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.