More 'Mera Modi Mahaan': Vadnagar being turned into a tourist destination
First, Union Culture and Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma said the tea stall at Vadnagar railway station, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi used to sell tea as a kid, would be developed as a tourist spot.
Then, a day later, he retracted the statement, saying though there is a plan to develop the railway station as a tourist destination, there is no particular proposal for the tea stall.
But it's not the station or tea stall itself that matters. By turning these everyday things into tourist destinations, the agenda is clear: to give a larger-than-life image to Modi, and make his hometown Vadnagar a prominent spot in India.
Comic book superhero
This is not the first time there has been an attempt to promote Modi as 'mahaan'. The process has been on ever since he shot into prominence after taking over as Gujarat Chief Minister in 2001, and his coronation was soon followed by the anti-Muslim riots post the Godhra train burning incident in 2002.
Many people in his home state point out that since then, there have been various ways to market him socially – to the extent that he becomes a personality at par with Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel, at least in Gujarat.
As Gandhinagar-based veteran journalist RK Mishra puts it: “On one side, there is an attempt to completely erase the legacy of Nehru, and on the other, there are such steps to create cult figures like Modi. Everything he does or everywhere he goes, it is ensured that there is a huge tamasha preceding it as well as around the event, just to build a larger-than-life image of him.”
Who can forget the manner in which comic strips called Bal Narendra were promoted ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The 45-page comic book showed Modi in his childhood performing heroic feats like rescuing a drowning boy, swimming in crocodile-infested waters, serving tea and food to soldiers going to war in 1962, taking on school bullies, helping his father sell tea, acting in theatre, strategising his team's kabaddi win and saving a trapped bird. The author is yet unknown.
There were two other comics as well that had hit book stalls across the country at that time – Kahani Narendra Modi Ki and Bhavishya Ki Asha Narendra Modi.
Hallowed be thy name
In fact, just before the 2014 polls, Modi folklore had dominated the narrative in his hometown of Vadnagar. People had started visiting this sleepy town, once it started making headlines ever for being the hometown of the potential Prime Minister.
Everyone in the town seemed to know him or some member of his family. The locals were more than eager to take the visitors on a guided tour of the town, including the temple where he prayed and the Sharmistha Lake, where he swam despite the infestation of 40-odd crocodiles.
The locals did not tire of telling the people that the crocodiles there were scared of humans and swam away to the other side or plunged into the deep. Ironically, no one comes up with an explanation on the behavioural change in crocodiles 200 km south of Vadnagar near Vadodara, where there have been regular instances of the reptiles attacking humans.
A priest at Hatkeshwar Mahadev temple in Vadnagar town was quoted by the papers saying that young Modi was a regular visitor, and even at that point of time when he flew past he temple by helicopter, he asked the pilot to lower the altitude and circumnavigate the temple three times.
Then, of course, the entrepreneurial skills of Gujaratis was at full display when the apparel store that stitched Modi's clothes went on to make a killing while marketing 'Modi kurtas' and 'Modi jackets', charging enormous amounts for the brand.
Yet another example is the auction of the pin-striped suit that Modi had worn during US President Barack Obama's visit to India. The suit had been purchased by a Surat-based diamond merchant Hitesh Laljibhai Patel for Rs 4.31 crore, and the money was announced to be used for Modi's campaign to clean the river Ganga.
Observers say this was like the organisers of Gandhi's historic Dandi Salt March auctioning homespun clothes on the way, but with a stark difference.
Hindu Hriday Samrat to Bharat Hriday Samrat
Locals also point to the episode of Modi's followers building a temple to him in Kothariya village on the outskirts of Rajkot city.
The temple had reportedly come up on land donated for a temple of 'Bharat Mata'. A Modi idol was placed alongside that of 'Bharat Mata', with his followers claiming that he is a divine person.
The local administration had removed his idol after he had expressed disapproval, saying this was shocking and against India's great traditions.
A section of people in Gujarat, particularly the minorities, still shudder, recalling how the majority had created an image of Modi as the 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' after 2002, and that there was no remorse from him, his government or his party.
“The same thing is happening again, but the slogan has been changed from 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' to 'Bharat Hriday Samrat'. This is going to continue not only till the forthcoming Gujarat polls, but right up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” says a senior mediaperson and political observer based in Ahmedabad.
This reporter is compelled to recall the circulation of a pamphlet by Modi supporters during the inaugural function of the newly-developed Vastrapur Lake in Ahmedabad.
The lake was being inaugurated by Gandhinagar MP Lal Krishna Advani, at a time when voices were being raised against Modi within the Gujarat BJP.
The slogans that greeted Modi were 'Dekho dekho kaun aaya... Gujarat ka sher aaya!' (Look who is coming... it is the lion of Gujarat!)
The pamphlet bore the headline 'What will be gained if Modi is removed?'
What followed were the points that played up Modi's image. Some of these points were:
· Modi has never organised an Iftar party in the month of Ramzan.
· Modi got a portrait of Veer Savarkar in the state Assembly building.
· Modi performed pooja for Lord Shiva and organised Shiva's Tandav Nritya to mark Independence Day at the stroke of midnight on 14-15 August 2003.
· Modi did not wear a white Gandhi cap while unfurling the national flag at the Independence Day ceremony in 2003, but wearing a black RSS cap.
· While the leaders of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) paid obeisance at the Dargah of Salim Chishti in Ajmer before the Parliamentary elections of 2004, Modi sought the best wishes of sages after taking a dip in the Kshipra river during the Kumbh Mela at Ujjain.
At the height of the dissidence against him, this pamphlet proved that Modi's will to not compromise his ideology prevailed over every other thing.
A Buddhist monastery at Vadnagar
Coming back to Vadnagar, it needs to be underlined that there have been efforts of late to promote this town as a tourist destination. Sources say that tour operators run services to this town off and on, where besides showing other things, they promote it as 'Modi's birthplace', just like Porbandar is promoted as Mahatma Gandhi's birthplace.
Reports say that excavations in the recent past have revealed a Buddhist monastery near the town belonging to the 2nd-7th century AD. These reports also say that Vadnagar finds a mention in the records of Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang as Onan-to-pu-lo (Anandpur) during his visit in 641 AD. He mentions that the town had 1,000 Buddhist monks.
It is based on this that announcements have been coming about promoting the place as a Buddhist tourist destination, although very little has been done on the ground.
“Instructions have been given to the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) to find out more on this issue,” says a senior journalist belonging to the area.
Hence, Culture Minister Sharma saying 'station' or 'tea stall' hardly makes any difference, because it is all about Modi. “What is the relevance of Vadnagar Railway Station in today's context except for the narrative of Modi having sold tea there?” points out a political observer at Ahmedabad.