More than anything else, our attitudes to Narendra Modi tell us more about ourselves and our hypocrisies than about him.
The bland fact is Modi is Modi, a unique human being like any one of us, with his human strengths and failures. It is now the done thing to say that he is "controversial" or "polarising", but these terms should apply to us rather than him.
It is those who dislike him who make him controversial or polarising; for the rest of us he is either invigorating or a put-off. We react to Modi because of who he is. We don’t react as much to those who stand for nothing.
Let's therefore take a close look at the proposition that Modi is "controversial" or "polarising" by examining the three main things that are held against him by his detractors.
The first criticism is about 2002 and his reluctance to express enough contrition or offer apologies for the riots and killings that happened under his watch. The second one is about his “arrogance”. The third one is about his claims about what he has achieved in Gujarat – a quality his detractors discovered only after he became a serious contender for power at the centre over the last two years. Modi-haters - not incorrectly - question his tendency to claim that everything good about Gujarat is because of him. But the difference is this: till about two years ago, they only despised him for 2002; now they want to despise him for everything.
So, the first issue: 2002 and Modi. The objective facts are these: neither India nor Gujarat has been riot-free or communalism-resistant (for details, read here). On an average we have had one major communal conflagration almost every decade. Gujarat got it last in 2002. A decade later we had something nearly as bad in Assam.
What made 2002 different was TV. What made Assam different from Gujarat was also TV – or the lack of it due to Assam's relative inaccessibility to the media. But there was also an additional factor at work: the general media presumption of guilt when it is the BJP that's involved. There's a greater willingness to believe that communal incidents under Congress watch must be mere aberrations. The Congress benefits from our prior and well-entrenched beliefs about who is communal and who is not.
Remove this presumption, and we would have forgotten 2002 as easily as we did 1984 and 2012.
Those who refuse to believe this BJP-is-communal-Congress-is-secular line have an additional argument against Modi: his unwillingness to apologise or express regret for the administrative failures in 2002.
The counters to this argument are several. Has the Gandhi family apologised for even 1984, leave alone all the scores of riots that happened from 1947 to 1998, before the BJP came to power at the centre? Has any party, at state or centre, done so even now? CPM for Nandigram, the SP for the 8-10 minor riots in Uttar Pradesh after its return to power?
An apology is relevant only when it is real - not something offered as a political concession. And this Modi has indirectly offered through the Sadhbhavna fasts and silent efforts to reach out to some Muslim groups in Gujarat. I suspect believe that these efforts to reach out may be more meaningful to Muslims than fake apologies and hypocritical behaviour.
One should also notice another thing: it is only the card-carrying old-generation secularists who are making a song-and-dance about Modi's non-apology, not today's young who have other things on their mind than the legacy of Hindu-Muslim conflicts. Modi has reinvented himself by repositioning himself as a messiah of growth and governance, but the rest of the non-young are stuck in the past.
The second point is about Modi's arrogance. Even LK Advani's praise for Shivraj Singh Chauhan's humility - presumably to contrast it with Modi's braggadocio - is intended to convey the importance of outward humility in a leader. Advani himself is this type of person. Atal Behari Vajpayee falls in this category.
But we know where Advani ended up: as a loser. Despite being the architect of the Ayodhya movement, it was Vajpayee who became PM.
This is typically the trait of the traditional - and usually older - Indian. Indians are paranoid about claiming success for several reasons. We worry about the evil eye (kahin nazar na lag jaaye). We worry about what people will think of us. We are wary about receiving compliments and the traditional way of dealing with praise is to demur and say (Yeh bhagwan ki kripa hai, or even better, turn it back on the person giving the compliments with Ye aap ki meherbani hai).
Modi, despite his Hindutva image, is actually more like a western politician who is willing to make a pitch for himself, who is not afraid to claim success in this or that. He is unwilling to accept fake humility.
What this tells us about ourselves is this. We are afraid of success, or about claiming credit for it. We would like to pretend modesty, and let others extol our virtues, which we can then bashfully deny and emphasise our humility.
This is humbug and hypocrisy - which we are so fond of pointing out in others but not in ourselves. This is precisely why the young - who are unburdened by the need for excess modesty or humility - take to Modi while the old crib about his arrogance.
The young have a sense of entitlement and impatience about getting things done. They have no problems with Modi’s alleged arrogance for the simple reason that they themselves would not like to be left behind by being timid or self-effacing. They know that nice guys finish last, and they do not agree with the values of their parents’ generation that you should hold yourself back and not be pushy.
To use the phrase of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, the young are more willing to “lean in” – which means thrusting yourself forward to grab opportunities and not be a shrinking lily.
Sandberg’s “lean-in” advice is addressed to women in her book by the same name, as it is apparent that women hold themselves back despite obvious achievements. They feel guilty about claiming credit and think of themselves as frauds for doing so. But the description works well for old India – which holds itself back and is afraid to acknowledge success. Manmohan Singh typifies this attitude, and so does Advani – though, one must add, since 2004 both of them have much to be modest about.
To the young, Modi is a lean-in leader. His attitude works for them. So when we decry Modi for his ambition and Nitish Kumar for opposing him, we are essentially describing ourselves – whether we prefer hypocrisy or confidence, lean-in or lean-back attitudes.
The third point – about Modi claiming credit for things that are not directly attributable to his efforts - is intrinsically connected to the previous point. Lean-in leaders take advantage of the luck factor or circumstances that may have helped them succeed – and they don’t feel guilty about it. Lean-back leaders are too busy denying credit to take advantage of luck and a favourable environment.
Let us be clear: Gujarat was always an entrepreneurial state, so Modi certainly cannot claim credit for all of the state’s performance. But is this not what all politicians do?
Does the UPA not do the same? India’s growth upsurge began in 2003-04, under the NDA, but UPA claims all the growth as its work. It is now well-established that India has always ranked around 24-25 in terms of growth among emerging market economies. When the world grows faster, India does too. And vice-versa. This has held over the last two decades whether the country is run by the NDA or the UPA, according to Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.
So if you disbelieve Modi’s claim, you should disbelieve UPA’s too. But we don’t do that because we think Modi is arrogant while UPA is not.
Once again, what we believe about Modi’s claims tells us more about ourselves than him. For example, why is it that we have to invent a Bihar or Madhya Pradesh growth model just to debunk Modi? Did anyone talk about a Bihar model before Modi started tom-tomming his Gujarat model? It was a clearly a reaction.
For those who want to delink Modi from Gujarat’s performance here is one more poser: if Gujarat’s growth is not only Modi’s work (and I agree with that), why should we believe that Gujarat’s communalism is only his work? Why don’t we accept that communalism always lurked in Gujarat and elsewhere, and it only needed a trigger to set it off?
Why do we also want to believe the Bihar story is about Nitish or Madhya Pradesh about Shivraj Singh Chauhan? Or even that “inclusive growth” is about UPA, when more jobs were created during the NDA regime than the UPA?
To sum up: It’s not Modi who is polarising or arrogant or anything else. It is we who are polarised or arrogant or hypocritical about it, depending on our own predilections.
2014 will be an interesting election not because of Modi’s controversial nature, but because it will pit the old versus the young, the perpetually modest against the confident. The young see no need for false modesty; the old shrink prefer self-effacing behaviour. The young take success in their stride; the old are afraid to claim it. Let’s see which attitude wins.