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  • Why Modi of 2017 is not Modi of 2014

    Posted On May 28, 2017

    By Karan Thapar

    As he completes three years in office there’s no doubt the Prime Minister is a colossus amongst politicians. Not only is this obvious, it’s probably unchallenged. However, that still leaves open the question do you admire the man at the top or do you have concerns about his behaviour and statements? Each of us has his own answer and few would deny it divides us.

    As I ponder over the significant impact the Prime Minister has made I’m struck by a revealing, if not also novel, paradox: Mr. Modi’s strengths also metamorphose into his weaknesses. This means the same evidence can often lead to opposite conclusions. What I dislike someone else will, perhaps, admire and what they find regrettable I, probably, see as a boon. Now let’s explore this a little further.

    The vast majority of the Indian people believe in Mr. Modi. They feel he understands their needs and are confident he’ll deliver. Not since Indira Gandhi has such faith been invested in the ruler of the country. As it was for her, this is one of his great strengths.

    The flipside is that often Mr. Modi gives the impression he knows best. It’s said he’s a good listener but frequently his mind is already made up. Demonetization is the best example of a needless decision forced through because of his personal conviction. But not for a moment will the Prime Minister accept that.

    A second strength is Mr. Modi’s capacity to take bold and radical decisions. We may have seen more in the foreign policy arena than in the handling of the economy but each time they’ve captured the imagination of the country. They suggest a strong, even courageous, leader. People like that. The smack of strong government is for many reassuring.

    The obverse is that Mr. Modi can be authoritarian. He is the government. The Cabinet are just the supporting cast surrounding him. A few, in fact, are no better than the gravediggers in Hamlet! But, again, wasn’t this true of Indira Gandhi? Indeed, of all bold and decisive rulers?

    Mr. Modi’s third strength is his gift for easy and fluent communication. It’s not just that he speaks well but he also has the capacity to convey complicated concepts or politically awkward positions in simple and appealing terms. I cannot recall any previous prime minister possessed of the same skill.

    Yet this is also why Mr. Modi’s carefully chosen and deliberate silences provoke criticism. He’s a natural talker so when he doesn’t speak his reticence is viewed as crafty strategy. His critics, therefore, believe he is complicit in the darkening mood of the country. For many this is perhaps the greatest fault they find in him.

    Meanwhile, in one important respect the Prime Minister is a different man to the one sworn-in three years ago. He no longer identifies himself with aspiration and the fulfillment of suppressed ambition. That, of course, was the promise that swept him to power but he now seems to have cast it aside. Instead, today, he’s become a tribune of the people. He identifies with the poor and the downtrodden. They are, of course, the majority and this explains the repositioning of his image. And who can say it doesn’t make undoubted political sense?

    But I, at least, am sorry to see the old Mr. Modi fade away. In 2014 his vision had a strong moral content. Three years later transformation has ensured it endures but it’s also become pragmatic.

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