Anyone remember Good Governance Day? It falls today, the seventh since Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the first year of India’s first Hindu majoritarian regime, hit on the idea of replacing this Christian festival with an anniversary to commemorate the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birth anniversary. That was a dismaying announcement mainly for senior government servants. The festive season holiday was made a working day for them with a slate of suggestions from the Prime Minister’s Office on what bureaucrats could do to celebrate Vajpayee’s 90th birthday (visit sanitation projects, for example). There was a frisson of unrest when it was suggested that schools should also be opened to observe birthday celebrations (for the former PM, not the man from Galilee) but that was soon changed diplomatically to a “voluntary” exercise.
But as with Valentine’s Day, the Christian festival that urban youth have co-opted as a way of bridging the Victorian separation of the sexes in middle class Indian society, so affluent Indians have stubbornly stuck to the Christmas spirit. This has more to do with the good partying weather in most of India in December than a religious observation of a birth, the circumstances of which could have come straight out of our boundlessly imaginative Hindu mythology. What Valentine’s Day has done to the greeting cards and cutesy gifting industry, Christmas does for the retail business. In establishing a continuum with Diwali and Dussehra festivities in later autumn, malls and shops swap the electrified diyas and Ravana masks for trees decorated with baubles made in China and hard-sell the concept of Christmas cake, gifting and unlimited alcohol. Always alert to a profitable opportunity, hawkers at traffic lights sell Santa hats.
By 2015, the futility of expunging a Christian festival from the partying calendar of a mainly Hindu nation with a relatively joyless celebration of good governance, whatever that might mean, was clear. The PM caught the mood and tweeted greetings to people “all around the world a Merry Christmas!” (exclamation in original). More memorably, he chose to mark the day in the Islamic nation of Pakistan with a headline-catching unscheduled stopover in Lahore on a return flight from Moscow to greet then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, the first Indian PM to visit that country in 11 years (Kabul was the other unscheduled stop). It was a vintage Modi move, and the media dutifully gushed that he had rewritten the recent history of geo-politics in the region, a premature judgement if there ever was one. Balakot, another signature Modi initiative, was still to come.
By 2016, the PM was greeting his “fellow countrymen”, reeling from the impact of a shock demonetisation, and included two “Christmas gifts” in a Maan Ki Baat speech. One was a 100-day Lucky Grahak Yojana under which 15,000 people would get, through a lucky draw, Rs 1,000 in their bank accounts providing they used any mode of digital payment. There would also be a bumper draw on April 14 – Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s birthday, he noted – offering crores of rupees. The second was the Digi Dhan Vyapar scheme, aimed at traders and small businessmen who would be suitably rewarded for encouraging cashless transactions.
Having embraced the Christmas spirit, Mr Modi’s 2017 greetings on Twitter took the form of a traditional Christmas card, complete with holly and shiny baubles. “We remember the noble teachings of Lord Christ,” he intoned, adding the hope that the festive season would “enhance the spirit of happiness and harmony in our society”. Who would have thought that the Citizenship Amendment Act, which would destroy any spirit of harmony with India’s largest religious minority, would be just two years away.
In 2018, Mr Modi repeated his remembrance of Lord Jesus Christ’s “noble teachings” towards a “compassionate and equal society”, even as the economy was becalmed. A year later, fresh from an astounding electoral success, the PM continued to praise the teachings of the man of the miracle birth even as one community that also reveres him in its holy book was protesting against a recently passed Act could potentially evict them from their own country.
Christmas 2020 takes place against the most miserable time in living memory, when Good Governance has been at a premium pretty much all round the world. Promptly at 9 a m, Mr Modi tweeted a dignified greeting, expressing the hope that the “life and principles of Lord Christ gives strength to millions across the world”. But the PM also has a Good Governance celebration in store for all those farmers braving the cold to gather on the borders of the national capital in protest against three farm laws passed in haste and with the minimum of consultation. He said he will have a virtual chat with farmers and release the next tranche of PM-Kisan, the direct cash-transfer scheme for farmers, making payments worth Rs 18,000 crore to 80 million farmers.
Hey ho, three more years of governance to go. But we can be sure of one thing: Christmas under Mr Modi will never be uneventful.