Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, with a Japanese ceremonial drummer on September 2 in Tokyo (Photo pmindia.gov.in)
Of the 12 Indian prime ministers that I have either closely observed or interacted with/interviewed starting with Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, none has been as oratorically free-wheeling as Narendra Modi. One can possibly include Atal Behari Vajpayee with him but there are significant differences between the two. The relish that Prime Minister Modi feels saying what he says and doing what he does sets him apart from the rest.
Watching him on his visit to Japan, the first official visit outside South Asia since he became prime minister, I was once against instructed in my longstanding view of the man. Within his naturally calibrated self, the prime minister is probably the most free-wheeling Indian leader. Hearing him—I have done so now for the better part of the last 15 years—it becomes obvious why he does not really need handlers of any kind. Things come out of him precisely handled in keeping with his worldview. One may contend that worldview but that is extraneous to what I am saying.
Talking about his worldview, during a speech to the business community in Tokyo today, the prime minister spoke about many things, including what gift he carried for the emperor of Japan. He said he carried a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. For the unsuspecting this may seem like a passing piece of information but even as he was saying it I knew that he was setting up an opportunity to take a quick swipe at his many detractors back home. He spoke with unconcealed relish about how the “secular” crowd would be exercised that the prime minister had carried what they consider to be a communal (The way the word is understood in India) gift. In case it was lost on anyone, he rubbed it in by saying how some television channels would work up a storm over this gift. He quickly and preemptively described any such response to the gift as a matter of “livelihood” (rozi-roti was his precise expression) of TV punditocracy. He then finished the thought with a characteristically grand point. He said, “मेरे पास इससे बढ़कर देने के लिए कुछ नहीं है और दुनिया के पास इससे बढ़कर लेने के लिए कुछ नहीं है (I have nothing bigger to give than this (the Gita) and the world has nothing bigger than this to receive).”
Unlike most world leaders, who prepare and rehearse what they say in public , the Indian prime minister is oratorically free-wheeling, blessed as he is with a glib tongue. As lines go, the one about the Gita as a gift is perhaps among the best I have heard from an Indian leader, certainly among the 12 prime ministers I have closely observed since the 1980s. Having produced one-liners all my life, I am partial towards those who can do that as well. Of course, in and of themselves these pithy, crisp constructs have no value but in so much as they illustrate its writer’s personality, they are very useful. Let anything that is written or spoken first be effective irrespective of whether I agree with its substance at all. I say this because substance is a matter of personal judgment and even moral aesthetics.
The prime minister even cast the Japanese commitment to invest 3.5 trillion yen (about $34 billion) in India over the next five years in an unusual fashion. He said it was for the first time that the word “trillion” was heard in bilateral discourse. India has been accustomed to millions and billion but trillion was a first, he said. No PR handler or spinmeister could have even thought of advising the prime minister to spin trillion the way he did.
By the sheer optics of it, the Japan visit has gone extraordinarily well for the prime minister. Given his quintessentially Indian, and I might even argue Gujarati, temperament it is just as well that he began his strategic journey with Japan which feels profound cultural and spiritual affinities with India. When he chose to do a quick “jugalbandi” on drums with a Japanese ceremonial drummer, he was merely fashioning a visual moment he knew would work well. It is not my case that he does everything for its effect although it certainly looks that way.