Shapeshifter PM: Who’s the Real Modi?
Doggedly traditional, yet reassuringly modern. Chauvinistic in faith but progressive in governance. India’s charismatic new Prime Minister is seen in strikingly opposite images. Is he a media manipulator or a great communicator? Is he a crony of deep-pocketed industrialists or the wizard of development that will lift all in its wake? Is he a communal criminal or the reviver of national pride? Is he a demagogue or an unprecedented leader? And most importantly, is he the greatest threat to India’s secular and progressive values, and consequently, to its integrity, or is he the best thing that has happened to India since Independence?
When you publicly boast of your 56-inch chest, you leave very little middle ground in how people view you: they either worship you for what that bravado symbolizes, or they hate you for it. And so the challenge surrounding Narendra Modi is that very few see him objectively. On the one hand are his diehard bhakts for whom he can do no wrong. On the opposite side are his rabid critics, willfully blind to his dynamism and ability to constantly reinvent himself. Their beef against Modi, no matter how valid ten years back, seems quite outdated in the light of a fluid and multifaceted persona (not to mention also, in the light of several acquittals in the court of law, including the Supreme Court of India).
Admittedly, judging from his stardom at his September appearance at Madison Square Gardens, New York, as well as his popularity in India, the numbers seem to be on his side. While I can see why, this article is sure to challenge those on both sides who hold extreme and inflexible views of Modi.
To begin with, I do believe Modi is the best thing that has happened to India since its Independence…with an asterisk, however (I will come to that later). Let me first assure the die-hard critics of Modi who are rolling their eyes that I am no starry-eyed bhakt. In fact, in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, I was the target of censure and boycott from a pocket of the community for holding Modi and his administration accountable for the atrocities of those riots. Like you, the critic, I am disturbed that crimes of omission, if not commission, that led to the death of thousands have gone unaccounted. However, these unpalatable facts aside, we need to remember that the law has taken its course, all the way to the Supreme Court—and has come up empty in holding Modi culpable. More importantly, a massively populous and diverse nation has convincingly elected him as their PM in a mammoth, free, and fair democratic process, one that has been praised around the world.
All the above would have been a moot point if Modi had turned out to be no more than an overzealous communal politician. But clearly, the man is infinitely more than that; and only those blinded by a singular, residual hatred of him can’t or won’t see his immense and unique strengths that—perhaps for the first time since Independence—have the potential to transform India.
What are those strengths? For starters, his innermost character. Much was made about the 9-day fast that Modi observed during his U.S. visit. But besides the superficial “wows” this generated, have we really comprehended the enormity of this superhuman feat? For nine days (and nights) he is said to have survived solely on warm water with lemon. Under any circumstances this is hugely laudable. What makes it positively miraculous is that he did this while executing, with aplomb, a brutal 5-day schedule consisting of over 34 high stakes engagements and appearances that included addressing the UN General Assembly, several meetings with Congresspersons and top level officials, two meetings with President Obama, and his historic address to over 18,000 Indian-Americans at the Madison Square Garden. (And let’s not forget the small issue of jetlag after flying halfway around the globe!)
When we truly absorb this, we are left with only two options—either we refuse to believe that he indeed sustained himself only on water throughout his visit, or we stand naturally in awe of his immense resolve, fortitude, and character—regardless of other flaws we may perceive in him, his politics, and his style of governance.
Chalk me down for the latter. I don’t believe Modi and his camp could have pulled off such a massive lie of claiming he is on a water-only fast when he is not. For one, in today’s age of the ever-present phone camera, a single photograph betraying the official story line would completely ruin his credibility. But more importantly, whatever his flaws, dishonesty about his religious faith surely doesn’t seem to be one. Such a sacrilege to the divine mother in whose name he undertakes these annual fasts, seems positively incongruent to his entire persona.
Moving to his politics and governance, which other Indian PM in the country’s 60-plus post-Independence years has hit the office running, the way Modi has? His initiative and rapid moves on several fronts from making banking accessible to the poor masses, to the several successful bilateral initiatives and liaisons with disparate countries like Japan, China, Russia, and the U.S. shows that he is not here to do his job merely ceremonially, unlike some of his predecessors. Here’s a PM who means business.
Modi’s cleanliness initiative, and the way he is executing it, is a stroke of genius. India’s widespread problem of hygiene and sanitation is abysmal. It is a disastrous epidemic waiting to happen. And yet, ironically, the nation has remained strangely blind to it. It defies comprehension why previous leaders have not tackled this elephant in the room with the gusto that Modi has displayed. “Bingo!” is all one can say to Modi’s vision in pointing out that all other national aspirations would be meaningless if the country remained a cesspool of dirty shanty towns and if its citizens lacked access to toilets and modern sanitation. Recognizing this and then boldly attacking such a colossal and entrenched problem is nothing if not visionary leadership.
