Of Modi And His Priorities

It isn’t that a person occupying high office has no right to do what he/she likes. For sure, they do; after all, they are human.
But there are also things like priority, timing and sense of larger country.
Sadly, we live in a world awash in tunnel vision, asserts Shyam G Menon.

Sunday, November 19, 2023. It was exactly a week since a portion of an under-construction tunnel collapsed in Uttarkashi, trapping 41 workers.

In the ensuing days, communication was established with the trapped workers along with supply of oxygen, water, food and medicines.

Media reports said that there was electricity supply in the section of the tunnel the workers were in.

The workers being safe was a good starting point for rescue operations.

But there were at least two instances of breakdown involving the drilling equipment used to secure passage through the caved-in portion and reach them.

Roughly two days before the incident became a week old, news reports said the prime minister’s office was now involved and multiple options of rescue were being explored.

Being trapped and sealed off from the outside world, impacts not just those directly involved in the mishap but also people hearing of such incidents and visualising the scene in their head.

No wonder news of earthquake, avalanche and landslide rattles us.

The urgency of response required for the Uttarkashi incident wasn’t hard for anyone to imagine.

Probably because the gravity of being trapped in the collapsed tunnel was quickly comprehended, the Indian media maintained regular coverage of the rescue efforts albeit — as some have pointed out – with the expected highlighting of the government’s efforts, a style of reporting characteristic of India’s years under Narendra Modi.

Mercifully, some reports also provided voice to the relatives of the workers gathered at the site and their growing anxiety.

In contrast to the tunnel-ambiance the workers were trapped in, November 19 was all about celebrating spectacle in a large arena open to the sky – the world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad.

India had entered the finals of the cricket World Cup in spectacular fashion, without losing a single game.

The Indian team appeared to be in top form.

The match scheduled for November 19 was to be witnessed by Modi and the deputy prime minister of Australia, Richard Marles.

Ahead of the final, there were reports of steeply priced hotel rooms in Ahmedabad and tight security arrangements featuring thousands of police personnel.

The aerobatics team of the Indian Air Force was set to perform.

It was the place to be in for fans of cricket and those for who, being seen at such events, mattered.

The latter is a distinct trend of our times. Its public relations (PR).

In the days preceding the World Cup, the Indian prime minister had shown his flair for PR.

On November 18, he responded on social media to a general thank you message from Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, who had just visited India.

What prompted the prime minister’s post on Jagger (replete with references to the cult Stones songs: You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Satisfaction) puzzled me for even though the band’s logo may have been inspired by the facial expression found in depictions of the Hindu goddess Kali, a life in rock music had rarely qualified to be the stuff of high merit in religion with conservative interpretations.

And religion with a conservative emphasis and moral policing was what at least some of the followers of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party periodically doled out, haunting the peace of others.

What else should one make of the known conduct of Hindutva’s fringe outfits?

However, if you equate celebrity with being wherever attention and eyeballs are possible, then the post on Jagger and the compulsion to be in Ahmedabad for the World Cup final may be understood.

I couldn’t see this in any other way, particularly when the clock was ticking for the 41 workers stuck in a tunnel for the seventh day, in Uttarkashi.

It wasn’t as though a different imagination was impossible.

As per news reports, on November 12, the same day as the tunnel collapsed, Modi was in Lepcha, Himachal Pradesh, celebrating Diwali with soldiers. Let’s not go into the PR aspect of such gestures.

The relevance in spending Diwali with the armed forces is one of being with those who are away from family during a major festival, courtesy their professional compulsions.

They feel included and their sacrifices acknowledged, through the prime minister’s presence at their place of posting.

By the same yardstick, with the rescue process taking time, Modi could have been in Uttarkashi and providing an element of purpose and urgency to the rescue operations, instead of enjoying cricket in Ahmedabad on Sunday.

His being in the stadium or not, had no bearing on the game while the prime minister’s physical presence could have made a difference in a case of time-bound, urgent work with lives at stake.

He could also have avoided trying to look cool with comments on Jagger’s trip, when at the time he (or his office) was making such posts, the trapped workers were enduring an abjectly different reality.

As an ordinary citizen, I was disappointed by these acts.

It isn’t that a person occupying high office has no right to do what he/she likes. For sure, they do; after all, they are human.

But there are also things like priority, timing and sense of larger country. Sadly, we live in a world awash in tunnel vision.

In the end in Ahmedabad, a lot of celebrities was all that India had to show for its performance in the World Cup final.

Despite India’s strong performance in the matches leading to the final, the country was squarely beaten by Australia.

Over a thousand kilometres from the world’s biggest cricket stadium and the photo opportunities it offered, the 41 men trapped in the tunnel in Uttarkashi, continued their wait to be rescued.

On November 19, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari visited the site of the mishap.

According to a subsequent news report, the minister — he anticipated a breakthrough in two -and-a-half days — said that it should be everyone’s collective responsibility to keep the morale of the workers and their family members, high.

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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