Speaking Truth to the Great Orator

Originally published in IndiaToday.

There can't be much doubt now that Narendra Modi is our most powerful political figure after Indira Gandhi. But if you qualify your search, you could argue that he is our most domineering, instinctive leader. Instinctive leadership, as defined in the context of Thatcher, was, I follow my conviction, I don't bother for consensus.

That out of the way, Modi is also our most powerful public speaker and communicator. You can complain about his not speaking in Parliament very much, or taking direct questions, but he is hyper-communicative in an environment that he can control fully. Once he can define his audience and put it in a controlled setting, he is a master of the set-piece as we haven't before seen in India. Vajpayee was a great orator, but an occasional one. Even he did not use the big stage to sell his ideas, or even ideology.

Over the past week, Modi has given us two confirmations of these qualities: in his Independence Day address and his speech to the NRI community in Dubai. His speech from Delhi's Red Fort was deliberately understated. More like a long-distance rider settling into cruise control. There weren't any new ideas now, which was probably deliberate because the ones put forward earlier have seen indifferent progress, particularly toilets, Swachh Bharat, Make in India. But the fact that he did not make any quick announcement under pressure on the OROP issue showed a sharp mind.

Strong leaders do not make policy responses to incidents. And instinctive leaders do not do what everybody expects them to do. Instead, they surprise. By not talking on OROP in any terms other than general platitudes, Modi surprised most of all the media, particularly television channels which had stationed TV crews at Jantar Mantar. Powerful, instinctive leaders also do not allow others to steal their limelight from the big stage. If Modi had indeed made a specific dramatic announcement on OROP, even if it had fully pleased the veterans, it would have made Independence Day their event rather than his. In any case, why reduce his big stage to a grievance redressal platform.

Similarly, in Dubai, conscious of the fact that it was his first visit to an Islamic country, with which India has had a patchy relationship-Dubai has been the traditional haven for Indian tax evaders, smuggling syndicates and, is, more importantly, Dawood Ibrahim's karmabhoomi-he delivered the message he needed to, with panache and dignified firmness.

No complaints about Pakistani support to terror, no appeals to their patrons, the UAE Sheikhs, to lean on them to mend their ways, but just a subtle message: South Asia is also integrating like Europe, on the east everybody is coming together, and if to the west the Pakistanis continue blocking, India will leapfrog them and reach out to the UAE and complete the loop. So join it, or risk being left out. At the same time, he did not curse Pakistan even while firing continued on the border. You can see he is setting a new agenda. He wants talks with Pakistan to resume and would not let anybody, friend or political foe, to disrupt or even finesse it.

Play the tapes of his Dubai address again. Note the number of times he gets the crowd to shout slogans in praise of the "Crown Prince". Now think. Is it usual for an Indian prime minister to rouse a crowd of Indians, even those living and working in a foreign land, to shout slogans in praise of the ruler there? It is also no coincidence that it was a largely Hindu audience praising the royalty of an Islamic kingdom. Never mind that Doordarshan cameras and Modi's image managers ruined it by bunching traditionally dressed Bohra Muslims together in one area and repeatedly panning on them.

In my recollection, there are two similar events where an Indian leader used Indian crowds to flatter a foreign strongman like this. The first, when Nehru took Khrushchev and Bulganin to Ramlila Maidan in 1955. And the second, when Narasimha Rao had Rafsanjani address a massive congregation at the Imambara in Lucknow in 1995, when the Babri wound was still raw. Yet there is a difference. The Khrushchev visit was at the peak of Nehru's socialist phase, so there was an ideological affinity. And crowds cheering Rafsanjani were all Muslim, or rather Shias, although what he said to them ranks, in my book, as one of the shrewdest diplomatic successes in our history: Indian Muslims are safe in the Indian system of secularism. That by itself underlines and justifies India's very special relationship with Iran, in spite of the sanctions, Pakistan and occasional irritants.

Modi's critics complained that he had not visited an Islamic country. Muslim-majority countries, Bangladesh, the Central Asian Repu?blics, yes. But not a truly Islamic country. He was making up for that now, but not simply by sticking another pin on the map of the world of his travels. But by making a strategic beginning, and if he could, as India's most unapologetically Hindu prime minister, have 50,000 of his mostly Hindu fans cheer a hereditary Muslim ruler in a foreign land, it speaks for his instinct, power and skill.

With all these wonderful attributes in place, why does his government's performance still seem to be patchy, if not floundering? Why are his biggest and also non-controversial ideas, from cleaning the Ganga to Swachh Bharat to Make in India, drifting? Why is economic growth not recovering, particularly if you discount the statistical creativity that mythically bumped up the figure by changing some norms? Why does a specific, sharp and prime ministerial decision, such as the purchase of just about two squadrons of Rafale fighters, get stuck in follow-up negotiations and formalities?

Why does he let nutcases, from Giriraj Singh to Sakshi Maharaj to Gajendra Chauhan, steal his headlines? How does he make a strategic blunder like trying to bring a new land acquisition law through an overnight ordinance? Why does his government look like it has declared war on the news media, with formal notices to news channels on Yakub Memon coverage (even if some of it was silly), his home ministry invoking "national security" to withdraw the Sun group's media licences, and his CBI turning Teesta Setalvad into a "national security threat" as if she were some malevolent cousin Dawood Ibrahim had left behind? All these are fights he and his government will lose in substance even if they succeed in sending somebody they don't like to jail for a few days or forcing some media outlet to stop publishing briefly.

Smart, instinctive, powerful, confident leaders, who are also great communicators, do not fritter away their energies and goodwill in issues as petty as these.

Could it be that while he has all these great qualities, he also shares a weakness with many other leaders who deny themselves real greatness: the inability, disinclination or lack of humility to attract, welcome talent wherever they can find them, even if it is outside of their immediate circle of political or ideological comfort? Or bring into their system smart people with spine, to speak truth to power internally. Somebody who would have told him, for example, that that suit, though sharp, was a bad idea.

Or that while the situation in Parliament this monsoon session was irritating, it would have been better if as leader of the Lok Sabha, he had made a statement, suo motu, on issues the opposition was raising. It would not have convinced them, but he denied himself the opportunity to exercise his moral authority as prime minister. Or that he should caution his home and information ministries to not open fronts in areas such as media freedom where his government and party are, rightly or wrongly, seen as usual suspects. And there should have been somebody in the system to keep nagging him to tell Ram Vilas Pawan to take a chill pill rather than file that ludicrous class action suit against Nestle on Maggi. You are a powerful sovereign government, you regulate Nestle according to your Republic's food safety laws, you own laboratories, so test everything and, if you can establish anything wrong or criminal, prosecute. But class action suit? That is no statement of strength, but only of stupidity.

You can say a prime minister is much too busy, has many more important things to address than these. But then why let your government be hobbled by these? It's an interesting idea to be a majestic one-man cavalry, but you can't win wars without building real armies to follow you.

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