In his short time as PM, Modi has demonstrated several classic leadership traits: out-of-the-box thinking (inviting regional leaders including Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration ceremony); effectively mobilizing opinion-makers to support his vision (diverse individuals and institutions, from Bollywood stars, and cricketers to NGOs have come on board his cleanliness campaign); and courage and assertiveness (his bilateral meetings with world leaders clearly differ from previous ones in his unwillingness to pander).
Modi’s list of accomplishments in his first 100 days is long. Even after discounting the fables circulated on social media by his bhakts, there are many concrete, verifiable accomplishments: Japan’s decision to invest $35 billion in India’s infrastructure, pruning the number of ministries, establishing corporate style priorities and accountability processes for ministries, are all laudable initiatives. Sure, there is much criticism as well of his performance so far. However, the broader consensus from pundits and the media is in his favor.
What can rain on this parade? That brings us to my asterisk. I believe if ever the Modi juggernaut will unravel, it will be because of his religious chauvinism. To clarify, the issue is certainly not that Modi is, at heart, a deeply religious man. The problem arises only when his faith spills over into his public persona. He fails to recognize the fine line between Modi, the person who is guided by his faith, and Modi, the Prime Minister who presides over a nation of a billion-plus people of varying faiths. Such a psyche and behavior where the PM’s private faith greatly colors his public office is damaging because secularism is a constitutional enshrinement, and a PM who cannot keep his private faith apart from his public office goes against the spirit of secularism, if not the letter of it.
To that end, Modi’s unabashed wearing of his religion on his sleeve is quite unnerving. Gifting the Bhagawad Gita to heads of states (to Japan’s Emperor Akihito, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and more recently to Obama, amongst others) is a bad decision because, for one, it puts the recipient in an awkward if not peeved position. How would an Indian PM (and the Indian public) react if the Christian Right-aligned George Bush visited India and gifted the Indian PM the Bible? Why is it okay when we are at the giving end of pushing our faith? Seen from the standpoint of Indian Muslims, Christians, and other minority faiths, how would they feel about the Indian PM repeatedly gifting the Hindu Gita to heads of states? It certainly would disenfranchise me if I were one of them, and more so when the PM doing this is one who has been put on the stand for crimes against the minority community.
It’s one thing for Modi to proclaim that he is not into appeasement politics and entirely another to go on to alienate all minority religions by symbolically representing only Hindus. Modi and his defenders may kid themselves by believing he is only being authentic to his faith, but they forget that being authentic does not require him to promote or push it in his encounters with other world leaders. Rather, the sense and sensibilities of his highest public office in India requires him to transcend his personal religion in the course of administering his duties as PM. (This does not prevent him from practicing his faith—such as holding fasts even when he is travelling overseas, and even when that means sipping only water during high-profile State luncheons and dinners.)
What’s worse, in Japan, at an event addressing Indians, he shamefully mocked the secular “friends” who he said would debate this practice (of his gifting the Gita) on TV. (Mr. Prime Minster, why shouldn’t they? It isn’t a trivial issue that you make it out to be.) The rest of that talk in Japan is shocking in how clueless, crude, and cavalier he is about his religious chauvinism. Does Modi fancy himself as the head of a Hindu theocracy rather than a vibrantly diverse, secular nation? It’s a worrying thought.
And so we have a complex leader with tremendous potential to transform India, but with a side of a nasty blind spot that could also potentially unravel him and the nation. It is because of this blind spot, combined with arrogance and lack of tact, that many describe Modi as a demagogue rather than a leader. I feel he is fluid, and could fall either way. He has demonstrated shades of genius, selflessness, creativity, and a tremendous amount of commitment and hard work (he reportedly sleeps only a couple hours a night), combined of course with downsides just discussed.
Precisely because he could potentially fall on either side, I feel it is very important for career critics of Modi to, while continuing vigilance, also stop seeing him through a singular lens. Recognizing the potential of the man and nourishing it is just as important as keeping a watchful eye. And it is equally or more important for blind worshipers of Modi to not behave like jihadis who shoot down, figuratively speaking, those with differing opinions of Modi, their “God.” It may go against their grain, but they may be doing Modi a favor, and increasing the chances of his success, by allowing and even encouraging the softening of his overtly religious identity.
Only time will tell if Modi is the greatest threat to India’s integrity or the best thing that has happened to India since Independence. Meanwhile Indians have a role to play as consumers of his governance, and how that role is played has a bearing on the outcome. If his overt religious identity is nourished in the media and the masses, the consequences can be disastrous; if his other leadership skills are nourished, the results could turn the tide of India for a brilliant future.
Parthiv N. Parekh is the editor-in-chief of Khabar.
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