Never has a prime minister of India come to the job with so much baggage and home furnishing. Great expectations have been simmering in the pot of hard times for a while now. Or, at least, of the perceived hard times that the Congress, not so paradoxically, has helped to display as five years of Dickensian decay and dunderheadedness under the Manmohan-Singh-headed United Progressive Alliance.
A different kind of enthusiasm was evident when Jawaharlal Nehru took over the reins of the first Lok Sabha from a crumbling, bankrupt, London-headquartered multi-national corporation. Expectations, as we understand them now, were of a different order. Nehru presented a Great Indian Rope Bridge for passengers to cross over from a rickety steamer to a new bobbing boat. This was feted, at least by those who did notice that a transfer of power from foreign sahebs to Indian sahebs had taken place under their collective nose.
The term, ‘revolution of rising expectations’, was invented in the early 1950s by Harlan Cleveland, an American aid official who used it in the context of a significant change that he noted in the attitudes of the local population in Taiwan. This marked a stage in a country’s social and economic development in which aspirations became convictions that people would “achieve, possess and enjoy more than their parents or they themselves have in the past”. By the early 1970s, as observed by the Pondicherry-based social science research institute, Mother’s Service Society, the phenomenon of ‘rising aspirations’ was evident in the first generation of Indians born after Independence. This, in turn, had an impact on how they saw their and the government’s roles in ‘nation-building’ — that rather twee term happily claimed by the Left, Right and Centre.
Almost 70 years after Nehru swiftly morphed from nationalist leader to leader of the nation, Narendra Modi comes to the prime ministerial chair after successfully driving home the glaring mismatch between ‘What was to be’ and ‘What is’ in 2014 India. If Nehru had the advantage of the nation’s freedom from external powers being the most precious and immediately operational feature of his first term, Modi still has to deliver any of his goodies. How the Gujarat Model® will be retro-fitted across India to bring about the radical changes that his followers crave is yet to be ascertained. If this best-selling model has any hidden features or costs lurking in them, no one knows. But such is the business of selling radical change — its seductive charms as well as its perceived fears.
The promise of change, of course, comes with a busload of exaggerations. The same holds true for the fear of change. Hope for Paradise and you get Purgatory. Hope to avoid Apocalypse and you survive it. “God chooses certain people to do the difficult work. I believe god has chosen me for this work. Now I only need your blessings,” Modi had said with the standard operational humility of all messiahs last month in a holographic address beamed across the country Obi-Wan Kenobi-meets-Burning-Bush style. Bringing in divine sanction into the sales pitch can only mean one thing: you want expectations to be heaven high.
But what was valid endorsement-seeking rhetoric while making a bid to become prime minister may not hold true once a prime minister. With the hurlyburly done, and the battle won, will the game-changer still be gung-ho about changing the game? And while everyone looks forward to (or recoils from) Modi changing the role of the prime minister, very few people seem to risk wanting to know whether the prime ministership will also change Modi.
For those who have put their faith in Narendra Modi’s prime ministership — and I use faith here in the sense of ‘complete trust or confidence in someone’ as well as in the sense of fidelity — there will be unforeseen disappointments down the line. And one is not referring to the colourful Hindi acronym of ‘KLPD’ that most aptly describes the disappointment that comes when great expectations are dashed — something that many Modi lovers are likely to experience when their prime minister forgoes any Hindutva adventure. If Modi, as the totem pole of the BJP victory has been adept in anything in particular, it is to recognize sell-by-date products and junk them after they have expired, even if it comes to Dronacharyas who still believe themselves to be Lal Krishnas.
It’s just that overseeing mutatis mutandis — changing only those things which require to be changed — is surprisingly difficult when a jump is required to be made from the moving train of rhetoric to the galloping horse of practice. For the 814 million Indians who voted or watched from the sidelines, all this business of corruption and economic grind-down, vitally important and daisy-chained to their lives as they are, matters as much as global warming does to those pining for rain in May. What matters is something far more metaphysical as well as banal: “Where will the piper take us with his tune? Will he bring down the price of potatoes and real estate?” For the Modi-believer, disgusted by the shoddy shamanism of the UPA (and the BJP before the advent of its alpha leader), the journey with this prime minister is truly billed as the destination.
But unlike a holiday to Disneyland, the excitement of a lunar trip is accompanied by the depressing prospect of a fake moon landing. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee in her pre-chief-minister avatar, had turbo-charged the word, paribartan, with the very warp and woof of change. Three years down the line, it is easier to see that the real paribartan may have happened temporarily (and with disastrous consequences) when the baton was switched while being passed from the hand of Jyoti Basu to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in 2000. As was the case with the Left Front government in Calcutta, it was the UPA’s inability to match, let alone surpass, the promise of change that made it look like a bureaucracy pretending to be a government.
Despite being a nation clamouring for change, India is remarkably conservative. This is the same country that rejected the proclamation of ‘India Shining’ in 2004 simply because the phrase was constructed in the present continuous even as it has had no qualms for decades on end to watch a trickle-down economy trickle down to a vast majority of its people by the twin forces of gravity and good intention. In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli notes how “there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit from the new order”. Modi will know, if he doesn’t already, that even with patriots among his powerful backers, there is nothing called a free stay in 7 Race Course Road.
In Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath, the rich and young Mahendra Singha negotiates the horrors and turmoil of the great Bengal famine of 1770. At Anandamath, the forest refuge for warrior-monks waging a guerrilla war against the cruel tax- extracting forces of the Nawab, he is shown three idols of the mother goddess personifying the ‘nation’. The first is of the resplendent figure of Jagatdhatri to signify ‘What Mother was’; the second is the fierce, naked figure of Kali signifying ‘What Mother has become’, and finally, a radiant Durga idol. “This is what Mother will be,” the brahmachari accompanying Mahendra explains.
We have already seen all three India idols in the BJP’s election campaigns. With expectations raised like never before, a traditionally patient nation now waits impatiently to see what ‘Mother’ will end up becoming — even as the prime-minister-designate rolls up his kurta sleeves and cracks his knuckles before taking a shot at changing, well, everything.