The Constant Campaigner

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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For Narendra Modi, power is a permanent struggle
There are two kinds of leaders. For the first, the struggle for power ends with the attainment of office. Once in power, for this lot, it is all about growing old along with the country, as if you are merely a helpless object caught in the flow of history. Such leaders come and go, leaving behind a country more scarred than redeemed in the wake of their retirement to oblivion. In India, where the mercilessness of democracy is only matched by its elasticity, such leaders have been a familiar sight since Independence: products of circumstances, bystanders thrust on to the centre stage, sustained by the exigencies of realpolitik rather than national interest. It is easy to attribute their ascent—and the inevitable descent—to fractured mandates and to the reality of one of the world’s last thriving political black markets. Their freedom, it could be argued, is subordinated to the whims and wishes of their masters whose egos, in a coalition polity, are larger than their constituencies. That said, it is the mind that differentiates the leader who is in power from the leader who is in office. The truth is that the former, even if he is not blessed with an overwhelming popular mandate, can do a lot in this country. The ones we are familiar with have not done so because they were smaller men, and power for them was a lucky wayfarer’s fortune. We have had enough of them. Do I need to name them?

The other kind of leader is a rare occurrence. He comes from the deep recesses of a nation’s anxiety, shatters the idyll of status quo. He is not the kind to be made use of by history, but, as Joseph de Maistre would have said, one to make use of history. He has never been a bystander; he has always been there, making his own ambition one with the desperation of a country. His struggle does not end with the attainment of office. His struggle only intensifies once he is in office. Power for him is a permanent state of struggle. Such a leader is not constrained by the limits of office; his single-mindedness increases the possibilities of office. The worth of such a leader is larger than the mandate he has won. He builds a nation with the same zeal with which he perfects his own iconography. Nothing remains the same once he begins to play out his mind—and plays with the hopes and fears of others. The cozy certainties of politics as usual are swept aside as he puts ideas above the inherited burden of ideology. The admiration he evokes in a majority of the populace is as spontaneous as the fear he evokes in others who abhor change—and see popularity as no measure of a man’s worth.

Isn’t Narendra Modi one such leader? Look at the pace of his evolution, and its impact on an India that can claim to have seen almost every variation of salvation theology. Power has only accelerated his campaign for India; and, if you haven’t noticed yet, there is no perceptible difference between politics and governance, and that is for the better in a country like India where politics has come to be seen as a dark art, and governance a part-time concern of the ruling politician. Maybe Indira Gandhi at her peak was the only other leader in this mould, but her provenance was different—of bloodline and entitlement. Still, power was a passion play for her, or politics 24/7. But it was politics driven by the inheritance of socialism and the instincts of a paranoid leader. What was unquestionable was her intimacy with India, and that emotional covenant between the leader and the nation still remains intact. Modi, a politician in power for more than a decade, has never seen governance as an activity independent of politics. As a chief minister, he was not an apostle of cow- dung capitalism; he was an unabashed capitalist in a party that most often behaved as if it was here to take care of the economic interests of the corner shopkeeper. His years in Gujarat as Chief Minister were a political campaign, without an interruption, for India.

As Prime Minister, he refuses to call it off. The assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana were, at one level, another referendum on the man. Being a ruler as constant national conversationalist, he needs to know what India thinks of his style. It doesn’t matter to him, whether it is Madison Square Garden or Mumbai; what matters is the message of being Modi. Modern leadership, after all, is about communication. Modi, with his innate mistrust of media, is his own interpreter and image consultant. This is considered a sign of audacity or arrogance by those who cannot still fathom his grievance against professional truth seekers and conscience keepers. In a country that for the last ten years was known for the absence of leadership and the atrocities of a hologram, this overabundance of one man and his message may seem unsettling to those who dread the shock of change. The fastest evolving leader in Asia wants every moment in power to be a confidence motion tabled in the mind of India. Narendra Modi has never been afraid of judgments.