The Narendra Modi that we voted for was probably more our creation and less of his own making
As we approach Narendra Modi’s seventh anniversary as Prime Minister I think I‘ve realised why so many are disappointed with him. The one quality we looked for when we voted for him in 2014 -- and which some believe they had found in the immediate years thereafter -- is what is missing today when we most need it. And it’s called Leadership.
Let me explain what I mean. I’m not simply referring to assertiveness and conviction. They are necessary but not sufficient. What I have in mind is the capacity to paint a vision for the future, convince the country to ascribe to it and then boldly lead towards its realisation. It might sound fanciful but it’s not unlike Moses leading the Israelites through the parted waters of the Red Sea to the promised land he had committed himself to deliver.
Think back to 2014. Perhaps he was misunderstood but Dr Manmohan Singh was widely perceived as a paralysed Prime Minister. Not just silent but also a prisoner of his own coalition and, even, his own party. He was not his own man and, therefore, could not be our leader either. The country saw him as Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s “poodle” and he did precious little to change that impression.
Mr Modi, on the other hand, presented himself as the chief minister who had worked miracles in Gujarat. Many accepted that as fact and refused to entertain any doubts because they wanted a saviour. Here was a self-made man who had risen by his own efforts and talent. He didn’t carry the burden of family nor the taint of compromise. He also had the gift of oratory and thus knew how to present himself. During the 2013-14 campaign he sold himself to us and we readily bought him.
Yet behind this truth lies another and it’s possibly more important. Each of us saw in him what we wanted to see even if it wasn’t there. The Narendra Modi that we voted for was probably more our creation and less of his own making.
So you could say disappointment and disillusionment were perhaps inevitable. The real Narendra Modi was bound to be different from the image we had created and convinced ourselves we were acquiring. But in the early years so strong was our belief in him that we overlooked --foolishly and myopically -- the first signs our faith had been misplaced. We found excuses for his impetuous and thoughtless demonetisation. We accepted his silence when Muslims were baited and lynched or dalits thrashed for being uppity, on the grounds that the Prime Minister can’t speak on every occasion. Indeed, most people didn’t even pay heed when he mistook mythology for science. Finally, the way the diaspora cheered him and foreign leaders like Barack Obama, Theresa May, the Asean heads of government and Middle Eastern potentates courted him convinced us that this was quite a man.
Even when the scales began to drop -- and for some they did fast and furiously -- there was a reluctance to accept that the Prime Minister lacked the one quality we so badly wanted: Leadership. His promises of a $5 trillion economy or doubling farmers’ incomes in five years were a beguiling illusion many refused to see through. His boast of standing up to Pakistan and making India feel good again was bombast but we failed to recognise it as hot air. His talk of reform was tantalising -- because we knew we needed it badly -- but he didn’t deliver, yet many kept hoping that he would.
Of course, there’s no doubt on some things he has made a difference --Swachchh Bharat, Jan Dhan, Ujjwala Yojana, rural roads and houses, medical insurance and electricity in villages. We applauded him for this, forgetting that it’s what governments are elected to do. These aren’t extraordinary achievements. They are just the simple expectations of needy people. Perhaps this is why he gets little credit for them today.
It was against this background the Covid-19 pandemic hit us and we suddenly realised that our colossus has feet of clay. He had nothing to say beyond the trite and the foolish. He reduced us to banging dishes and lighting candles, all in the hope this “mahabharat” could be won in 21 days. Even his fabled oratory took flight. In the early months he didn’t stop speaking, but what he said was leaden. I suspect he realised this because he soon opted for silence.
The last year has revealed a Prime Minister who has failed repeatedly and has only himself to blame. He failed to anticipate how many vaccines we need and we are, as a result, woefully short. Yet all he had to do was enhance capacity by supporting our own vaccine manufacturers. It would have been “atma nirbhar”, but he didn’t do it. After that he defied his own scientists and continued with massive political rallies and shahi snans. He didn’t care this could fan the flames. Ultimately, when the pot boiled over, he handed the problem to the state governments. He told them to acquire their own vaccines, knowing it would be both expensive and difficult to do, whilst exacerbating the problem by opening up vaccinations for every adult in the country although he knew the jabs did not exist. In one single stroke he made a bad problem considerably worse.
So if I were to say our great leader -- the man we thought could be our Moses -- has led us into a blind alley, would I be wrong? If I were to say the qualities of strength and decisiveness that we identified in 2014 have turned into obstinacy, defiance and recklessness, would I be wrong? If I were to say the power of speech that mesmerised us when we heard it from Madison Square Garden has become theatrical and, even, exasperating, would I be wrong?
Now the only question is this: Is Mr Modi the Prime Minister to lead us to the other shore? The truth is that we have no other. We have to believe he is. We have three years to find out, but for all our sakes I hope he has it in him. We can’t change captains midsea, particularly when we don’t know if there is another cyclone heading our way. But when we reach dry land, we must ask ourselves two simple questions: Why did we err in our judgment? And can we be certain it won’t happen again?