Analysis

Why Modi Is Suddenly Everywhere

After his disastrous handling of COVID-19, India’s prime minister is attempting to seize back the narrative.

By , an independent journalist in New Delhi and the author of Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World.
Bharatiya Janata Party workers gather to celebrate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 71st birthday in Srinagar, India, on Sept. 17.
Bharatiya Janata Party workers gather to celebrate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 71st birthday in Srinagar, India, on Sept. 17. Photo by TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

Among India’s 1.4 billion people, there can hardly be one who isn’t now intimately familiar with every wrinkle and whisker on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s face. Over the past few months, Indians have been made to regard his features as closely as they do their own. His appearance—from the shape of his eyebrows to the sweep of his hair—may shift from one photo to the next. The color and position of his stole may change. And his smile comes and goes, only widening into a grin in the presence of an American president or an Emirati royal. But there he is, seemingly everywhere at once: newspaper ads, billboards, social media livestreams, the backs of municipal trucks, even vaccine certificates.

No one else is allowed to encroach on his aura. Not the thankful beneficiaries of his government’s social schemes, whose photos are getting smaller in promotional ads. Not the chief ministers of states governed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose smallest of achievements are credited to the prime minister’s vision. Not even some of his close colleagues in the national cabinet, whose faces are replaced by his own on posters announcing their official appearances.

Few were surprised to see Modi’s visage greeting visitors at an event in Lakshadweep in early October, celebrating the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. The faces of two other BJP leaders also appeared at the entrance but at a respectful distance from Modi’s. Gandhi’s own face was conspicuously missing from this showcase, which was titled “I am Gandhi.”

Among India’s 1.4 billion people, there can hardly be one who isn’t now intimately familiar with every wrinkle and whisker on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s face. Over the past few months, Indians have been made to regard his features as closely as they do their own. His appearance—from the shape of his eyebrows to the sweep of his hair—may shift from one photo to the next. The color and position of his stole may change. And his smile comes and goes, only widening into a grin in the presence of an American president or an Emirati royal. But there he is, seemingly everywhere at once: newspaper ads, billboards, social media livestreams, the backs of municipal trucks, even vaccine certificates.

No one else is allowed to encroach on his aura. Not the thankful beneficiaries of his government’s social schemes, whose photos are getting smaller in promotional ads. Not the chief ministers of states governed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose smallest of achievements are credited to the prime minister’s vision. Not even some of his close colleagues in the national cabinet, whose faces are replaced by his own on posters announcing their official appearances.

Few were surprised to see Modi’s visage greeting visitors at an event in Lakshadweep in early October, celebrating the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. The faces of two other BJP leaders also appeared at the entrance but at a respectful distance from Modi’s. Gandhi’s own face was conspicuously missing from this showcase, which was titled “I am Gandhi.”

Yet it was only months ago that Modi could hardly be found. Ordinary Indians didn’t see him, hear from him, or know where he was. That was during the eight weeks of the pandemic’s second wave, which marked one of the most tragic times for India since the horrific violence of the nation’s partition in 1947. Thousands of people died daily through April and May while their families were scrambling for hospital beds, oxygen tanks, and critical medicines. Crematoriums ran out of space, funerals became unaffordable, and India’s holy Ganges river swelled with dead bodies dropped off by bereft families. The prime minister refused to engage with the crisis, let alone manage it, even as the Indian internet turned into a mass plea for help.

Now that Modi is decidedly back in the public eye, the question then is what his disappearance—and now his reappearance—means for India’s politics and its future. More so, if Modi’s media strategy works, will that mean he can repeat this cycle for several more years to come?


Back in May and June, when India was the COVID-19 capital of the world, Modi remained largely unreachable—only briefly appearing to attack his political opponents—and his government was repeatedly called out for underreporting COVID-19 deaths. Officially, India recorded more than 28 million infections and 329,100 deaths by June 1, but independent reports estimate the toll to be nearly six times higher. Modi’s indifference left his followers confused, disillusioned, and angry. They expressed their rage publicly, going on television and tagging him in their social media posts.

In interviews, some of Modi’s staunchest supporters across the BJP’s voter ranks expressed to me their deep frustration. Sameer Mayank, a businessman in Lucknow whose family has voted BJP throughout its electoral history, told me the party would have to pay for its failures. “To be honest, there are large numbers of people like me today. There is a sea of BJP supporters in Lucknow, but a tsunami of dissatisfaction is sweeping through us,” he said.

