After a certain age, male politicians are known to face the problem of premature elation. It happens at age 55 and past. Shashi Tharoor is 58. However, that only partly explains his rather open-minded and some might even say effusive early view of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Tharoor has generally applauded Modi’s very obvious efforts to strike a studiedly less strident and inclusive tone since taking office. The Congress Party member of parliament sees in the prime minister’s conduct a laudable change of narrative. Using the language of software developers, which has now long gone mainstream, Tharoor says the prime minister is trying to emerge as “Modi 2.0”. In the world of software any version 1.0 necessarily has bugs and glitches and it requires several fixes before its issuer offers a version 2.0. It is a fair, if somewhat jaded, view of the new prime minister.
Tharoor has said, "We appreciate the inclusive and positive language from the high echelons of this government. The opposition should not be churlish to ignore that." For good measure, in writing for The Huffington Post, he also added, "to almost everyone’s surprise … Modi and the BJP have eschewed the hubris and triumphalism they might have assumed to have earned with their sweeping victory." Arianna Huffington could not be more pleased at the traction Tharoor’s piece is bound to give to the online aggregator’s India edition which was launched only last month. Considering that Tharoor and Modi have slugged it out on Twitter in the past, this shift in tone is interesting but predictable.
Although I began this post with a sentiment that sounds as if I am mocking or deriding Tharoor’s nuanced view of Modi, I want you to know that I am, in fact, kind of applauding it. There is a terrific early scene in one of my permanent favorite films ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ where Peter O’Toole meets General Murray who says to him, “I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.” Lawrence replies, “I have the same problem, sir.” In the same scene earlier, when O’Toole enters the general’s chamber without saluting, Murray says, “If you are insubordinate, I shall put you under arrest.” Lawrence replies, “It’s my manner, sir….it looks insubordinate.”
It is my tone, sir. It sounds mocking. I think in trying to be balanced in his early response to a figure so reviled as Modi, what Tharoor is saying is unexceptionable. Whether it needs to be said this early is certainly a matter of debate as well a question of one’s personal political temperament. For someone like Mani Shankar Aiyar, perhaps Modi’s most unvarnished critic in the Congress Party, the prime minister can do no right now or ever. For someone like Tharoor, Modi may have it in him to reinvent himself and do things right. The Congress Party, as one of the world’s great political organizations which just got kicked in its pants, has taken a far more skeptical view and chosen to distance itself from Tharoor saying those are his personal views. In that sense, Aiyar is an establishment Congress member who sees Tharoor as a bit of a political interloper.
Sharing my home state with Modi and generally understanding the Gujarati mindset I am not surprised at all that the prime minister comes across as conciliatory. That has been the defining trait of Gujaratis generally. They are not known to be confrontational for the sake of being confrontational. That said, it is amusing to see some of Modi’s antagonists taken aback by his inclusive approach so far because counting today it has only been 12 days since his assuming office. Give the man time to succeed….or even fail. Of course, we all want him to succeed spectacularly for the sake of India.
One has to be remarkably dim-witted to have expected Modi to not say and do what he has said and done so far. Did Tharoor and others, for instance, expect Modi to say that he would be the prime minister of only the 30 odd percent of Indians who voted for him and the rest of the country can go fuck itself? Even someone as messianic and grandstanding as Modi is essentially a politician who is acutely aware of the rewards of being pragmatic and inclusive. That explains why he has chosen to accept the invitation for a summit meeting from U.S. President Barack Obama despite America having officially shunned him for nearly a decade. The meeting is likely to take place in September when the new prime minister visits New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly. Modi is nothing if not grandly ambitious, both for the country and for himself. He is so well plugged into the mood and aspirations on the ground that he will continue to cast himself and his government in a manner that might seem utterly out of character to those such as Tharoor who have seen him from a limited standpoint.
Of course, none of this means at all that Modi is incapable of springing deeply unsettling surprises, both for his detractors and supporters. Tharoor’s qualified praise of Modi’s early conduct on an online aggregator so far is a minor sideshow with a short shelf life. It is of no consequence to his own party and certainly to Modi personally other than causing in the latter a transiently warm feeling of vindication. In my Facebook update I had wondered whether Tharoor’s praise is a case of premature elation. Even if it is, premature elation, like what I insinuate by playing on a well-known phrase, always feels good. So let Tharoor enjoy it without second-guessing his motivations.