Narendra Modi and the Great Polarizing Debate

Narendra Modi delivered three back to back speeches last week starting with Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and culminating with the massive Hunkar Rally in Patna. Through the course of these three speeches one got a glimpse of a different Narendra Modi in stark contrast to past speeches. In Jhansi Mr. Modi broke his silence on the Muzaffarnagar riots and spoke for Muslim Youth being stereotyped. In both Jhansi and Udaipur Mr. Modi not only took the rhetoric on Congress’ questionable history with Communal Riots several notches higher but he also weaved in the safety and security angle. But it was in Patna that Narendra Modi shed the last remaining inhibition as far as his public speeches go when he spoke out openly on allegations of “Muslim Discrimination” while going on to directly address Muslim Backwardness. The speeches starting with the end of September rally in Delhi have also seen Narendra Modi get more open on talking about his own humble origins and background dating back to a time when as a kid he sold Tea on the Railway Platform.

Having observed Narendra Modi’s speeches for over the past few years and looking at the manner in which he has reshaped the Political Discourse over the past few months  my thoughts go back to the first time I met him, in person, in November of 2011.

Even though the Offstumped blog had its origins, seven years earlier in 2004, in media bias against Narendra Modi, it was only a few months earlier, in May of 2011, that I had any direct contact from Mr. Modi’s Office. This was around the time the SIT process in the Supreme Court was meandering around reinvestigations and external reviews and a blog post of mine caught their attention. Between May and November of 2011, a visit got fixed to Gandhinagar. The meeting with Mr. Modi was at his residence. The first impression one gets is the professional manner in which the Office operates. There is none of the usual circus one typically tends to associate with Politicians. Hardly any hangers-on, even as the waiting room was processed in a clockwork fashion. Mr. Modi was running about 30 minutes late. I was the last person for the day as he had to leave for a funeral soon after. One of the biggest dilemmas walking into that room was the protocol to be followed for greeting him. Mr. Modi pre-empted me on that as he stood up from behind his desk to greet meet with a handshake. It was an awkward first few minutes of silence as I realized temperamentally we were both a bit introverted. I started off with a bit of my personal background. Soon we both warmed up to the conversation and we got talking about Leadership Models and the kind of Governance India had experienced to date.

Narendra Modi had an interesting mental model for the kinds of Leaders and their approach to Governance starting with generation that ruled India soon after Independence. According to him India had witnessed essentially four different models of Governance each practised by a specific Generation of Leaders with two notable exceptions. According to him the Independence era generation of leaders carried with them the values of sacrifice and putting nation before self. Governance in that era was largely focused on dealing with the aftermath of partition and laying the foundation for post Independence India. The next generation of leaders according to him were the products of Agitations or Jan-Andolan, as he put it. Narendra Modi then went on to make a very interesting comment on this generation of leaders on how almost all of them shared a negative trait where agitations were seen to be an end in themselves. The biggest failing of that generation according to him was the lack of constructive or creative experience as a result of which Governance under these leaders suffered terribly. The third type in his mental model belonged to those Leaders who emerged largely on account of caste or regional politics at the state level. Clubbing this class of leaders with those who have emerged solely on account of muscle power Narendra Modi pointed out how few of these leaders were really able to transform Governance while mostly fostering a political culture marked by violence and anti-social elements. Lastly in his mental model was Dynastic Politics of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the manner in which Institutions were destroyed and damaged on account of their approach to Governance. The two notable exceptions in Narendra Modi’s opinion were Lal Bahadur Shastri and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In both of them he saw self-made leaders who had emerged from the grassroots, of their own merit, and leaders who derived their approach to Governance from a Political Tradition rooted in India’s past. He also saw both of them as Institution Builders who left behind a legacy for future generations to build upon.

