Modi is the message: Decoding the man after his Bhuj I-Day speech
Modi has now clearly established himself as the issue for 2014. He has also established himself as an outsider, the man who might bring change.
Traditionalists may be aghast that Narendra Modi would want to make a patently political attack on the Prime Minister over his Independence Day speech, when the norm is to give the appearance of national unity.
However, both his challenge to the PM yesterday, and his aggressive speech to attack Manmohan Singh and the central government today, follow a simple logic: arguments in India are not won with just the power of reason, however much Amartya Sen may extol the virtues of argumentation; arguments are won through the demonstration of power and exercise of political will. This is exactly what Modi has been doing for the last few months, and this is what he did yesterday and today.
Modi is following a typically macho, western-style of establishing dominance first – the “shock and awe theory. He believes in winning first and compromising later. It breaks with the Indian way of doing things – first pretend to seek consensus, then claim you don’t want power at all, and then win power through intrigue and perfidy. This way of establishing power means that Indians are perpetually trying to bring those in power down, and the loser never really loses or gets out of the way.
Modi is changing the script. Despite his Indian idiom, his methods are clearly western and direct. He is a wysiwyg leader – what you see if what you get. Granted, he appears arrogant, but he doesn’t claim humility as his virtue.
If one were to take a quick survey of how he has gotten this far, one will realise why Modi thinks power is critical to governance and performance.
His very appointment as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001 came from an assertion of power. When the BJP’s central leadership wanted to make a change in the Gujarat leadership in 2001 after the state administration messed up the Kutch earthquake relief work, it was initially suggested that Modi first come in as Deputy Chief Minister to Keshubhai Patel. But Modi made it clear that it would be all or nothing. He got his way.
His critical moment was 2002 – after the Godhra train fire and the riots. He saw a golden opportunity to seal his grip in power and he did precisely that by encouraging or condoning communal polarisation. Having achieved power, the polarisation efforts took a back seat except during election time – which, of course, is the general Indian political reality. I don’t know whether Modi is communal or not, but his actions show that he did what he wanted to to achieve power. After that, communalism wasn’t important to him.
In both the 2007 and 2012 state assembly elections, he did not need to polarise too much, but in both elections he fought on his own terms and won. All his detractors lost. Once again, his all-or-nothing approach prevented messy compromises – and he made it on his own terms. To deliver on his mandate, he realised that you should not compromise too much when you are seeking power. Sharing power may make for good optics in a democracy, but it is bad for performance in the Indian context.
The same is the case with his rise to power in the BJP. He used the power and voice of the party’s grassroots – now impatient to return to power and in search of an aggressive leader – to force both the Sangh Parivar and the party to recognise his claims. As this writer has noted before, Modi effectively ran an American-style popularity campaign and in now within reach of his first goal: to be officially declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Another trait is this: having achieved his goal, he is usually more charitable. His first act after winning the election in December was to seek Keshubhai’s blessing.
Last Sunday, he gave further evidence of this strategy. His speech in Hyderabad last Sunday made it clear that Modi was making serious overtures to heal the internal breach in the BJP even while casting around for post-poll allies.
His laudatory references to LK Advani, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh, and his harking back to the late NT Rama Rao’s role in creating an anti-Congress platform, are indicative of these simultaneous moves to unite the BJP and reach out to future potential allies.
But Modi knows that the real battle lies ahead. His decision to position his I-Day speech today against Manmohan Singh’s own speech from the Red Fort is thus a calculated move aimed both at his own party and the enemy outside. The last prize – the party’s announcement on his candidacy – is still to come, but by taking on the Prime Minister on directly, he has effectively presented himself as the alternative, whether his party is prepared for it or not.
Consider the choice of venue and sartorial style.
The PM spoke from the Red Fort. Modi spoke from Lalan College in Bhuj, epicentre of the Kutch earthquake. It was Lalan versus Red Fort. Modi’s work post the Bhuj earthquake can also be contrasted with the ruins of the Indian economy under the UPA.
Next, consider the attire. The PM came in his usual Blue turban. Modi came in his usual Gujarati Red turban, reserved for such ceremonial occasions. Red versus Blue. Shades of the US presidential battle, where Red states are always contrasted with Blue ones?
By choosing to directly challenge the PM on what should have been his day, Modi has established the following:
First, he is the outsider challenging Delhi’s misrule. In doing so, he is challenging not only the Congress and its cabal of supporters in Delhi’s establishment, but also the unelectable coterie in the BJP’s own Delhi headquarters.
Second, when you want change, you tend to look outside – not inside. You look inside an organisation for leadership changes when you want continuity. By posing as the outsider to Delhi’s power elite, Modi is saying if you want change, you have to choose me. He may well have read at least the urban mood right, though that will only be established through an election.
Third, he has clearly abandoned the old style of submission, humility and compromise – a style that usually leads nowhere. The traditional Indian way of avoiding responsibility is to pretend you don’t want power, pretend excess humility, and then set such low standards for yourself that no one can accuse you of underperformance. This is what humble Manmohan has done. It is another matter that he failed to surpass even the low standards he set for his government in terms of probity and performance, but that is another story.
Modi has done the opposite. If today there is much sniping over his Gujarat model, it is because he has offered himself for scrutiny. Not everything he claims is obviously true, but everyone knows that he is for real. His performance can be measured. He is not trying to avoid responsibility for his failures – even for 2002. By not apologising, he is actually taking responsibility for it. He could have gotten away so easily by being submissive and humble, but he didn’t do that. The Congress got away with 1984 by a fake apology. But justice to Sikhs remains far away.
The question to ask is: is India in a mood to want straightforwardness or false humility and hypocrisy? My bet is young India is tired of excuses, and wants to see confidence in its leaders, however flawed in character. Modi mirrors this more than anyone else in the country right now. Large sections of the urban middle class, at least, wants to abandon excess humility. They don't want to judge him only on the basis of 2002.
Fourth, it is clear that Modi wants to run a US-style presidential campaign – at least in areas where it works for him – and that he wants to be the issue. Every attack on him by the Congress thus strengthens him – something a foolish Congress party and other regional parties have failed to realise. The first thing a leader craves is recognition of his power and this is precisely what the Congress has done. Attacking someone means to fear him. 2014 is an election about Modi. Modi has managed to make himself the issue – and this can’t do him much harm. Every time he is attacked, he merely has to point out that all they do is attack him when he is talking about real issues. This is the exact line Indira Gandhi used against her detractors.
Nothing can stop Modi now – at least till the people deliver their verdict in 2014.
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