Three statements over the last one week – one by Narendra Modi, another by Rahul Gandhi and a third by Manmohan Singh – and our instinctive responses to them tell us more about ourselves than anything else.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister silently twisted the knife in the BJP’s old wounds and talked about how the party courted “disaster” with India Shining, how a“lamb” trounced the “Iron Man” of the BJP in 2009, and predicted defeat for the opposition party in 2014 for its “arrogance”. He also claimed the growth record of UPA was better than NDA, never mind that growth is now tapering down to under 5 percent, and inflation is in double digits.
The media went into raptures over “the mouse that roared”. While there is no doubt the PM scored debating points yesterday, the point is this: why do three sentences from a man who chooses to remain largely silent for years on end evoke such admiration? Why is a low-performing PM, who allowed the systematic loot of the exchequer over 2G and Coalgate, still rated as a hero for merely having survived for nine years?
We will answer that question later, but let’s also discuss what Rahul said the day before the mouse roared. The parachute politician of the Congress and apparent heir – he declined any claims to the title heir-apparent – shushed the media which asked him about his Prime Ministerial ambitions by saying that was the wrong question. He also suggested that marriage and children were not a priority since he might then be perpetuating the status quo, giving a further fillip to dynasty.
Oh? Marrying and having children preserves the status quo? If he didn’t want to allow this, what stops him from quitting active politics and starting an NGO with a positive agenda? Surely, that would not perpetuate the status quo.
The media was less rapturous this time, but grudgingly seemed to accept that Rahul was not that power hungry. His mother, when she declined the PM’s job in 2004, was similarly eulogised for not being power-hungry. Rahul Gandhi’s party rank-and-file may be dismayed by his lack of ambition or stomach for politics, but they still put on a brave face and said he was “the most deserving candidate” for the top job.
Is saying you aren’t hankering for the top job the prime means to acquiring it?
A few days earlier, Narendra Modi, the undeclared BJP candidate for Prime Ministership, showed a greater will to power when he vowed the party cadres by asking them to fight for power. He declared Manmohan Singh a “nightwatchman” and the Congress party as infested with “termites” that believed in “commission” while the BJP believed in a “mission”.
Needless to say, the response from the media was different. While The Indian Express chose to believe that Modi will now face more trouble from challengers within BJP and allies, the Hindustan Times decried the adulation given to Modi at the BJP meeting, and said the spotlight should not have been on him. “Perhaps the party could have done without so much focus on one individual when it has to its credit at least three other chief ministers who have done exceedingly well — Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Manohar Parrikar.”
It’s funny how the media discovers the virtues of other BJP Chief Ministers whenever Modi moves centre-stage. Otherwise, the BJP is unmentionable.
If one contrasts the responses of Indians and the media to Modi, Rahul and Manmohan Singh, several conclusions emerge. And they tell a lot about us.
First, hypocrisy. The Indian brand of hypocrisy is to pretend you are all self-sacrificing even while wanting something badly. If you want to be PM, you should pretend, like Rahul, that asking about it is the wrong question. You always have to couch ambition in something more esoteric. You don’t earn brownie points for honesty in India. Horror of horrors, Modi wants to be PM! How rude. How gross.
This is not to suggest that westerners are not hypocrites. But they have a different way of dealing with it. They are more open about seeking power, but they couch it in moral terms. If you want to get rid of Saddam Hussain, you can claim he has weapons of mass destruction. If you want to bring India or some other country to heel, throw some human rights abuses into the accusations pot. Never mind that your own human rights accord is far from spotless. Throwing high-intensity bombs using unmanned drones on hundreds of defenceless people on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is the moral and upright thing to do. For the latter are terrorists, vermin.
Christ said turn the other cheek, but the western brand of hypocrisy is to ensure that the rivals are slapped multiple times in the name of larger humane goals. This is super-sophisticated hypocrisy.
Second, false modesty. In India, nothing works as well as false modesty. If you have achieved something, attribute it to luck, god’s benevolence, or the support of family and friends. Never claim any success as your own. This is why Modi never gets an objective hearing on his achievements. Sure, not all his claims are borne out by facts, but this is not the crime we are against. The crime is claiming any success at all in Gujarat through your own efforts.
If you want to claim success, the best way to do so is by pretending extreme humility. Thus, we want to believe Manmohan Singh when he claims that India did better under UPA than under NDA. When Modi talks about the Gujarat model, we want to call it hype and arrogance.
Third, pretence of weakness. In India, the right slogan for anyone seeking power is to pretend extreme weakness. The meek shall inherit. This is Manmohan Singh’s strength. This is why he has survived nine years with very little real achievement, once you knock out the luck element in the high growth phase of UPA-1.
Weakness and non-achievement ensure political longevity; strength and success draw envy and create enemies. Is it any wonder we never end up achieving much as a nation? We celebrate failures, or half-failures, but we will never praise genuine success.
The Indian approach to power is schizophrenic. Like the proverbial blade of grass which bends with every passing wind, power in India needs you to pretend weakness while exercising strength in other ways. This means compromising with the wrong things, and resisting the right things. Manmohan Singh maintains high personal honesty while allowing dishonesty to flourish all around. Sonia Gandhi exercises untrammelled power without responsibility and by pretending she holds power.
The mighty oak, in contrast, stands firm against passing winds, but crumbles only when faced with the most severe of storms.
Manmohan and Modi are personifications of the grass blade and the mighty oak. One survives forever without doing much; the other stands for something, and is thus vulnerable occasionally to a mighty storm.
The choice for Indians is clear, whether you pit Manmohan or Rahul Gandhi against Modi.
And their strengths and weaknesses are clear.
One subtly plays to the Indian psyche of hypocrisy, false modesty and powerlessness. This has been the Indian way for long.
The challenger stands for change, a specific agenda, self-confidence. Even arrogance and brashness. You may not agree with what he stands for, but you know where he stands and where you do.
The challenger’s strength is wysiwyg: what you see is what you get. There is little hypocrisy, little false modesty, maybe even arrogance.
In 2014, we will know what kind of India the Indian wants.