A court in the state of Kerala in southern India is due next week to hear a petition from a disgruntled citizen who does not want Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photo on his Covid-19 vaccine certificate.
The man, known as Peter M, wants a new certificate without Mr Modi’s photo because, he says, “it violates my fundamental rights”. Peter M is a 62-year-old right to information activist and member of India’s main opposition party in Congress.
“By putting his photo on my certificate, he intrudes into the private space of citizens. It is unconstitutional and I call on the Honorable Prime Minister to immediately stop this reprehensible and shameful act, ”Mr Peter told the BBC over the phone from his home. in Kottayam district.
“It is inappropriate in a democracy and of no use to the nation or to anyone,” he added.
In addition to the individual’s personal details, the vaccination certificates issued by the Indian Ministry of Health bear the photo of Mr. Modi as well as two messages in English and local languages.
In August, Junior Health Minister Bharati Pravin Pawar told parliament the photo and quotes were included “in the greater public interest” – to encourage people to behave appropriately at Covid even after the inoculation.
But Peter M maintains that those who have already taken the vaccine are “already convinced of its usefulness” and the messages contained in the certificate are “only sermons to converts”.
“Mr. Modi is not our first Prime Minister and this is not India’s first vaccination program. But the campaign against Covid-19 and the vaccination program are projected as a one-man show, a propaganda tool for the Prime Minister. “
Peter M is all the more annoyed that he had to pay for his own vaccine in a private hospital because “there was a long line for appointments in public hospitals” to distribute free vaccines.
“I paid 750 rupees [$10; £7] for every shot, so why should Mr Modi’s photo be on my certificate? “, he asks.
The Kerala High Court has given the federal and state governments two weeks to respond. I contacted two spokespersons for Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but they declined to comment on Peter M.
The prime minister’s photograph on the vaccine certificate has also been criticized by his political rivals. A few opposition-led states have even replaced his photo with photos of their own chief ministers.
The main leader of the Congress Party, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, accused Modi of using vaccines for “personal advertising”. And Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state of West Bengal, said he should put her photo on death certificates as well.
“Suppose I’m not your supporter… I don’t like you but I have to wear this.” Why ? Where is the freedom of the people? She asked at a press conference.
“You have made your photo mandatory on Covid certificates. Now put it on death certificates too, ”she added.
The photograph also confused Indians traveling abroad – Vice news recently reported that immigration officials, who did not know Mr Modi’s face, had accused some travelers of fraud.
Peter M fears that, if not checked, Mr. Modi “will then start putting his photo in our children’s school and university leaving certificates”.
Her concern is rooted in the fact that Mr Modi’s photo sometimes appears in places where it is not meant to be. Recently, a government advertisement featuring the Prime Minister was removed from official court emails after objections from the Supreme Court.
The Prime Minister’s love for being photographed and taking selfies is well known. He is hugely successful on social media and his gatherings are still followed by tens of thousands of people across the country.
His supporters say there is nothing wrong with displaying the prime minister’s photo on vaccination certificates as he is one of the most recognizable faces in the country.
Mr. Modi’s bearded face looks down from billboards and billboards, he smiles at full-page newspaper ads, and most departmental websites have ads with his photo.
Critics say India has never been short of self-glorifying rulers. In the past, the BJP has criticized the Congress Party, led by the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, for naming hundreds of airports, universities, awards and welfare schemes after members of their family.
Mayawati, a Dalit icon and former chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, is famous for building statues of herself and has been accused of encouraging a cult of personality.
Jayaram Jayalalitha, the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, had put his face to cheap food canteens, drugstores and sachets of salt.
“But Mr. Modi takes this self-obsession to another level,” explains Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, journalist and biographer of Mr. Modi.
“He is a member of RSS [Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], which preaches that the organization is greater than the individual, but under it the individual has become more important than the organization.
“If you hear him speak, he doesn’t say our government, it’s still my government or Modi’s government. In his public statements, there is a lot of “me, me, myself”. In February, he even renamed a stadium after himself. . “
Mr Mukhopadhyay said Mr Modi had used the pandemic “as a great opportunity to promote his cult”.
” Since [the] the vaccine is the only protection available against Covid-19, by putting his photo on the certificate, he wants to be considered the savior of the people, ”Mukhopadhyay said.
“He wants to be seen as the human face of divinity so that he can gain the trust and faith of the people which will then result in votes for him. “
Image guru Dilip Cherian says the prime minister’s photo on the vaccine certificate is “a blurring of the lines between what is appropriate from a party perspective and what is normative from a government perspective.”
“Certificates are militarized to gain votes,” he says.
“The focus seems to be on electoral gains – having as many vehicles as possible, whether it’s the vaccine certificate or documents for government programs, to get the same message across. “
“Facial familiarity” is a big plus, says Cherian, because today the party identity has merged with the individual.
“Putting her photo out there is part of a precision strike targeting individual voters for a high brand recall. “
Peter M says this is where the problem lies with having Mr Modi’s face on his vaccination certificate.
“He is a politician who represents a party, he fights against elections and that gives him an unfair advantage over his rivals. And it must stop. “