New Delhi: Hours after he released eight cheetahs from Namibia into an enclosure at Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the launch of the National Logistics Policy (NLP) in New Delhi: “There was a time when pigeons were released. Now, cheetahs are…We want the deliveries to happen at the speed of a cheetah.”
The gibe was aimed at Jawaharlal Nehru, who would release pigeons on his birthday (14 November) as a symbol of “peace”. According to a senior BJP leader who did not wish to be named, the message was clear — unlike previous administrations, the Modi government is not afraid to take policy decisions at a cheetah’s pace.
Speaking at the event in Delhi on 17 September, Modi also portrayed the return of the cheetah as a reflection of the ‘Paanch Pran’ (five vows) he announced on 15 August to revive India’s past glory and shed its colonial past.
But the return of the cheetah is heavier on political symbolism than meets the eye.
With assembly elections in two BJP-ruled states — Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh — around the corner, and the NDA gearing up to seek a third term in office in 2024, Modi is looking to reinforce his government’s image of a ‘decisive’ administration. And the cheetah is an apt symbol that can help the Modi government remind voters about its push for development and infrastructure, thrust on Hindutva and emphasis on decolonisation.
The senior BJP leader told ThePrint that Modi is looking for a third mandate and wants to convey to the electorate that he has made policy decisions at a “momentous” pace.
“The cheetah is a symbol of speed; its return to Indian soil 70 years after it went extinct in the country carries nostalgic value. It will strengthen Modi’s brand identity, ‘Modi hai toh mumkin hai’ (it’s possible if Modi is there),” the leader said. He added that ‘Brand Modi’ had been strengthened with the development of an Indian vaccine against Covid-19 and the Union Cabinet’s stimulus for the semiconductor manufacturing industry.
BJP leaders say this use of animal symbolism emboldens Modi’s brand image as someone who doesn’t hesitate to take “bold decisions” in the interest of the country, whether it’is in the context of diplomacy or bringing the cheetah back to India.
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‘Wildlife conservation and sustainability are buzzwords’
According to a former bureaucrat who worked with Modi during his days as chief minister of Gujarat, the prime minister has a deep understanding of how to use the role of animals in cultural subtext to build political capital, whether among the middle class or tribals.
Author Hindol Sengupta, who wrote a policy paper titled ‘The economic mind of Narendra Modi’ in 2019, told ThePrint: “If you look at the Modi government’s policy framework and diplomacy, there is a major thrust on environment and conservation. Bringing cheetahs from Africa, expanding the International Solar Alliance, signing the Paris climate agreement.”
Sengupta said that the push for solar energy and conservation was part of Modi’s global diplomacy. “The world is changing and developed countries are now focusing on climate change. But the PM, from his early days in office, has laid emphasis on these issues since he knew about the changing political and diplomatic ground,” he added.
Political commentator Badri Narayan agreed with Sengupta’s assessment that issues related to the environment are vital to policymaking and diplomacy. “Wildlife conservation and sustainability are buzzwords of today and important issues for the world. This is a big discourse for the entire world and the PM is playing a crucial role in it,” he told ThePrint.
He added that with the cheetah initiative, Modi demonstrated that “development does not mean being limited to human-centricity, but it involves all living things”. Modi, by showing that side of his personality, is encouraging more people to take up similar causes, said Narayan.
In 2009, the then Modi government in Gujarat had brought two pairs of cheetahs from the Singapore Zoo as part of an exchange programme. The big cats were accommodated at the Sakkarbaugh Zoo in Junagadh and died of natural causes.
During the launch of his ‘Make in India’ campaign in 2014, Modi had told the CEOs of the country’s top 500 companies at Vigyan Bhawan that the campaign was the “step of a lion” to make India the world’s leading manufacturing hub. To drive the point home, a decision was made to use a striding lion made of cogs as the logo for the campaign.
In 2016, addressing a rally ahead of the Assam assembly election, Modi invoked the one-horned rhino’s central role in Assamese culture to attack the Congress. “Eyes were kept closed and rhinos were allowed to be killed and political patronage was given to those who killed rhinos,” he had said.
Months after he won a thumping mandate in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Modi featured on an episode of Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls, shot at Corbett National Park. It was during this episode that Modi narrated a story from his childhood to express how his mother taught him the importance of conservation.
Modi told Grylls that he once picked up a baby crocodile from a lake and took it home. “My mother said to me that it was not the right thing to do, and I put it back,” he recalled.
In August 2020, the prime minister took to Instagram to post a video of himself feeding peacocks at his official Lok Kalyan Marg residence. The video was accompanied by a poem in Hindi.
In July this year, the opposition tried to corner the government over the ‘bared fangs’ of the four lions featured on the national emblem cast atop the new Parliament building. Arguing that the Lion Capital of Emperor Ashoka in Sarnath was a symbol of peace, opposition leaders accused Modi of trying to “project a muscular image” by unveiling the “angry lions”.
Author and journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay emphasised the politics at the centre of this push for conservation and sustainable development.
Referring to the release of the eight cheetahs into Kuno, Mukhopadhyay said, “His [Modi’s] personal signature was everywhere — be it personally pulling the cage open, or his costume, being photographed while taking pictures and so on. Everything is a choreographed event, an exercise in event management till the very end. Even the address to the nation was well executed. So, the political choreography can’t be overlooked.”
“Though we know that the process of bringing the cheetahs back started way before 2014, this event has managed to erase that memory, and now it will always be seen as something done by Modi,” added Mukhopadhyay.
Nehru, Indira & Modi
It’s not just Modi — former prime ministers including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too, understood how the role of animals in cultural subtext can be wielded in politics and diplomacy.
Nehru used pigeons as a symbol of peace in his bid to propagate the Non-Aligned Movement. Moreover, it was Nehru who called the elephant the symbol of India — describing it as “wise, patient, strong and gentle”.
Reposing his faith in Nehru’s idea, Vajpayee had told a business summit in 2002: “The Indian economy is often identified with the elephant. The elephant may take time to get all parts of its body to move forward in unison but once they actually start moving, it’s very difficult to divert momentum, slow down, stop or reverse.”
Indira Gandhi, meanwhile, used the tiger as a symbol of strength. In April 1973, she replaced the lion with the tiger as the national animal and launched Project Tiger, roughly a year before India conducted its first nuclear test at Pokhran in 1974.
Speaking to ThePrint, zoologist K. Ullas Karanth, director of the Bengaluru-based Centre for Wildlife Studies, said, “I think Indira Gandhi was the only prime minister who had a real interest in wildlife conservation. She put sustained effort into it, gathered the best people she could find at the time to get involved, and above all, used her popularity with the masses to usher in strong wildlife laws and create spaces for nature.”
Karanth added that Gandhi “ensured effective implementation of wildlife laws at the state and central levels with an iron fist”. “All of this during the 20 years between mid-1960s to mid-1980s when the country was poor and funding was low,” he added.
Modi, during his tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat, banked on ‘Gujarati asmita (pride)’ — symbolised by the Asiatic lion — to build his political brand.
Modi has been sensitive about issues of water and wildlife since his early days in politics, said a Gujarat BJP leader who has known the PM for over four decades.
“He [Modi] has seen drought-prone Gujarat and his commitment to the Narmada Dam is proof of his concern for water conservation. Only recently, during a public meeting in Gujarat, he asked several religious trusts to work together to make small ponds in villages in mission mode,” the leader said.
He added that Modi’s “fondness for wildlife photography shows his concern for conservation, which is a thrust area for the RSS now”.
“Politics is changing and Modi can sense the changing pulse of the nation.”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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