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It is a compliment to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when I say that he has an impeccable sense of timing and drama. He has an uncanny sense of what captures the public imagination as well as an understanding of the turns of phrase that mesmerize multitudes. He has an understanding of light and dark that would make a cinematographer proud: witness his photographs near the Statue of Unity, his walk with the French President, the gentle moment on a swing with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the banks of Sabarmati river, the dramatic, fist-pumping entry to a stadium with then US President Donald Trump, or the pensive look on a train in South Africa, recreating the journey of M.K. Gandhi, and the picture-perfect filming of his making a cup of tea for Trump’s predecessor as US president, Barack Obama. These are works of art. Topping these is that ensemble image, like an impressionistic portrait, of him with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice.

Modi’s security officers appear to understand that instinct. They are quick to remove bystanders if they get in the way of the camera lens’ line of sight and the man; and when they can’t, Modi has been observed to make adjustments himself. Meta Inc’s Mark Zuckerberg once found himself nudged aside during a camera moment. Image management, as former minister and editor Arun Shourie put it, is the hallmark of India’s current government.

That is why it is so puzzling that when the Prime Minister’s motorcade was stopped last week on a flyover for about 20 minutes because demonstrating farmers had blocked the road, his well-noted sense of visual appeal did not manifest itself. The stopover was short, but the time period long enough for his security detail to assess the situation. Given that the protestors did not appear to pose any threat, here was a camera moment Modi could have seized by stepping out of an armoured car, going to the farmers and dispersing them with his charm, before continuing towards the political rally he intended to address.

But this was an unscripted moment, while the Prime Minister displays a preference for talking to people through his broadcast monologues known as Mann Ki Baat. Talking back could snap off the discussion. Karan Thapar is perhaps still waiting for Modi to return and complete an interview he left unfinished and walked away, after duly drinking a glass of water and saying, “Dosti bani rahe" (let us keep our friendship), as if any journalist could ever be a real friend of any politician. It’s a pattern. Modi talks and others listen; we rarely hear what others tell him, except when Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, Bollywood stars and sports personalities post identical messages, not a comma out of place, on social media. When someone does speak out of turn, the person can expect to be ignored, typically.

Last week in the Punjab, had Modi proceeded to the rally he was meant to address, he would have noticed something that was not part of his party’s planned screenplay: empty chairs, thousands of them, with barely a few hundred people scattered on a few. That would have made bad optics, and thus bad politics, which could easily have been a pragmatic reason why such a rally was better skipped.

Upon the Prime Minister’s return to an airport, he was reported to have sarcastically told security officials, who may have had nothing to do with the comical drama on the flyover, that they should tell their chief minister (Punjab’s Charanjit Singh Channi of the Congress) that he was grateful to be alive.

To be sure, India has had its share of assassinations: two prime ministers and various other leaders, including prominent politicians in Punjab. But the suggestion that the forced flyover halt posed such a life risk is hard to reconcile with reality. Could it perchance have been blown up by a remote-controlled bomb, or attacked by drones sent from across the border (or within India), or ambushed by some guerrillas? So many of his supporters proclaimed possible, revealing the kind of fertile imagination for which Bollywood pays scriptwriters handsomely. It wasn’t just Modi’s fans. While any security protocol failure must be investigated for lapses, even a senior editor known for televised interviews and a former police officer who has held a high constitutional position seemed to endorse fears that remain in the realm of speculation.

Last week’s flyover drama hints of a deep-rooted paranoia: the fear of the unknown. Hence the chorus of loud cheering, drowning out canaries in the mine. That elections in five states will be won by India’s ruling party are a key message; but there are clouds in the form of the top leader’s life in danger.

“Apres moi, le deluge," Louis XV is supposed to have said back in the 18th century. The nation is in peril, Indira Gandhi said many decades later in her broadcast declaring the Emergency.

When the leader’s own survival is portrayed as a national worry, and sycophantic politicians organize mass hymn recitals for the leader’s longevity, it is time to look at the exit signs. The worry may lie elsewhere. Notice how some BJP legislators have fled the party in Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps they sense something that others are too timid to speak of.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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