India saw a day of extravaganza for thousands of supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, who lit 71,000 earthen lamps, cut a 71-feet-long cake and prepared a giant 71-kilogram traditional sweet to celebrate his 71st birthday.
Mr Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, is counted as independent India’s most powerful and popular leader, whose strongman image has won him hordes of friends and detractors in the culturally and religiously diverse country of 1.4 billion people.
#HappyBdayModiji --’Ji’ an honorific used to show respect — was trending on Twitter and Facebook, with the Prime Minister’s colleagues and supporters showering him with praise and praying for his long life.
Even opposition leaders, including his arch rival and critic from Congress party, Rahul Gandhi congratulated him on Twitter, along with greetings from Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama.
Members of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organised scores of Hindu fire rituals to celebrate the leader’s birthday and pledged to support his endeavours.
One artist created an 2.4-metre-long portrait of Mr Modi using food grains and another made a giant sand sculpture with seashells.
His Hindu nationalist party will organise blood donation camps, cleanliness drives and distribute 140 million food packets with his photograph over the next three weeks to commemorate the birthday and his two-decades in public life.
Some 50 million “Thank You” postcards will be sent to him by his party workers as an acknowledgement for his contribution to the country.
The government also arranged for 22 million people to receive a Covid-19 vaccine on Friday, out of a target of 25 million.
The new record surpassed the previous record of 13 million vaccines against Covid-29 on September 1.
India has administered 780 million cumulative vaccines including second doses
Known for his oratory skills, charismatic personality, tech-savvy and somewhat “no-nonsense” approach to government, Mr Modi steered his party to an overwhelming second straight win in national elections in 2019, pushing India’s grand-old Congress party to the margins.
Mr Modi cancelled the celebrations last year as the country was reeling under the coronavirus pandemic, but many see this year’s bash as part of a reaching out to the public after Mr Modi’s approval ratings took a hit over his government’s handling of the second coronavirus wave.
"It is quite a spectacle and we have not seen anything on this scale before. This is not even a milestone birthday as he turned 71. Clearly, all these poll ratings and the general murmur on the ground shows that his popularity has dipped considerably over the last two years, particularly after the pandemic and the second wave this year...lots of death, terrible mismanagement," said Arathi Jerath, a Delhi based political analyst.
"This is an effort to shore up his popularity, build up his image but this creation of a personality cult that we have not seen in India before."
India was battered by the pandemic between March and June, when millions of people were infected and its healthcare system almost collapsed.
Many blamed Mr Modi’s government after it prematurely claimed victory over the virus in January.
Mr Modi has been lauded by his supporters for clean and efficient government and many have seen him as a saviour with the ability to rid the country of poverty, corruption and bring economic prosperity.
But the pandemic, coupled with a flailing economy, unemployment and divisive politics have eclipsed his popularity in recent years.
Opposition parties marked his birthday with public protests over decades-high unemployment numbers and record fuel and food prices under Mr Modi’s seven-year rule.
Born Narendra Damodardas Modi in 1950 in western Gujarat state’s Vadnagar district, Mr Modi had a humble upbringing, with his father running a tea stall at a local railway station.
As a teenager, he was inspired by the ideology of Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh, a powerful Hindu paramilitary organisation, and at 20, he renounced material life, even abandoning his teenage wife.
He dedicated his life to spreading RSS ideology before plunging into active politics, with RSS’s political arm, the BJP.
In 2001, he went on to serve Gujarat as its chief minister for nearly 13 years.
Mr Modi rose to the national stage in 2013 after he was declared as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections despite a controversial past, including his alleged role in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, when he headed the state.
But his strong Hindu icon image gave the party a stunning victory in the world’s largest democracy.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Mr Modi has pushed bold policies such as opening the country to foreign investment, universal healthcare and encouraging local manufacturing to make the country a $5 trillion economy.
But many of his ambitious policies have turned sour, including the farm reform that triggered continuing protests by farmers across the country.
He is also blamed for hurting the Indian economy through his sudden decision to ban high-value 500 and 1000 rupee notes in 2016, and for rolling out a flawed Goods and Services Tax in 2017.
He recently faced flak over building a multi-billion-dollar residence for himself in Delhi under his ambitious $2.8 billion Central Vista Project.
The project aims to construct a new parliament building and repurpose British-era government buildings in the capital, causing much furore among historians.