Twenty years ago on October 7th, when Narendra Damodardas Modi was sworn in chief minister of Gujarat, India was a different place, shedding the weight of its political inheritance to reveal a great impatience. It was not exactly the end of the Congress century, though the fadeout could not have been missed in an India that was daring to disengage from the enforced behavioural codes of the socialist-secular state. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was the sobering face of a profound change, and naming it was a challenge as old vocabularies that defined who we are for so long were getting redundant. And the prime minister himself, languid and laconic till the poetry rushed in, chose the moderation of a reconciler as he ruled the minds of the converted as well as the non-believers. Modi, brought in from the periphery of the apparat, moulded by the textbook ethos of the parivar, started his job without the benefit of baggage—and exaggerated expectations. They looked different: the laid-back philosopher king in Delhi and the neophyte in Gandhinagar, united by a movement that a part of India still preferred to misread and separated by style, the lyrical flourish of one and the lacerating flamboyance of the other. One would succeed in preserving his individual aura even as the mandate slipped away; the other would risk both the personal and the political for the inviolability of his faith, his fight, and the mandate he wouldn’t let go. Modi in power began his journey in an India that was still not sure of its politicians’ worth in safeguarding the grail; he would witness fellow travellers falling by the wayside, as reminders of what it would take to manage freedom; and he would refuse to deviate from the path to please or placate, for in this journey he alone held the semaphore.
Twenty years on, he looms over an India where change is not an uncertainty, but still a national conversation without a definitive conclusion. The debutant of the early aughts is the tallest tower in Indian politics today, and the defining motif in all the narratives, euphoric or alarmist, we construct about the future. Then, back in Gandhinagar, when he took the first steps of one of politics’ most eventful journeys, he was a lone figure in the family that quite often mistook ideology as a ticket to a mythologised past, maybe a logical extension of the rath yatra metaphor; in Delhi today, as the singular custodian of change, the struggle he enjoys most is all about balancing the cultural agenda—the restoration of the civilisational Hindu and his gods—with the modernisation of an unequal India. It’s being played out in a space where a new set of the sacred, the nation and its regained identities, is at play, and he alone seems to enjoy the authority—and authenticity—to be its sole supervisor. Governance has a pronounced cultural accent—it’s Nation Building with a Capital N.
To reach here, Modi took the loneliest of journeys in politics, and perhaps the longest if we take a politician’s journey as a campaign with the clarity of destination. In the beginning, the adversity of Gujarat 2002 tested his mettle—and hardened his faith in the larger story—larger than Gujarat—of being himself in his own party, still wallowing in defeatism, and beyond. The so-called Gujarat Model, in its globalised ambition, competed with the Indian Model, which, in spite of incremental improvements, was sustained by the old habits of a controlling state. In the Gujarat Model, getting even a nod from the Economist, the no-nonsense nationalist and the big-picture technocrat and the classic conviction politician merged seamlessly, something the Indian Right had never experienced before. More daring was the campaign itself, in its ingenuity and expansiveness. He fought three national state elections, and in each campaign, Gujarat was just the stage and India was the audience—and unlike any other chief minister, he got a receptive one. Before he became India’s prime minister, he was India’s chief minister. On the stump as an incumbent chief minister, he drew from the political themes of the times, from the anxieties of the post-9/11 world to radical Islamism to the mendacity of Musharraf to endangered national security, to create a powerful text that mobilised and kept the Modi Momentum steady. India was on his mind as Gujarat flourished on his watch.
At the end of such a campaign, Modi was the inevitability of 2014. It was the history-shifting arrival of the outsider long before Brexit and Trump made Outsider a political pronoun. His Nation First was not the posturing of an isolationist spouting the virtues of economic nationalism. In power, the nationalist didn’t go to the extreme end of the right, whether it was in the marketplace or in the political arena. He did not live up to the expectation of those who were waiting for a Gujarati version of Reagan; the social reality of an uneven India couldn’t afford a state without compassion. He campaigned from the right side of the nation; he governs mostly from the centre, without the flourish associated with the campaigner. The kinetic force of the Gujarat model is not what we see behind Modi’s model for India, the nationalist project of restoration being the exception. The gradualist is at work, and gradualism abhors drama. Still, the personal makes all the difference—he is still India’s most trusted politician, and the most popular too. The sense of autonomy he exudes comes from his definition of politics as a personal rite, in which, it seems, he allows no adjectives, no distractions. Biography is a shared mirror in his story.
That said, definitions of others try to trap him, make him fit into the size of their dissent—or their adoration. The dissent usually comes from those who think popular choice can be a moral error. Since they can’t dismiss the people, they will build an alternative of social wretchedness and institutional degeneration. Dissent also comes from those who import made-to-measure moulds of autocracies and illiberal democracies from such faraway places as Hungary and Russia and Turkey to make him comprehensible. And adoration at times tolerates the hateful crassness from the fringe, which clashes with the sophistication Modi maintains steadfastly as prime minister. As a subject in the passions and possibilities of democracy, Modi needs to be redeemed from convenient definitions. He is smarter than the definitions allow him to be. Smarter because few politicians in our time have shown that power is a permanent pursuit of change. We are learning to live with it—no matter thrillingly or grudgingly.