Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and the Power of One

In the Mahabharata, there is a story about Arjuna and Duryodhana, who both sought Lord Krishna’s support before the war in Kurukshetra. The cousins reached Krishna’s palace around the same time, and he decided that since he could not discriminate between the two, he would offer one of them his personal support, and the other his Yadava army. But Krishna gave Arjuna the first choice, since he saw him first.

Arjuna chose Krishna the individual, but Duryodhana was thrilled he got the army. We know how the story ended. Arjuna’s choice proved right, and Krishna guided the Pandavas to victory.

The moral: one committed individual is better than a mercenary army. It is about the Power of One – the power of one committed individual to change the course of history.

Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and the Power of One

The power of One is undeniable

Fast-forward to the present. Some weeks, back, Rahul Gandhi, speaking before a business audience, rejected the idea that “one hero riding a horse” would be able to achieve anything. The apparent reference was to Narendra Modi, who many see as the answer to India’s governance problems.

Gandhi is, of course, right. Change needs many, many people to get behind the wheel. But he also got his riposte yesterday from Modi, who emphasised that committed individuals can indeed make a difference.

Speaking at an election rally in Bangalore, Modi pointed out that Sardar Patel single-handedly got the princely states to sign the letter of accession to IndiaNot Nehru or Gandhi. He also cited the example of Lal Bahadur Shastri and how he set off the Green Revolution that finally helped India end its food shortage and reduce hunger.

Some liberals worry that belief in one individual can sooner or later degenerate into hero worship and authoritarianism. This, of course, happens, as we can notice from the hero worship of BR Ambedkar by Dalits, and the personality cult created around so many of our regional leaders.

Vinod Mehta, a former editor of Outlook magazine, compared Modi with Sanjay Gandhi, the autocratic son of Indira Gandhi, and wrote in The Times of India yesterday: “The strong leader, meanwhile, has three defining characteristics. One, he has a solution to every problem and the timeframe in which it can be solved is usually a few months. He is a loner. He works alone. There are no hangers on, no chamchas, no family. He is personally incorruptible. Naturally, he collects a few henchmen/henchwomen to execute his orders. Finally, the strong one has minimal interest in means. He is concerned solely with things being done. Indeed, he does not wish to be bothered by means. “

I  doubt this is the right characterisation of Modi, who may be a loner and also fairly authoritarian, but he functions within a democratic polity and has been re-elected several times.

Now apply the same concept to Rahul and see which one makes more sense. Rahul is not anybody’s idea of a strong leader. He has no solution to the country’s problems beyond platitudes. Like Modi, he too is a loner and he seems to work alone. Like Modi, he and his family have lots of “hangers on, and chamchas”.  Unlike Modi, the family is not seen as incorruptible by many Indians. Rajiv Gandhi had his Bofors. And Sonia and son recently took over a Rs 1,600 crore property using party funds. The UPA is steeped in corruption scandals despite being run by a seemingly incorruptible PM.

Given these similarities and contrasts, one wonders why people would not see Modi as a better choice. Mehta himself sees the attractiveness of the Modi option and concludes: “If the majority of our countrymen and countrywomen are so keen to see Narendra Modi sitting in 7, Race Course Road, we the sceptics should have the grace to fall in line. However, our guard must be up. Civil society, the media, the courts, need to remain vigilant and alert so that the strong leader does his job within the statute of democratic India. Strong leadership, yes. Extra-constitutional authority, no.”

Valid points in general, but Mehta does not see the irony of Sonia and Rahul serving as extra-constitutional authorities in the UPA government. And the fact that the government’s arbitrariness has been repeatedly called to account by civil society, the media and the courts. So he need not worry about Modi getting a free ride either.

However, the larger issue is about the Power of One. Is the expectation that Modi will solve some governance problems just illusion?

Of course, we cannot presume he will deliver at the centre. The complexities of running a coalition may tie his hands down just as it has tied Manmohan Singh’s.

As against this, the Indian experience is one of strong, even authoritarian, leaders working within a democratic structure. Even Indira Gandhi called elections in 1977 after the internal emergency. She lost and bowed out.

Indians, it seems, believe in two opposite things: a broad democratic pluralism, and the ability of one individual to make things change.  We believe in the Power of the Multitude and the Power of One simultaneously.

The Indian experience, as Modi pointed out, is that individuals do make a difference. Here are a few recent examples of the Power of One.

TN Seshan, former Chief Election Commissioner, managed to make the Election Commission a powerful body and ensured that never again will political parties challenge its legitimacy or question its power to conduct free and fair elections.

Vinod Rai has single-mindedly brought the focus back to corruption, despite having the entire system ranged against him.

LK Advani rebuilt the BJP in one decade after the debacle of 1984.

It has taken only one individual to create entirely new political parties: from MGR to NTR to Kanshi Ram to Mamata Banerjee to Mayawati, to Jayalalithaa and almost every other regional party in India.

And, let’s not forget, it has taken only one Gandhi family to run the Congress party for decades. In the current UPA dispensation, all the critical programmes – from farm loan waivers to social sector spending – have been driven by one individual, Sonia Gandhi. It has put the country on the road to economic ruin, but we are talking about the Power of One to change destinies, for good or bad.

In Gujarat, Modi has put paid to the ambitions of all his detractors, both within the party and outside it, despite being targeted by the entire national establishment.

One Jawaharlal Nehru can be largely credited with the building of India’s democratic structure post-independence. One Nehru also lost us the 1962 China war.

Globally, too, the Power of One is apparent.

One Abraham Lincolm managed to end slavery, despite a civil war. FDR led the US through the Great Depression.

One Winston Churchill led Britain through the dark days to victory in World War II.

On the negative side, we have single individuals making all the difference – from Hitler to Mao to Stalin and Pol Pot.

There is no denying the Power of One.

It is interesting that Vinod Mehta should raise the spectre of Hitler and authoritarianism in India. The truth is, India is inherently pluralistic – we don’t even believe in one god, even while we believe in the Power of One.

All the mega-tyrants of the world were created in the West, which believes in the idea of One God and One Power Structure – which automatically creates an “either you are with us, or against us” argument.

It is unlikely that Modi, if actually elected to lead his party or the country, will turn out to be the Great Dictator. In India, all dictators have bitten the dust - without mayhem - and we have a tradition of authoritarian leaders working within a democratic setting.

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2013 12:53:19 IST

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