It was around this juncture the conversation took a curious turn on the role of the Sangh in grooming grassroots leaders with roots in a native political tradition. One of the first hints followed on how far ahead Narendra Modi may have already been thinking back then in late 2011 when he framed the future as a conflict between the constraints of Sanghatan and the imperatives of Mass Leadership. He remarked that a precedent had already been set on this when Mass Leadership trumped Sanghatan in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s case and presciently he remarked that the same would occur again in the near future. The conversation soon drew to a close as he Mr. Modi prepared to attend a funeral but not before he spoke briefly on why Institution Building was most important to deliver Good Governance on a sustainable basis.

While Narendra Modi saw in Vajpayee and in Shastri role models for the kind of Prime Minister he would likely made, I see him in a class of his own.

When I look back at that conversation in late 2011 and look at the rockshow like atmosphere in Narendra Modi’s rallies one thing becomes clear. Pollsters and Pundits, Politicians and Commentators alike have underestimated the latent desire in India for a new kind of Politics and Leadership and how far ahead Narendra Modi was in his thinking. Narendra Modi has not only managed to change the vocabulary of the political discourse but he has done so with a force of personality and with a lot of out of the box thinking. Back then in late 2011, a Narendra Modi candidacy was a non-starter to most. Through most of 2012 and well into the first half of 2013 there was more Column space dedicated to why Modi cannot become the BJP’s PM candidate than on any substantive critique of his Politics or Governance. In fact Op-Ed after Op-Ed argued how Modi was the “great polarizer” and how his candidacy would damage India.

The so called “polarizing” debate Narendra Modi is forcing on India sets him apart in a class of his own while reminding of a Leader from a different Century in a different Continent.

The American Republic that came into being in 1776 underwent a deeply polarizing debate during the 1860s. In 1861 Abraham Lincoln became the sixteenth President of the United States at the age of 52. Mr. Lincoln belonged to the post-Independence generation within the United States being born in 1809. Mr. Lincoln’s primary adversaries from the Confederacy like Jefferson Davis and Robert Lee also belonged to the post-Independence generation of the United States. In fact it is only in the 1840s that one observes American Presidents taking office whose life experiences were shaped almost entirely by events after the American War of Independence.  The 1840s were also about the time when most Northern states in America had freed almost all slaves. The two decades before 1861 marked many bitter struggles of a Young Republic, impatient to shed the burden of its history on slavery. Lincoln himself epitomized that anger and impatience in America as he sought to change its course by attempting to abolish slavery through the 1850s.

Abraham Lincoln as a Politician in the late 1850s in the years before his run for the American Presidency was described as a greater polarizer by his detractors who felt that a Lincoln Presidency would result in the breaking up of the nation and Civil War. Like Narendra Modi, Abraham Lincoln too was described as a “Polarizing Figure” even before he was elected to American Presidency. Polarized Opinions on Narendra Modi that have become an everyday affair in India appear to be not very different from the polarized opinions the American Press saw in the 1860s with Abraham Lincoln being described as both an angel and a demon, a savior and a tyrant. A welcome message from the New York Times in November of 1860 to newly elected President Lincoln shows what a polarizing election campaign that was. A Letter to the Editor of the New York Times written on 5th November 1860  best captures the palpable anxiety and the polarized opinion preceding Abraham Lincoln’s election in a manner not too different from the anxiety and polarized opinion we are witnessing today in India over Narendra Modi.

It is interesting that the Young Indian Republic also finds itself at a similar juncture in time in its evolution with a sharp debate over a Leader whose many detractors see him as a great polarizer. Every Young Republic perhaps has to go through a near death experience to rediscover the moral foundations that hold it in good stead for centuries to come. The Young American Republic in less than hundred years of its creation had its moment of truth during the Lincoln era only to result in a more stable and durable Republic.  The Indian Republic by comparison today is even younger than what America back then in the 1860s. This may be our moment of truth. The challenge ahead for Narendra Modi in what appears to be a polarized political landscape in many ways reminds of the challenges Abraham Lincoln faced more than a century ago in a different part of the World when he was called upon to lead his Republic as it made a traumatic transition from Adolescence into its Adulthood.


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