In Varanasi, the prime minister’s own parliamentary constituency, a once die-hard supporter named Rahul Rai expressed similar anger. He told me he tweeted desperate pleas to the prime minister and several others in the government and party when his father was dying from a lack of oxygen, but no one responded. “If they couldn’t help people like us, they could have at least stood by us,” he said.

In May, amid the deadly second wave of the coronavirus, two nationwide surveys showed Modi’s popularity to be fading: One showed his net approval to have dropped 22 points in April, and the other reported that the number of respondents “very much satisfied” with his performance had shrunk from 65 percent in mid-2020 to 37 percent. The slide in public approval represented a rare national-level setback since he first came to power in 2014. But once COVID-19 had burned through the country and begun to die out, Modi reappeared on the national stage. His look was decidedly somber: long beard, furrowed eyebrows, circles under his eyes. On May 21, he delivered a video address to the nation offering condolences for the deaths and devastation of the preceding weeks. However, neither he nor his government has ever taken responsibility for their callous mismanagement of the pandemic.

Soon after, as political focus shifted toward the next set of crucial state elections, Modi reengaged in savvier form, ready to take his usual place on the country’s newspaper front pages and billboards. Since then, he has been everywhere—including places where he clearly is not. Early in October, the government of the BJP-led state of Assam put up billboards announcing the inauguration of a cancer ward by India’s vice president, Venkaiah Naidu, but the face looming under his name was not his but Modi’s. This isn’t the first time the BJP has promoted Modi’s personal brand. However, the message isn’t the same this time. The ongoing blitz is aimed at separating Modi from his biggest political mistake, which was to let down voters who have stood with him regardless of how his years in power have impacted their lives.

Modi now aims to undo the political damage of the coronavirus catastrophe—while refusing to be held accountable for it—by promoting his own large-heartedness. Social security schemes are being renamed for him, and headlines report that he (and not the central or state government) is releasing funds for the needy. Special publicity campaigns have been launched to earn him further credit for coming to the people’s rescue. In September, the BJP kicked off a 20-day initiative to celebrate Modi’s 20 years in public life. As many as 140 million free grocery bags printed with the prime minister’s face were given out to the poor, and 50 million party workers sent him postcards thanking him for his selfless service to the nation.

Such public relations stunts have on occasion backfired. On Modi’s birthday on Sept. 17, the BJP vowed to set a record by vaccinating more than 20 million people. (India’s daily vaccination numbers were just over 3 million at the time.) Thousands of new vaccination centers were opened in BJP-governed states, and tens of thousands of additional health workers were recruited to meet the target. By that evening, 25 million people had reportedly received their shots, and the next day, Modi called on “[e]very Indian” to be proud of the record numbers. But those numbers were at least partly fabricated. In Bihar, which beat all the other states with more than 3 million vaccinations, health officials later alleged they were asked not to upload vaccination data for the two days prior to the prime minister’s birthday so that those numbers could be added to his celebratory total.

Only about a third of eligible Indian adults have been fully vaccinated so far, and the next COVID-19 wave is a mounting worry. That is only one of the BJP’s current problems. Since the pandemic hit, 15 million people have lost work, and 75 million have slipped into poverty. As COVID-19 remains in check, some economic indicators are turning upward, including the stock market, exports, and corporate profits. India’s central bank reports that people are less pessimistic about the economy, and the finance minister predicts near double-digit growth. But experts worry that India’s long-term economic losses, accruing over years of the Modi government’s questionable policy measures, will keep income levels low.

Meanwhile, a large-scale farmers’ protest against the Modi government’s agricultural reforms has rattled the cabinet for more than 10 months now. On Oct. 3, the SUV cavalcade of a BJP minister’s son allegedly mowed down four protesting farmers in Uttar Pradesh, where the party must soon fight a key election meant to prove its political strength.

If the BJP wins that election, Modi’s brand will likely be reburnished. The combination of his Hindu-nationalist appeal and the public goodwill generated by his government’s welfare schemes puts him above any other leader at the national level.

If the BJP loses a state election, Modi will do his utmost to distance himself from the loss. His face may again fade from view—at least for a time—but then he might be back. He knows the drill.

Snigdha Poonam is an independent journalist in New Delhi and the author of Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World.
 Twitter: @snigdhapoonam

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