Why Narendra Modi is an idea whose time has come

In April of last year, while on the stump for Delhi's local body elections, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit picked on an unlikely campaign theme, which held no relevance to the bijli-sadak-pani issues that agitated voters' minds.  Addressing an election rally in the Old Delhi constituency of Ballimaran, which has a high concentration of Muslim voters, Dikshit pulled out the same old bogeyman that that the Congress has been invoking for  more than a decade now to keep old wounds agape in the hope 0f profiting electorally from the politics of identity.

Dikshit said at that time that the BJP often claims that Narendra Modi would be its next Prime Ministerial candidate, "but they never call him for campaigning in elections." She even proffered a 'reason' for this. "It's because," she said, "they know that if ever comes here, he will be stoned by the people."

On Wednesday, Sheila Dikshit was given a lesson in humility - and on the vicissitudes of politics.

Narendra Modi inspires Young India in a way that Rahul Gandhi doesn't. PTI.

Narendra Modi inspires Young India in a way that Rahul Gandhi doesn't. PTI.

Narendra Modi, the bogeyman she invoked, rode into town like a strong gust of the wild West Wind, and far from being "stoned by the people", was received with much adulation for channelling a vibrant, can-do spirit among the cream of Delhi's youth, and for instilling in them a yearning to reach for the stars - for their own sake and for their country's.

And what kind of a day did Sheila Dikshit herself have? She was, metaphorically speaking, pelted with verbal stones for her statement that plumbed the depths of widespread despair over an ineffectual government that cannot provide women of Delhi the most fundamental of  rights: the right to safety.

For sure, there were a few hundred student protestors, most of whom held Leftist affiliations, who gave voice to their dissent over the invitation extended by a reputed academic institution to Modi. In their ideologically-motivated estimation, Modi represents the sum of all evil, and the invitation to address business students gave him a free pass to advance what they perceive as his prime ministerial aspiration.

But it's just as true that Sheila Dikshit herself cannot walk 20 paces in Delhi today without requiring her security cordon to whisk her away to safety from those who feel incensed by her government's abject failure to offer governance - and her recent attempts to milk the popular outrage against the Delhi gang-rape to shore up her dwindling popularity.

But yesterday wasn't about Sheila Dikshit, a septuagenarian politician who has lost the trust of her people and remains in office solely on the strength of the backing of India's foremost political dynasty, to which she pays ritual obeisance in public - as when she tearfully kissed Sonia Gandhi's hand at the recent Congress conclave in Jaipur.

Yesterday was about Modi, who even at age 62 demonstrates an enviable ability to connect with young audiences and inspires them to rise above their constituency - of caste, religion and class - and dream big dreams, by holding out inspirational examples of entrepreneurial success from his home State of Gujarat that are worthy of emulation.

That someone who doesn't hail from an aristocratic class (far from it, in fact), who started life as a tea vendor, but was propelled by a quirk of circumstances to become Chief Minister of arguably India's most industrialised State - and who, despite the aberration of the 2002 riots, has raised the benchmark for good governance in India, isn't easy to explain.

But it is this that stands in stark contrast to a Manmohan Singh or a Rahul Gandhi. Manmohan Singh, for all the respect he once commanded for his erudition, has abysmally failed to channel the restless energy of India's youth. Instead, alongside Sonia Gandhi, he has guilt-tripped an entire generation of Indians into believing that they are not worthy of higher aspiration. That's pretty ironic, since the first-generation of India's economic reforms in 1991, which unleashed Indian entrepreneurial energy, happened when he was Finance Minister (although the political risk was borne by Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao).

Likewise, Rahul Gandhi, who although younger to Modi by 20 years and given to spouting management jargon, has failed to articulate anything close to a larger vision that resonates with young audiences beyond corralled Congress supporters. (Watch this recent interaction of Rahul Gandhi with Young India, at which he channelled the Kennedy-esque 'Ask not what your country can do for you' sentiment, but came across merely as someone who 'outsources' all responsibility for India's problems to the very people who ask him to outline his vision.)

Management guru Peter Drucker defined leadership as "lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations." On that count, Modi's speech to Young India on Wednesday ticked all those boxes: he demonstrated, as nearly as words can, that a nation buoyed by a forward-looking, hope-inspiring leader can aspire to reshape its destiny.

There may be many reasons not to have a Prime Minister like Modi. Those affronted by his government's perceived complicity in or passivity during the 2002 riots have made a persuasive case for a decade now. And, yet, today, the critical consideration that ought to weigh with voters is the opportunity cost that India would pay if it persists with dysfunctional non-governance of the sort that Manmohan Singh offered for close to a decade - and which Rahul Gandhi will likely continue. For that would truly crush India's spirit for eternity, and India deserves better than that.

Modi, for all his perceived faults, today channels the aspirations of an India that can break free of the politics of caste, class and religion, change its karma, and strive for excellence. He has demonstrated this  in Gujarat over the past decade, and reckons that his Gujarat model can be replicated across India, by offering "less government, more governance."

It is this template, more than anything else about Modi’s record in office in Gujarat, that requires pan-national amplification. Our national discourse on economics, which has always been weighted in favour of the far left, needs a corrective balancing force. Even the BJP, for all its record of advancing economic reforms between 1999 and 2004, has lost its nerve and is positioning itself even further to the left of the Congress. That economic discourse, like much of the dead political thought that characterises the polity today, needs a countervailing force. It would be vastly improved by having a strong gust of a wild wind whip up some creative destruction, engender a Clash of Ideas and clear the cobwebs.

Whenever Manmohan Singh wanted to hardsell his economic reforms (in the time that he was committed to them), he was given to quoting Victor Hugo's line about them being "an idea whose time has come."

Much the same can be said of Narendra Modi today.