3 years


No Harm, Cry a Little More

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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It is cool to be a leader with a dash of emotionalism. There are occasions when shedding tears—or holding them back—in front of television cameras is the right thing to do.
It was unlikely that Narendra Modi was rereading Daniel Goleman between his stump performances. Even if he was turning the pages, it was more likely to be Vivekananda than the former journalist who added to the motivational literature on leadership with his book on emotional intelligence. Great leaders, from business or politics, went the bestselling argument, were masters of their emotions, which are as important as your intelligence in measuring the success of your relationship with people at the workplace or in the arena. Candidate Modi, in spite of the consistency of his message, was a performance. In one moment, he was the debunker, smashing the iconography of one of the world’s long lasting political dynasties. In another, he was the lampoonist, the effete princeling of Delhi being the butt of his jokes. Then he was the dreamer, dreaming the dreams of a billion, building on the wreckage of the present a perfect tomorrow, his raw material drawn from technology, economy and governance. Before you could recover from that, he was the memoirist, selectively distributing chapters from a life lived in dispossession—a rags-to-Raisina-Hill story for those who love fairytales. The ease with which he shifted from one role to the other at the drop of a soundbite was a sign of the man’s ingenuity as a public speaker.

Still, Gujarat’s Cicero was not your Vajpayee. Or your Indira. He was more admired than loved. He was kept in awe, but he was not the leader India indulged, and spoiled by unconditional affection. He was the leader from whom India kept a distance—a distance that could only be reduced by the so-called ‘emotional connect’. His mistakes were never forgotten even as his achievements were celebrated. India wanted him to be its leader. Just that. He was far from being the Leader Beloved. Indira Gandhi was the first one to form an unbreakable emotional covenant with India. She was not the perfect leader; nor was she the noble one. She was powerful and paranoid in equal measure; she could not resist her totalitarian temptations even as she cried, in the tradition of socialist kitsch, for the shirtless legion of the ghettos. She was Mother India sentimental as well as savage. India admired her, adored her, lover her, loathed her. The relationship between India and Indira was built on raw emotion. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Dubcek of the Indian Right, is the other leader most indulged by India. The original orator, poetical and philosophical, and even mischievous with a stunning metaphor after a pause—the first right-wing Prime Minister of India still rules the nation’s heart. Modi’s popularity lacked that emotional quotient.

Shall we say, till Tuesday, the 20th of May?

In Delhi after the victory, he stood before Parliament House. He knew this was his moment, his alone, and it was for this moment he has been campaigning for more than a decade. He bowed and his forehead touched, in the tradition of submission and devotion, the grandest steps of Indian democracy. Once inside Central Hall, the Prime Minister elect faced his party colleagues and began his acceptance speech. If biography is destiny, this one is getting too overwhelming for someone as controlled—and emotionally opaque—as Modi. His eyes welled. He was on the verge of breaking down. He spoke about the son in service of the motherland. Again, it was all about him—the chosen son, the dutiful son—and he always knew that his story would be better told by himself. And suddenly, the story became rich in its emotional content. On the podium was not the leader in ramrod posture, surveying rows of the awestruck; there was only a man humbled by the wonderment of his own story, holding back tears of gratitude. This televised sentimentalism of the Central Hall event was culturally different from the melodrama circa 2004 in the same venue, featuring the Madonna of renunciation and the wailing legion of Congressmen pleading for a ‘yes’ from her. This time it was all about the humanisation of the Yes.

It is cool to be a leader with a dash of emotionalism. There are occasions when shedding tears—or holding them back— in front of television cameras is the right thing to do, as long as it is not stagecraft. The empathetic leader is not a weak leader; the distant leader, in the manner of Barack Obama, is not the ideal leader either. As the leader of the world’s largest—and the most unforgiving—democracy, Modi’s conversation with India now requires a different vocabulary. He may have to discard the one perfected by Candidate Modi. Prime Minister Modi could be the next moderniser from Asia. A language compatible with the spirit of the times—conservative, compassionate and reconciliatory—would make his story greater. Next time, and let it be soon, don’t hold back your tears.