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Modi the leader, gives way to Modi the Prime Minister

NEW DELHI,Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr(DNA): From 2013 onwards, a small group among BJP leaders and many in the media – especially news TV channels – had decided that Narendra Modi is the man who should be the pivot of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. When the BJP won 280+ seats in the Lok Sabha, they were elated and felt vindicated that they had spotted the right man.

Critics of Modi became really marginalised during the election campaign and “personality cult” was a pejorative term that BJP leaders and the media reserved for the Congress’ Nehru-Gandhi family. The conservative BJP earlier subscribed to some sort of a collective leadership. Perhaps it should be called “faceless leadership” because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the “guru” of the BJP, shunned any personality cult. When LK Advani proposed Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate in 1996, he was breaking with the RSS tradition. Vajpayee was iconised in a mild manner, as a matter of convenience rather than of conviction. Modi admirers in the BJP had a lukewarm liking for Vajpayee compared to their ardent devotion to Modi. There is nothing conspiratorial about this. In 1996, the BJP had never dreamt of coming to power and they did not mind projecting Vajpayee as a PM candidate, which was very different from being a leader. Right from early 2013, BJP’s Modi caucus saw him as a leader. When the BJP won the election in May 2014, there was no hesitation in ascribing it to him.

Modi has readily accepted the mantle of the leader because he did not shy away from the fact that he had what it takes to be one. Of course, the democratic traditions in the BJP, as in other Indian political parties, are not strong enough to allow for a healthy contest for leadership. The issue of Modi’s choice as BJP’s leader for the elections is not a mere detail of 2013-14, which can now be safely relegated to a footnote. Modi and his followers in the party and in the media believed in this vague idea of a strong leader because they were of the view that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was either no leader or that he was not allowed to be a leader by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her coterie. The inference was that the country suffered because it had no leader to speak of, and there is a need to end this perceived leadership vacuum. Modi was seen as some sort of a shining knight who will fill up this political vacuum.

After taking over as prime minister, Modi tried to be the leader others expected him to be. He chose Amit Shah, his confidante and the man who had supposedly crafted the Uttar Pradesh electoral miracle of winning 75 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats from the most populous state in the country. Rajnath Singh who was the president of the party and who said in an interview with this paper that he would like to complete his term, was drafted into the government as home minister. Nitin Gadkari, who had to step down as party president because of controversies, was also inducted into the cabinet. It seemed that Modi was leading the government as well as the party. Modi continued to play a dominant role in the party affairs. For example, he handpicked the chief ministers of Gujarat (Anandiben Patel), Maharashtra (Devender Fadnavis), Haryana (Manohar Lal). And he was the chief campaigner in all the state assembly elections that followed the Lok Sabha one. Modi also tried to play the BJP leader abroad when he addressed a huge gathering of non-resident Indian communities in Madison Square in New York in September 2014 and in Sydney in November 2014.

He has been quite good as prime minister on his foreign tours. He spoke his mind, he found his voice. And he was himself, without being bogged down by the rigidities of diplomatic protocols as he struck a personal note with the prime ministers and presidents of other countries he met in this one year. He did not hesitate to speak of spiritualism and yoga at the United Nations in September 2014 and in China in May 2015. Participating in his first multilateral BRICS summit in Brazil in July 2014, he spoke of devolving contacts between the member countries of the BRICS and not make it “summit-centric”. And he said in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 2014: “If you think of the speed with which Facebook or Twitter has spread around the world, if you think of the speed with which cell phones have spread, then you must also believe that development and empowerment can spread with the same speed.” He has also showed the capacity to pinpoint the prickly issues. In his speech at Tsinghua University in Beijing on May 15, he did not hesitate to confess: “But, a shadow of uncertainty always hangs over the sensitive areas of the border region. It is because neither side knows where the Line of Actual Control is in these areas. That is why I have proposed resuming the process of clarifying it. We can do this without prejudice to our position on the boundary question.” That was both bold and candid.

Modi realises the limitations as to what he can do as the executive head of the government. In the beginning, he thought that he would do things himself and that he would want to directly be in touch with the bureaucrats – the cogs who move the wheels of government. He had a meeting with the secretaries of the government on June 4, 2014, ten days after he took over as prime minister. The Press Information Bureau (PIB) release about the meeting makes for interesting reading:

“The Prime Minister listened extensively to suggestions and comments of the Secretaries for nearly two and a half hours. Shri Modi empathised with the sentiment expressed by the Secretaries, and their anguish in not being able to realise their true potential because of circumstances.

Shri Modi offered that he would always be ready to give an account of the work being done by him. The senior bureaucrats echoed this sentiment and welcomed a similar standard of accountability.

The Prime Minister said that he was accessible to all officers and encouraged them to approach him with their inputs and ideas.”

He now knows that he cannot bypass his cabinet colleagues and that he will handle governance. More importantly, he has to deal with Parliament. It is not going to be easy even to deal with his party MPs, much less that of the Opposition.

It would be an exaggeration to say that political reality, in India as well as abroad, has tamed Modi, the leader with immense self-belief. There is however no doubt that Modi is also looking reality in the face.

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