism of the horrific ‘laboratory’ that Gujarat was turned into in 2002. Modi claimed he was all of Gujarat – all six crore people – so no one dare raise serious issues concerning those who were left out by design of Gujarat Under Modi, to quote the title of Christophe Jaffrelot’s latest book on India.

Why this is wrong and flawed

When a leader like Modi, who prioritises his own image, presence and being above all else, says he is about all and therefore above board, it becomes important to examine this “140 crore”.

Clinically speaking, how many are those who vote for the BJP, even if one were to count all those who vote for the BJP to be those who vote for Modi? In 2019, the BJP got 37.36% of the votes polled. Of the total electorate of 912 million, and considering a turnout of 67%, this translates to the highest number of votes the BJP has ever got. The number comes to approximately 228.28 million votes, which is 22.82 crore. Not 140 crore.

Margins of victory of over 50% came in 224 seats. In terms of regions, the skew was huge. Large, outsized victories in urban areas in the North and West conceal the sparse votes in the South, other than in Karnataka. Across religious identities too, there is a sharp polarisation and support is overwhelmingly in a particular demographic.

What drives the nail sharply into Modi’s claim of “140 crore” is Modi himself, standing and proceeding to divide by name (Musalmaan), insinuation (woh jo kapdon se pehchaane jaa sakte hain, ghuspaithiye, jinke bahut bachhe hote hain) and indirectly by tarring parties that claim a more inclusive palette, as ‘anti-Hindu’. In doing so, Modi frames the idea of composite India – which should be the basis of any sweeping ‘140-crore’ claim – as ‘anti-Hindu’ as well.

When “speaking up” on atrocities in other countries, it is anti-Hindu violence that India responds to. A case in point was Australia last year, when Modi personally raised the matter of graffiti on temples. Later, the local police suggested this was an inside job of a local organisation and the matter was closed. This is about Modi-speak personally, we are not even discussing the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 here.

The lines written and spoken in Banswara, Rajasthan on April 21 by Modi were not unusual, if the long graph of his public speaking is to be taken into consideration. As a colleague pointed out, if someone were to attend that rally directly after following Modi’s campaign pit stops in 2002 when he was chief minister in Gujarat, there would be no surprises. India’s mainstream media, staffed with aware and smart seniors who are well familiar with what happened then and all that was said, then and now, are also the ones who are too terrified or reluctant to call out the deep inconsistencies or plainly spoken lies of Modi.

A journalist, Vineet Kumar in his latest book on Indian journalism, Media ka Loktantra, refers to ‘Error 404 journalism’. This, he says, is when journalists or old media houses are happy to gag or make their own coverage of past news which involved Modi or his ideology go missing.

The ‘development’ cover was a tough one to unmask. Modi, in the initial years of becoming prime minister, believed that he did not need to remind his supporters of what he really believed in. For some reason, in the middle of this election campaign, he has felt the need to go into deep rewind and sharply invoke a fractured nation – not a single unit of ‘140 crore’ at all.

140-crore choke

On May 14, as he filed his nomination, Modi choked up and denied the implications of speeches he has made. This could have many reasons. One can imagine that this is mostly to try to correct serious long-term damage his hate speech could do to the longest makeover campaign in modern Indian politics. But irrespective of the election result, the impact of his crude lines dividing Indians have already left an indelible mark on India. It may prove tougher to wash away than the EC’s indelible ink.

His speeches make one thing very clear. There is no ‘140 crore’ he should think of speaking on behalf of. Modi’s vision for India, relying necessarily on dividing the conception of Indian nationalism and demonising some of the most backward and dispossessed people in the world is dark and dreary. It pushes us into reverse gear in a way we have not really known since 1950. Whatever the imperfections and horrors that have come India’s way since, the person elected to India’s highest office has rarely gone so low. 

It is wrong in principle to make assertions that any one speaks for ‘140 crore’ in such a large and diverse country. But it is a well established dictatorial trope to claim one’s own mann ki baat as the nation’s. It was wrong of Modi to talk and behave like a monarch, and deflect accountability.

India speaks in many voices, ‘140 crore’ speak, think and are unique. That is what the promise of democracy must offer.

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