India’s government on Friday launched 20 days of grand nationwide celebrations to mark prime minister Narendra Modi’s 71st birthday.
In a move widely criticised by the country’s opposition parties, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s event-packed “service and dedication” festivities – which also mark Mr Modi’s 20 years as an administrator, including 13 years when he was chief minister of his western home state of Gujarat – will last until October 7th.
The events involve distributing 140 million bags of wheat and rice with Mr Modi’s image on them to India’s poor, projecting him as a champion of the needy.
More than 50 million postcards– also bearing Mr Modi's image and birthday greetings – will be mailed to him from post offices in BJP-ruled states, while 71,000 diyas or earthenware lamps will be lit across the PM's parliamentary constituency of Varanasi in northern India. The adjoining central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh will develop 1,071 Modi parks on government land.
According to the BJP, local writers and poets will be “encouraged” to pen peans of praise for the prime minister, while thousands of videos of people thanking Mr Modi for providing assistance during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year will be relayed on social media platforms.
There will be futher thanks for the vaccination drive, launched in January, in which 17 per cent of some 900 million eligible Indian adults have so far been fully inoculated.
Blood donation camps will be organised in the prime minister’s name and ration cards distributed to the poor to buy essentials from state-run outlets, as state BJP governments vie with each another to more splendidly celebrate Mr Modi’s birthday.
Many states are planting trees, developing parks and organising street corner meetings to praise the prime ministers’s administrative qualities and kindness as a “people’s leader”.
Opposition party politicians, however, accused Mr Modi of launching the publicity campaign ahead of five critical state elections, scheduled for early 2022, including in politically vital Uttar Pradesh, at a time when his popularity plunged from 66 per cent to 24 per cent in recent polls
Critics said this decline was due to the federal government’s mismanagement of the pandemic in May and June in which tens of thousands of people died, shortages of oxygen, medicine and hospital beds were endemic and even crematoriums to immolate the dead were overwhelmed.
India’s continuing downward economic spiral, rising inflation and unemployment and a nine-month-long farmers’ protest have severely dented Mr Modi’s popularity since his re-election in May 2019 for another five-year term.
“The economy is in crisis but the planned celebrations [of Modi’s birthday] show that the BJP’s coffers are overflowing,” said Congress Party MP Jairam Ramesh.
Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) compared Mr Modi’s birthday celebration to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. “This is the tragedy that India now is,” he said.