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May 30, 2014

Give Modi a Chance

By Kartik Desai


After losing a bitterly fought election to become “the most powerful man in the world”, John McCain was gracious enough to say to Barack Obama in his concession speech: “I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will now be my President.” It is worth recalling this quote in the context of Narendra Modi taking the oath of office as India’s new Prime Minister. Mr Modi is a man I used to hate, and for whom I did not vote. But now he is my leader and I want to give him the chance to perform.

Since 2002, when I became “politicised” by the Gujarat riots, I have been a strong critic of Mr Modi, and a supporter of the Congress. I even considered working for Rahul Gandhi when I gave up my investment banking career and moved back to India. I wanted to do something to help my countrymen, not just myself before I ended up as a social entrepreneur and activist, not allied to any party.

Considering this background, several fellow activists have found it unforgivable that I can stop disliking Mr Modi after opposing him for so many years. And this is because these colleagues have mistaken my idealism for ideology. I believed in the Congress because I felt they were good for the country — in 2004, when the spectre of Hindu nationalism needed to be defeated; and in 2009, when they had delivered five years of solid performance. By 2014, however, the Congress had shown itself to be worthy of its humiliation at the polls, not just because of its disastrous performance over the last five years, but because it fell prey to the same mistake which afflicted the BJP and led to its downfall in 2004: arrogance.
The arrogance of the Congress is partly due to the dynastic nature of the party, driven by a coterie or cabal whose existence is justified by its privileged access to the “high command”. This is not that different from other organisational structures in India, whether of political parties or businesses, which also tend to be nepotistic and feudal. The arrogance that cost the Congress was its apathy towards the middle class, urban voters and the youth.

Contrast this with how Mr Modi ran his campaign. Emulating the model used by President Obama in the US, he identified his target audiences and gave them what they wanted. He focused his masterful Hindi oratory to speak with the ordinary man through his huge rallies. He reached out to the better-off through his extensive and skilful use of social media. He spoke the language of youth, of entrepreneurship, of progress and development.

A 63-year-old man who spoke almost exclusively in Hindi and was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak managed to appeal to the aspiring classes more than the urbane and youthful Rahul Gandhi.

Notwithstanding the corrosive behaviour of some of his supporters, Mr Modi tapped into the anger many Indians across social classes feel towards the Gandhi family. The anger stems from the fact that the Gandhis abused their privilege by emasculating Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and, by association, the entire country, by their “remote control politics” of power without accountability. Presenting a development agenda, Mr Modi contrasted his strong leadership with a weak and divided Congress which would never be able to solve India’s problems with its flawed governance model.

Since he became Prime Minister-designate, Mr Modi has given his critics additional room for reconsidering their doubts, by showing that he can be statesmanlike and not just the angry, testosterone-fuelled pugilist he was during the bitter election campaign against the Congress. In both his words and body language, such as his speech to the BJP parliamentary board, as well as his actions, like his gambit of inviting all Saarc leaders to his oath-taking ceremony, he has shown that he can rise to the occasion. He has also shown signs of his results-focused approach by having a relatively leaner Cabinet and getting on with the business of governance within minutes of taking the oath of office.

Those who have made an industry out of Modi bashing may find it difficult to accept all this, and will likely continue to disparage the new PM and all those who support him, regardless of what he does. But by sticking to their black-or-white worldview, they make it difficult to have a constructive debate on policy issues. The ability to change one’s mind based on new information is critical if we are to have positive social discourse and find practical solutions to India’s complex challenges. One can only hope that such a dialogue can now begin after the acrimony of the elections is finally over.

Despite having come a long way since 2002 in reconciling myself to an India led by Mr Modi, our new Prime Minister does not have my assured support. If Mr Modi turns out to be a zealot and justifies the fear-mongers, I will oppose him. But if he turns out to be a good leader, his opponents should put their country ahead of their egos, and to work alongside the new PM in the difficult task of making India a leading nation of the 21st  century.

[Originally published in The Asian Age and The Deccan Chronicle on May 30, 2014


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