For the second time in less than a month Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has shown himself to be arguably India’s most finely honed political figure. His address at his Bharatiya Jana Party’s (BJP) National Council meeting in New Delhi is probably the most cohesive attack on the ruling Congress Party that I have heard in my long career as a journalist.
If his speech at the Sri Ram College of Commerce’s business conclave on February 6 was a compelling attempt to position himself as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate from policy standpoint, the one he gave today was an entirely political onslaught. Modi punctuated his 45-minute plus speech with characteristically unvarnished phraseology. At one point he described the Congress Party as “termite” (Deemak in Hindi) which has spread throughout India’s public life and, by implication, eating away its vitals.
As a professional journalist I reflexively see things as they are and not the way I want them to be. Modi is not the kind of political leader I want but that should hardly preclude a dispassionate analysis of what he says or does from time to time. In politics, as in life, the situational is often as important as the overarching. It is my natural disposition to be able to separate the situational from the overarching. It is from this vantage point that I see Modi’s recent outings to New Delhi twice in less than a month.
As far as I can see in India’s politics (and I dare say that I can see pretty far) I do not find anyone even remotely employing demagoguery and thematic cohesiveness as effectively as Modi. He has always had that smug self-assurance about him, even as an obscure behind-the-scenes party worker in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But after more than a decade of nearly unassailable political success in his home state of Gujarat he has acquired even more swagger. His deportment, in public and private, is that of someone who thinks that the world, or at any rate the world he operates in, awaits him in quivering anticipation. There is no hurry to get through with what he has to say. He presumes a certain level of political intelligence in his audience but just in the off chance that he is wrong in his presumption he also slips in very street level sarcasm.
For instance, he likened the late Congress president Sitaram Kesari and the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to “night watchmen.” The word has to be understood in the Indian cultural context. The normal understanding of a night watchman would be someone whose job it is to safeguard something, a facility or an interest, with complete commitment. In the context Modi was using it, it was meant to be derisive because it casts that job in a very lowly light. It is a menial job held by someone who is required to be servile and deferential towards the real power. The real power, in this case, would be the Gandhi-Nehru family which has enjoyed a nearly complete sway over the state of affairs in the party for over six decades. His point is that both Kesari and Dr. Singh are merely seat warmers. While that may have been true of Kesari, it is certainly not true of Dr. Singh.
Modi knows that he cannot indulge in just rhetorical flourish but has to illustrate his contention with examples. So in order to drive home his point about how the stranglehold of the Gandhi family deliberately stifles any other political talent in the party he rattled off names of all those who became prime ministers only after forsaking the party. He mentioned Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Inder Kumar Gujral and H D Deve Gowda to buttress his point. That’s what I mean by Modi being the most finely honed politician in India today. It so happens that I knew and reported on each one of them fairly extensively.
Like all successful demagogues, Modi too is able to tailor his speeches with selective realities and outrages. He is also able to trivialize with devastating effect the long years of work of nation building put in by the likes of Dr. Singh by calling him a night watchman. One may question the extent and quality of Dr. Singh’s success in directing and mending the country’s economy but to reduce him to a mere night watchman is not just in bad taste but, more importantly, factually inaccurate.
As for his critique of the culture of abject surrender to the Gandhi family within the Congress Party, a lot of what he says is accurate but it has been pointed out by many others who are not so viscerally antagonistic to the party as Modi. There is nothing new in it except the way he articulates it by illustrating it with specifics which makes it more attention-worthy.
It is similar to what I had pointed out in my February 6 post about his first speech. I said, “Over the decades I have heard many politicians talk about development, growth, economy and governance but none as detailed and well-structured as Modi. The ability to relate everything to a single individual among his audience is as essential as it is rare among politicians. Modi clearly possesses that.” With this speech Modi has done with politics what he did with policy then—lay out a clear contrast between his party and the Congress. Or more accurately, between himself and the rest.
As I said before, I am a professional journalist and not a political activist. It is required of me to see things the way they are and not shape them according to my predilections. Modi is convinced that a significant part of India’s electorate, particularly the always vocal urban middle class, is already primed to vote the Congress out in 2014. “Hum chalen ya na chalen, hum karen ya na karen, desh chal pada hai. Desh ne Congress ko ukhad fainkney ka faisla kar liya hai doston, (Whether we move or not, whether we do do it or not, the country has decided to to throw out the Congress, friends),” he said with complete certitude.
Of course, in politics there is often many a slip between the cup and the lip and many torments of Tantalus. However, for someone of Narendra Modi’s self-belief neither the water in the cup nor the lake, nor,for that matter, the fruit hanging above his head has any possibilities of a Greek tragedy occurring.