The Most Visible Part of the India growth story Has Been Modi's Increasing ability to laud himself

26 May, 2015

On 28 September 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took centre stage at Madison Square in New York to face an audience that publications across India decreed as worthy of a “rock star.” Indeed, Modi’s self-congratulatory speech appeared to be a painstakingly orchestrated performance that carefully fed off the euphoria of his, and not so much the Bhartiya Janata Party’s, decisive victory in the elections. “Winning an election is not just occupying an office but victory brings with it responsibility. Since I won the elections, I haven’t taken even a 15-minute vacation. The responsibility you have given me … I can assure you that you will never have reason to feel small because of my actions,” bellowed the triumphant leader.

Eight months after that speech, as he completes one year in office, the sense of elation around Modi’s conquest might have diminished, but his own affectations remain unaltered.

Speaking at an exhibition centre outside Shanghai on 16 May 2015, Modi told the Indian community in attendance, “Earlier, you felt ashamed of being born Indian. Now you feel proud to represent the country. Indians abroad had all hoped for a change in government last year.”

Such statements have served to highlight the discomfiting and persisting strain of vanity that Modi has exhibited in his recent speeches delivered abroad during his three-nation trip to China, Mongolia and Korea.

If he is to be believed, Indians had been denied “asmita” (pride) in their Indian origins till he rescued them from a shameful existence. Through these words, Modi happily represented himself as not just the nation but its saviour as well. In Seoul he went on to suggest that India was steeped in despondence and darkness before he appeared on the horizon as the beacon of hope and light:

“There was a time when people used to say we don’t know what sins we have committed in our past life to be born in Hindustan. Is this any country, is this any government ... let’s leave. And they left. Even businessmen didn’t want to do business here. Most people then had one foot abroad. They were gripped by pessimism and rage. ... Now people, from all walks of life want to come back to India, even if it means having a lower income. Mood badlahain (the mood has changed).”

A careful reading of a succession of the speeches that he has delivered before the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) communities abroad presents an increasingly problematic picture—one that reveals the prime minister’s disturbing and overwhelming obsession with himself.

Modi’s speeches have little to do with his government working as a collective. In turn, the government’s achievements have little to do with his cabinet colleagues or the ruling party. The narrative exclusively hinges on one man. He is the messiah, the indefatigable worker, the economic revolutionary, and the voice of the poor. The most pronounced word in all of Modi’s speeches is “I,” “main” and “hum.” The BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) find only marginal references in his speeches. Everything and everyone barring the prime minister is paraphernalia.

Consider this excerpt from his speech at Madison Square Garden for instance, where, even as he feigned humility, Modi’s discourse reflected anything but diffidence: “Main ekbahut hi chhota insaan hoom, main bahut hi samanya insaan hoon.Mera bachpan bhi aise beetatha. Chhota hoon isiliye mera man bhi chhota chhota kaam pe laga rahta hain.Chhota hoon isili ye chhote chhote logon keliye bade kaam kartahoon” (I am a small and insignificant person. My childhood, too, was insignificant. I want to concentrate on small things because I am a small person, who wants to accomplish big feats for other small people).

Whether in forging a democratic connect with the people or focusing on hitherto foregone subjects like toilets or cleanliness, he becomes the sole mediator between his government and people. The “small person” is presented as a colossus towering over the nation.

In speech after speech delivered in Toronto, Shanghai and Seoul, Modi confidently asserted that a transformation of popular janman (mindsets) was underway in all spheres—from eliminating corruption, inculcating conscientiousness about work to making cleanliness a national issue. The prime minister’s speeches paint a picture of total transformation over 12 months where 60 years of flawed history have been effectively wiped out—by him.

Taking it upon himself to declare his policies—such as his mass-banking scheme, Jan Dhan Yojana—a revolutionary success, Modi has cast this success in personal rather than institutional terms. Consider what he said in his speech in Toronto:

Insaan bhi badal gaya. Bankwale bhi badal gaye (people have changed and so have those in banks). The same bankwallahs, going from village to village, house to house, have opened 14 crore bank accounts in 100 days. I told the poor open an account with zero balance. But they deposited Rs 14,000 crore in the banks. I bow to them. This is garibikiamiri. Janmanbadlahain.

To further corroborate this miraculously transformed mindset, Modi said in the same speech, “A newspaper proprietor wrote to me that the mood in the country has inspired his publication to take the decision to devote one edition a week solely to publishing positive news. Maybe it is just one paper, but this is not a small development.”

In Shanghai, he praised himself by claiming that Indians had been made worthy of respect not through their own efforts but by his presence in power, “Earlier you would be dismissed as Indians. Was anyone ready to listen to you? Talk to you? Speak to you? Within one year are they not treating you with respect? Don’t you feel proud of the nation’s progress?”

It is ironic indeed that even as Modi has made foreign affairs the centrepiece of his governance architecture, Sushma Swaraj, his external affairs minister, is conspicuous by her absence at these visits. Swaraj, who used to be a prominent voice in the BJP under its earlier leadership, appears to have gone silent. This silence could also be attributed to the role that she occupies as an external affairs minister, which has been rendered redundant by a prime minister who is all too willing to assume centre stage under the guise of international relations.

In the past, Modi had led an effective charge against the dynastic rule of the Congress. However, there appears to be little difference between a dispensation that was saturated by a family, and one that is besotted with a single man. In his recent interview with Time, the prime minister claimed that democracy is a matter of “faith” in India. But, what he seems to demand from Indians is not faith in the democracy, but blind faith in the power of one individual. It is an implicit demand that reads more like a recipe for uneasy coexistence with an autocrat rather than the give and take of democracy.

As the Modi government launches into its anniversary celebrations, it is difficult to think of even a single minister who has been singled out by the prime minister for being a ‘performer.’ Flanked by his two, and perhaps only, trusted lieutenants—Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley—on either side, Modi is happy talking about himself and himself alone. Where does that leave the government and its ministers? At the moment, the shadow of anxiety and fear of reprimand clearly is working in forging a collective silence. But how long will such silence endure?

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.