Narendra Modi, Perpetual Politician
Last week, in the lead-up to elections in India's Maharashtra state, I went to a rally in Mumbai. The star attraction -- indeed, at similar events all week both in Maharashtra and the state of Haryana, which also goes to the polls this month -- was the fast-moving new prime minister, Narendra Modi.
By my estimate, something in the region of 8,000 Mumbaikars thronged to the grounds of a college in the Ghatkopar neighborhood to have a "darshan" (or sighting, often also used in a religious sense) of the country's most powerful man, who, we were told, was on his way to Mumbai from another rally in the nearby city of Pune.
As the sultry afternoon turned into an electric-blue dusk, entry into the grounds was closed off because the venue was full -- a rare scene in a city such as Mumbai, whose citizens, for very good reasons, have little time for the hot air and fervent mudslinging of the political class. A number of politicians from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party took the stage and spoke of local issues, but each one of them also invoked the party's supreme leader, whose voice was ringing around the world, in the words of one speaker, from Mumbai to Madison Square Garden.
True enough, but why is the prime minister still in campaign mode? Why is it that his life seems little changed from April and May, when he roved the country for what would become the most successful election campaign by any Indian politician in 30 years, speaking at four or five events a day? If, shortly after overseas tours that took him to Japan and the U.S., he was now going to be working overtime to canvass for his party in the states, how would he get any work done for the country from his office in New Delhi?
These questions were asked not just by skeptics, but also acknowledged by leaders on the podium. Their answer: BJP-led governments in the states would be able to liaise more efficiently with New Delhi; thus, the prime minister's immersion in state politics was for the eventual good of the country. Further, the BJP did not enjoy a majority in the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, to which seats are allotted in proportion to each state's population. For the Rajya Sabha not to hold up bills passed in the BJP-held lower house, the Lok Sabha, there would have to be more BJP-led state governments.
If the "Modi wave" could work so strongly at the center, it makes sense for the party to want to replicate it in the states, even if citizens grumble that the prime minister is taking his eye off the duties of his very demanding office. With just a small time investment in the early phase of his tenure, then, Modi will be able to deploy his massive political capital and tremendous rhetorical arsenal to build a more secure road for the success of his own plans and policies in the long run.
But this couldn't be all. Frankly -- and I say this as much in sympathy as in criticism -- it can be hard to forsake the thrill of campaigning, especially when one has a connection with one's audience as secure as Modi's today. Few things give a politician the high that the energy from a crowd does, or spur him into greater ambitions for his time in high office.
In the past decade, Modi frequently raised crowds to a high pitch, but often it was by inciting them and feeding their partisan passions, not by challenging them to improve India's reputation in the world and to jettison their bad habits (as he did at the close of his speech in Mumbai, when he asked them to pick up any litter left on the grounds as they were leaving). He knew he made them more a mob than a citizenry. The hard-liner's sense of achievement is far shakier than that of the statesman who tries to bring all on board; Modi has been in both positions and can surely tell the difference.
It was only relatively recently that Modi began to speak with the gravitas and the maturity worthy of the prime minister of one of the world's largest and most diverse societies. Such are the ironies and benedictions of time that the Modi of 2002 was unlikely to imagine the Modi of 2014.
Perhaps no more than two dozen leaders have stirred such optimism or enjoyed such approbation (in Modi's case, for reasons both good and bad) in the entire history of the Indian subcontinent. Further, many past prime ministers, including Modi's predecessor, Manmohan Singh, have known they were more the choices of their parties than of the people. Modi knows he is both.
So one could hardly begrudge him the desire to continue meeting his citizens face to face, so as to both seal his new compact with the people and to learn something from the repeated and often vivid articulation of his current themes: development, cleanliness, national cohesion, the power of India's demographic dividend, the need to draw in foreign investment to build infrastructure, the power of tourism to create wealth, the electorate's responsibility to deliver stable majorities.
In Ghatkopar, Modi's speech was electric -- I thought it much more interesting than the one he delivered at New York's Madison Square Garden two weeks ago -- and his confidence contagious. Few other politicians could have asked the crowd, as he did, to grant the party a clear majority in the state elections, or else reject it entirely and give a majority vote to some other party.
For a long time, Modi's critics, including myself, have warned that he could prove to be a danger to Indian democracy, but in a curious way, his recent advances show that he has been schooled by it, too: that although he appears to be the actor, he is also the acted upon. In appearing at every possible opportunity before the citizens of India, it seems that the new prime minister is also, at 64, airing out a new Indian self.
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