A manual for Mr Modi

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Prime Minister Modi should not stop being the natural communicator that he is
Mythologies in politics are made of men who trust their instincts more than they value the instructions of others. They are national thrillers, and fun to watch as they make the cozy assumptions of politics redundant. One such politician was Barack Obama circa 2008. Candidate Obama held the world in thrall. When President Obama became a reality, a well-known writer said in a private conversation, “Now the story is boring.” Obama lived up to the prophecy.

Candidate Modi was another such politician. It was an amazing campaign, and India was his to play with. Prime Minister Modi is doing everything possible—there are no impossibilities in politics, he seems to suggest—to make himself as interesting as Candidate Modi. Boring? Not yet. The morning headlines are all about how different this Prime Minister—a 24/7 prime minister—is. A workaholic. An unforgiving headmaster. A terror lurking in the corridors of South Block. The results of having an omniscient PM, a seasoned Raisina Hill watcher tells me, are many: the sight of Cabinet ministers checking in on time, with tiffin boxes and water bottles; gift-free ministerial drawing rooms; nepotism- free cabinet offices; faster movement of files and quicker decisions. Governance is back, and no nonsense please. Elsewhere in the magazine, our Managing Editor PR Ramesh has a fascinating story to tell about the style of the 15th.

So far, not boring. He has not let a dull moment into the narrative. Here follow a few unsolicited suggestions for a prime minister who should not allow himself to become another story of the historic turning into the banal. Even smart leaders are prone to such a transformation.

1. Hands-on PM is fine, but Big Brother PM betrays insecurity. Think of Atal Behari Vajpayee, a great example to follow in confidence, delegation and statesmanship. In administration, he was pretty presidential, assisted and counselled by a cabinet that enjoyed the functional autonomy it deserved. He was not a leader of small things; he was about the big picture, grand gestures, and history. His ministers did the work. Wasn’t Jaswant Singh then a Secretary of State? Advani a National Security Advisor? So delegate, if you have faith in your team; don’t be a control freak.

2. No dispute here, the vote was for Modi—Modi alone. It was a celebration of what he had done as an administrator and what he could do as Prime Minister for an India abandoned by the previous regime. It was a vote for reclaiming the Right space in Indian politics. Now it is for him to keep that space intact— or make it bigger. He has to win the economic war, the war the Right has always won. So don’t make market freedom conditional; and stop being xenophobic whenever you hear ‘retail’. No country has become poorer by allowing foreign investment; and no point pretending the BJP is a party of shopkeepers. Try to be a Conservative of the 21st century.

3. The Right has seldom won the culture war whenever–or wherever—it was in power. Modi the moderniser should see that no mythmaker rewrites the textbook. Let not history forever remain a disputed site for our children. After all, Modi did not shop in the black market of mythology for his slogans in his campaign. Cultural cleansing or historical corrections are not government duties. Murli Manohar Joshi in the Vajpayee era was an embarrassment. Let there not be another one.

4. In the age of interconnected destinies, no leader, nationalist or otherwise, can remain local. The international high tables are waiting for Prime Minister Modi. On such occasions, we would like to see him not as a Third Worldist, his vision impeded by the cataract of the Cold War. Vajpayee was an internationalist; he was our first prime minister to realise the futility—and redundancy—of anti-Americanism. Aptly, India finally caught up with the post-Wall world under the leadership of India’s first Right-wing Prime Minister. He put India on the right side of history. India’s natural allies are not in our near abroad. Let Prime Minister Modi be aware.

5. Leadership is largely about conversations, and that is where Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi were utter disasters. A monosyllabic prime minister and zero-syllable party president made a perfect pair for leading India and the Congress to irrelevance. Whenever the country sought answers, they were elsewhere; and occasional triangulations only added to India’s image as a nation orphaned by its own ruling establishment. Modi on the stump was a great communicator. He never lacked a vocabulary to lampoon, lament, inspire, enlighten or entertain. Now he needs a different vocabulary—reassuring, statesmanly and empathetic— to converse with the future as Prime Minister. Power should not make him remote; power should make his relationship with India intimate. The less accessible you are, the more powerful you seem—that is the wisdom only of leaders uncomfortable with the people. You don’t have to be a glad- hander to be a people’s prime minister. You just have to be in conversation with the people. No modern leader says he abhors the media. Prime Minister Modi should not stop being the natural communicator that he is.

Narendra Modi’s second campaign for India begins from Raisina Hill.