In a Crisis, India’s Modi Could Always Change the Narrative. Then Came Covid.

Mujib Mashal in The New York Times:

To become prime minister, Mr. Modi overcame a reputation tarnished by his alleged involvement in fanning religious violence when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat two decades ago. For a time, he was banned from entering the United States on grounds that he had violated religious freedoms. He successfully rebranded himself as the Hindu nationalist who could be India’s development champion. Soon after winning election in 2014, he traveled to the New York and spoke for an hour in a packed Madison Square Garden to chants of “Modi! Modi! Modi!” In seven years as prime minister, he has tightly controlled his image. He prefers choreographed rallies and selective interviews over news conferences, avoiding vulnerability while offering plenty of content for his social media apparatus and network of celebrity supporters.

In the face of crisis, Mr. Modi has displayed a talent of inventing a new narrative and switching personas, including combative national champion, digital leader and spiritual guide. At times he could seem deeply relatable, at others above it all. And he had what the opposition lacked: an ability to take his message viral.

During the 2019 election, with the economy weakening, he emphasized the threat from Pakistan. Referring to an earlier comment Mr. Modi had made, his party projected him as the nation’s toughest “watchman,” boasting about the size of Mr. Modi’s chest as a sign of his strength.

Just before the voting, he visited a temple and went to meditate in a cave, emphasizing his religious devotion. The path was covered by a red carpet and surrounded by cameras. There were even photos and footage of the meditating Mr. Modi inside the small cave. After last year’s first wave of the virus, Mr. Modi declared victory, saying India “with a proactive approach” had saved “the entire humanity from a big tragedy.” He transitioned to an image of a wise man at the service of the nation. He grew his beard. His office posted a video of Mr. Modi feeding baby peacocks, strolling with full-plumage adult birds and perusing documents with one at his feet.

More here.