The role of the individual in history is the great bugbear of Clio’s disciples. Can an individual, however powerful and charismatic, ever make or create history? Or is an individual inevitably carried by the great currents of history over which he has no control? Answers to such questions will continue to be debated, and names —Lenin, Mao, Hitler, Churchill, Gandhi et al — continue to be bandied about.
Recent events in India culminating in the triumph of Narendra Modi offer yet another occasion to discuss these questions. Till one year ago, Modi was a successful, if controversial, chief minister of Gujarat. When he announced his all-India ambitions, his own party treated his claims with scant respect. This did not deter Modi. He believed his time had come and he decided that he would take on his critics within his own party before he took on his opponents without. His assets were his supreme self-confidence and his growing popularity among the rank and file of the Bharatiya Janata Party who saw his style of functioning as the only way to revive a party that was fast becoming moribund.
This popularity made Modi, but behind the popularity was also his confidence. The confidence fed the popularity and vice versa. There were, however, some objective conditions, which had nothing to with Modi, that determined his success.
First, was the performance — or the lack of it — of the United Progressive Alliance government in its second innings. Scandal after scandal involving thousands of crores of rupees brought the UPA government to a complete standstill. Second, was the complete inactivity and silence of the prime minister. He made himself an easy target. Third, was the state of the economy: soaring inflation, a stagnant manufacturing sector and low economic growth. There seemed to be no light at the end of an unending tunnel.
UPA-II thus became Modi’s sitting duck. There was another factor working to Modi’s advantage. He could successfully fashion himself as an underdog by appearing to challenge the politics of inheritance. Manmohan Singh had been made prime minister not on merit but because he had been chosen by Sonia Gandhi, who, in turn, had entered the theatre of politics because she was the widow of Rajiv Gandhi. Singh’s projected successor was Rahul, the son of Rajiv Gandhi. These circumstances, solely the making of the Congress leadership, created for Modi the second rallying point of his campaign. The first was the state of governance and the economy, and the second was the dynasty. Here was the chaiwalla throwing down the gauntlet towards the dynasty. The picture of an underdog challenging ersatz royalty struck a chord in the hearts of the people.
These conditions determined the direction of Modi’s campaign. His main problem was his past — what had happened in Gujarat in 2002 under his aegis and when he had failed to govern. In his confident mood, he decided to brazen it out. He had nothing to do with what had happened, he claimed; he had tried his best. He went further: 2002 was a thing of the past, look what had happened in Gujarat after that. Gujarat was a story of seamless economic development, he boasted. The people believed him and his opponents, the self-styled secularists, had no major ammunition to counter him. The rest, as they say, is history.
A decisive and massive mandate brings with it problems of a different magnitude. The problem is one of great expectations. His supporters and his admirers all expect him to transform India and to do it fast. They expect him to immediately end the inertia and inject energy into the government. They expect Modi to be different in word and in deed. Perceived as a strong leader, people expect decisions from him. Between the promise and the delivery falls the shadow of expectations.
Effective governance invariably entails the taking of unpopular decisions. Modi has come to power on the crest of a huge wave of popularity. Will he be able to sacrifice some of this popularity at the altar of governance? The question is of some consequence since the abiding curse of political power in India is populism. Will Modi be able to break the curse?
Modi is seen as a Hindu leader — a powerful spokesman of the ideology identified with Hindutva. He is also known to be impatient with dissent. As prime minister of India, will he be able shed these restrictions and put forward before the country an inclusive vision? Will he be comfortable with difference?
There are as many questions as there are expectations. Sceptics and admirers both have views and perspectives on Modi.
At the moment of his triumph —and to return to the points raised at the very beginning — it has to be admitted that Modi correctly read the popular mood and the trend of history. He realized that people were weary of coalitions that paralysed the government. He promised an efficient and a good government, which would cure the paralysis. This brought in rich dividends. The conditions made him and he used the conditions to his own advantage. There was a symbiosis between the conditions and the individual.
A victory in an election is the end and the beginning of a process. It ends the period of wooing and marks the commencement of a more difficult period of responsible ruling. This is the challenge before Modi. The task of ruling Gujarat and the task of ruling India are radically and comprehensively different. He needs to grow into his prime ministership.