By Monica Hariharan:
“It will be embarrassing, if he becomes prime minister, to have him in the same meeting as US President Barack Obama,” said Aakar Patel in a Mint article on the 15th of June last year, deeming him “not well-read, with little idea of the world or its history”.
It is unlikely that Mr. Patel would’ve so much as imagined that the two would go on to not just meet officially, but also take a stroll around the King Memorial, so much so that Modi would be an hour late to a luncheon held in his honour at the State Department. Pictures show the two leaders smiling and chatting, with Obama showing Modi around. While it will take a while to see if this display of conviviality will translate into any real strategic partnership, the gesture does not go unnoticed in terms of diplomatic intent.
The notion that a Prime Minister needs to be a high-brow intellectual with an accomplished academic record, who speaks English and relies purely on reason as a thinker is not uncommon. Nehru went to Trinity College, Cambridge; Indira Gandhi graduated from the University of Oxford; Rajiv Gandhi again went to Trinity College and Imperial College although he did not complete his degree; Narasimha Rao had a Master’s degree in law and spoke about seven Indian languages, apart from English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German and Persian. Atal Bihari Vajpayee holds a first class Masters degree in political science and served as editor of several publications besides being a renowned poet in his own right. Manmohan Singh, of course, is an Oxford and Cambridge-educated economist credited with shaping India’s economic and social welfare re-forms.
It’s not just Mr. Patel who believes that being intellectual indicates an awareness “of the complexity of the world and of India’s problems.” After the BJP announced its decision to nominate Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate, Mani Shankar Aiyar took a dig at Modi inviting him to sell tea at the Congress headquarters. General Secretary of the Indian National Congress party’s All India Congress Committee, Digvijay Singh went so far as to say that he was surprised that the BJP could not find any scholar to nominate to the post of Prime Minister. “What will become of us,” asked Mr. Singh, “if such a man were to speak at the United Nations General Assembly?”
According to the Constitution of India, the Prime Minister is the Chief of government. He/she allocates portfolios, acts as chief adviser to the President of India, leads the cabinet, is in charge of certain ministries, and is the official representative of the government, both to the nation and overseas. The Prime Minister also is, of course, the leader of the majority party. Fundamentally, the Prime Minister is a leader, an administrator and manager, a representative of the country and its people at the world stage and perhaps most importantly, the face of the democratically elected government, directly accountable to its people.
On these four counts, PM Modi’s performance in the past four months has been reassuring. For as long as one can remember, political leadership has failed to inspire its people or instil in them any confidence. While several well-intended welfare schemes were initiated, many were implemented poorly and the previous government was never able to meet the expectations it had set. Modi, in his campaign and even as Prime Minister, has strategically positioned himself as a mere catalyst to development. In both personal and professional communication, setting expectations, becomes and remains the foundation of any relationship.
What PM Modi has managed to do in changing the narrative of expectation, is fairly unprecedented. The Prime Minister, without so much as quoting JFK, has made the citizen a stakeholder in his own progress and the country’s development by giving him/her a feeling of ownership, responsibility and self-assurance, a break from the UPA’s victimising approach. The Swachh Bharat campaign is one such example. In his Oct 2nd speech inaugurating the campaign, he nominated nine people to clean India, including, Shashi Tharoor, Salman Khan and Sachin Tendulkar. In a video taken on a cell phone and posted on his official twitter page, he also asked citizens to continue the chain of nomination, take pictures and create a social media campaign. Wherever the number nine came from, there is no denying a clear parallel to the ALS ice bucket challenge campaign.
As an administrator, Modi has initiated several systemic and operational changes. However, the two most interesting validations of Modi’s uncanny style of breaking down complex matters are in his approach to foreign policy and in his interaction with the general public.
The message around India recently becoming the only country to reach Mars on its first attempt is a classic example. The Prime Minister recently contrasted the cost of the historic Mangalyaan- Mars Orbiter Mission to an auto ride in Ahmedabad, using the metaphor to convey that the unmanned aircraft to Mars, cost Rs. 7 per kilometre, making it cheaper than the Rs 10 charged by an auto. This direct comparison struck an instant chord, and Modi called for a nationwide celebration deeming the achievement ‘Anand Utsav’.
A striking instance of his deriving from homespun wisdom came from his Teacher’s Day speech. In what was broadcasted in schools across the country, Modi advised school children to read biographies and autobiographies and said that reading about successful people takes a person as close as they can get to history.
At the India Today Conclave last year, Mr. Modi, in his ‘Leaders Lecture’, spoke of having given former PM Manmohan Singh a solution to the persisting problem of a collapsing fence at the Indo-Pak border. He asked that the government instruct the Border Security Force to plant solar panels over hundreds of square kilometres on the desert. This way the border would have a fence that produces solar power as it simultaneously prevents infiltration.
On the world stage, Modi is no different. At his UNGA speech last month, the Prime Minister spoke of the need for one common platform. He criticised the elite group divisions, G-5, G-7, G-20, and said that what we really need in the world is a ‘G-All’. At the Council of Foreign Relations, in reply to a question on his comfort on the usage of the word ‘partnership’ for India and the US, Modi replied, “It’s not necessary that we should have comfort in everything. Even in husband and wife, there’s never 100 percent comfort.”
Modi plays to his crowd. He is energised by the acknowledgement of his popularity. His speeches seem to speak to you in the way that a young schoolboy’s would – excited and energetic, with carefully deliberate body language, full of alliterations and refrains. His simplification of concepts becomes an enabler to connect with his audience directly, eliminating any intermediary. Sometimes it even feels like there is a good chance that Modi himself understood these concepts the same way as his audience did. It is this manner of understanding of complex matters that brings people closest to feeling involved in the governance of their own country.
Fareed Zakaria, who spoke to Modi in an exclusive interview for CNN in the US, described Modi as “among the sharpest” and “smart, tough and focussed”. His intelligence, Zakaria said, was practical and finely honed. It did not come from schoolbook learning like most others but from experience.
Interestingly, Modi seems very aware of the limitations of such an approach. At the India Economic Conven-tion earlier this year, he spoke of his little knowledge in matters of finance. Citing a minister’s taunt about his ignorance on financial matters, he said that all his knowledge of the domain can be paraphrased in one word – trustee. Pointing to Gujarat as an example, he went on to say, “Ek shabdh kaafi hai mere liye. Bahut bade granthon ke zaroorat nahi hai, granthwale ko rakh doonga apne paas.”
The Indian electorate has made its trade off. Modi is innately anti-Nehruvian and could not be more unlike his predecessor. PM Modi’s deploying of what is regarded common knowledge and his drawing from collaborative intelligence is a marked departure from anything India has ever seen before. As of now, one could not be any more engaged.