After Chacha Nehru, meet wannabe uncle

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 6.09.14
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New Delhi, Sept. 5: When children want to be Prime Minister, Narendra Modi is safe.

One of the most striking questions at today’s Q&A that followed Modi’s Teachers’ Day speech elicited an equally revealing answer.

“How can I become the PM?” a schoolboy from Imphal asked over a video link.

“Wait for 2024,” the Prime Minister replied, no doubt mindful of the eligibility age of 25. “That means there is no danger to me until then.”

Jokes apart, Modi has often said he would need 10 years to transform India, indicating his confidence about winning in 2019. By 2024 he will be 74, though, just a year short of what he seems to consider the retirement age, at least for others in the BJP.

He continued in the half- serious, half-jocular vein, telling the boy: “India’s democracy is shaped in such a way that if you win over people’s love and belief, any child can reach this position. When you take oath of office as the PM, please invite me to your swearing-in.”

However, if the new demographic constituency the Prime Minister reached out to today could theoretically throw up rivals by 2024, it might also provide voters in 2019.

Modi is keenly aware that some of the first-time voters who backed him last summer, seduced by a social media campaign portraying him as an economic saviour, might become disillusioned by 2019, a BJP source said.

“So, we need to tap into newer pockets to add to our critical mass,” the source said.

Other sources mentioned another objective: the Sangh-BJP’s long-term agenda to demolish whatever remains of the Nehruvian legacy, in style or substance.

One enduring aspect of Jawaharlal Nehru’s public image is the ease with which he charmed children, earning himself the sobriquet of “Chacha Nehru”. Modi wants to appropriate that space as India’s new uncle.

The wide ambit and coverage that marked today’s event — with schoolchildren linked from Port Blair to Leh, Bhuj to Tinsukia — was aimed at helping Modi spread his appeal, till now confined largely to the county’s north and west.

Students apart, Modi sees the teachers as a potentially dedicated vote bank. His speech reflected this.

“Ask an eminent person in the world to name the two individuals who moulded his or her life, the answer would be ‘my mother’ and ‘my teacher’. Once upon a time, teachers were revered. The village ‘Masterji’ was deified. Things changed slowly,” Modi said.

Later, to a student’s query, he said: “I used to give lectures in schools in the days when I had little work to do. I asked teachers, ‘How many students have you taught?’ Somebody would say ‘500 or 600’. I would ask, ‘Are they married?’ The answer would be, ‘Yes’.”

He continued: “My next question was, ‘How many marriages did you attend?’ The answer would be ‘One’ or ‘Two’. This was unfortunate because a teacher should never be alienated from his students to the extent that he is not called to their marriages.”

Did the Prime Minister see himself as a headmaster, a Delhi student asked. The answer meandered through anecdotes from Modi’s childhood before he came to the point.

“When I was young, I was asked to speak at a Rotary Club. My bio-data was sought,” he said.

“In my bio-data I wrote, ‘Our shastras say, who am I? Nobody knows who he is because one is looking for answers. I have not been able to recognise who I am.’ They read my bio-data out verbatim. Yes, I’m a taskmaster. I work a lot myself; I expect others to be diligent too. I’m not relaxed and I’m very disciplined.”