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How Modi Proved That An English Speaking, High-brow Intellectual Is Not Required For The PM”s Post

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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.

Modi I-Day Speech

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.

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  1. Babar

    Tortures in Guantanamo Bay, a prison that runs till date, sanctioned by President Obama.

  2. Babar

    Why is it embarrassing for Mr. Modi to meet a terrorist like President Obama? After all, Mr. Obama droned Pakistan to kill thousands of innocent civilians and terrorize hundreds of thousands in North Warizistan and send them in a frenzy of anxiety. Imagine living when drones are flying over your head twenty-four hours, not knowing when one would end your life. It remains a fact that 98% of victims in drone attacks were innocent civilians, as the sole intent behind the deadly act was to terrorize, maim, and murder.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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