To his long list of skills - powerful oratory; indefatigable energy; peerless grandstanding; bear hugging every world leader within handshaking distance - Narendra Modi just added another one: a talent for black humour.
That talent was evident in his remarks in Ahmedabad last Thursday. Speaking at a function at Sabarmati Ashram, the prime minister said, "Killing people in the name of gau bhakti is not acceptable." And added, with a straight face, "We are a land of non-violence. We are the land of Mahatma Gandhi. Why do we forget that?"
Those words certainly jogged -and mocked - public memory, coming as they did from a man who was chief minister of Gujarat when riots left over 2,000 dead and who resolutely refused to express any remorse, then or since. And a man who, as prime minister, has chosen to ignore the violence unleashed by vigilantes on a regular basis.
Yet such is the stature of Narendra Modi that his words at Sabarmati have been welcomed, not just by his supporters but even by his critics. The prime minister's belated attack on cow vigilantes, they feel, will have a sobering effect on the marauding mobs and will rein in the "loony fringe" of the sangh parivar.
The speech at Sabarmati on June 29 was not the first time that Modi spoke out against the lynch mobs. He had expressed similar sentiments after the lynching of Dalits in Una last year. That had had little effect on the ground.
But this time, many hope, it will be different. One reason for this hope is that the prime minister spoke out a day after thousands of citizens came out in different cities of India under the "Not In My Name" banner to protest against the growing climate of hate and violence which led, most recently, to the murder of 16-year-old Junaid Khan on a train a little outside Delhi.
The "enough is enough" sentiment that animated the protests may have touched Narendra Modi too and impelled him to speak, some believe. Another view is that for purely political reasons the prime minister has signalled a change of course. He does not want unruly elements, in the garb of " gau rakshaks", to mar his ambitions of becoming a world statesman, jeopardize his goal of building a 'New India'.
This hope, sadly, is likely to be belied because it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. Narendra Modi may be a consummate politician with an enviable ability to mould his words and persona to suit the audience and the occasion. But he is also a deeply committed ideologue, more ideologically oriented than any Indian prime minister barring, possibly, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The saffron fraternity knows this well. Soon after Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to single party majority in 2014, a television anchor asked Uma Bharati whether the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh would now exercise "remote control" over the new government. Uma Bharati's immediate response: there is no need of any remote control because RSS ideology flowed through every vein of Narendra bhai Modi, he was the very embodiment of its ideals, the best vehicle to translate its vision into reality.
Modi may have focused on " vikas" and "parivartan" all through his election campaign but after assuming power he has given glimpses of his deep adherence to RSS ideology. And though he has seldom mentioned M.S. Golwalkar by name, it is Golwalkar's thoughts and writings that seem to have most influenced him.
Since Golwalkar took over the reins of the RSS in 1940 and remained at the helm till 1973, he exercised an enormous influence over generations of young men who joined the RSS in the post-Independence era, the most dedicated of whom became pracharaks (full timers) - Modi a star among them.
One only has to read Golwalkar - not just his infamous We or Our Nationhood Defined but his collection of writings brought together in Bunch of Thoughts - to recognize his imprint on Modi's mind. Modi's recent use of "Attock to Cuttack and Kashmir to Kanyakumari", for instance, is a straight lift from Golwalkar.
But it goes far beyond phrases. The RSS's central thesis, extensively elaborated in Golwalkar's writings, is that India is the sacred land of the Hindus and Hindus alone, it was a land of unparalleled glory in ancient times, it fell to ruin because of successive assaults by foreign invaders, and it can only regain its lost glory once it becomes wholly Hindu again.
Golwalkar had the greatest antipathy towards the concept of "territorial nationalism" - the name he gave to the modern nation state which bestows equal rights of citizenship on all those who live within its territory regardless of caste or creed. The RSS's "cultural nationalism", a euphemism for upper caste Hindu supremacy, is the stark opposite of civic nationalism enjoined by the Constitution of India.
The difference between the two is not mere semantics but has very real consequences. Every campaign of the so-called "loony fringe" - be it ghar wapsi, love jihad, cow vigilantism, or painting minorities as anti-national - is rooted in the ideology of the RSS and finds ideological sustenance in Golwalkar's writings.
India's independence from colonial rule in 1947, Golwalkar argued, did not constitute real freedom because the new leaders held on to the "perverted concept of nationalism" that championed India's composite heritage.
"The concept of territorial nationalism," he wrote, "has verily emasculated our nation and what more can we expect of a body deprived of its vital energy? ...And so it is that we see today the germs of corruption, disintegration and dissipation eating into the vitals of our nation for having given up the natural living nationalism in the pursuit of an unnatural, unscientific and lifeless hybrid concept of territorial nationalism."
For the RSS, therefore, the BJP's victory in 2014 marks a seminal moment in the dream of forming a Hindu rashtra. That Modi is aware of his own significance in this journey was made clear when he referred to the end of "1200 years of foreign rule" in his first major speech in the Lok Sabha after becoming prime minister.
In the last three years, Modi has relentlessly run down the achievements of the first 70 years of independence and insisted that India has changed in a wondrous fashion only in the last three years. These exaggerated claims do not result from misplaced hubris alone. It comes from a deeply held belief that only a "Hindu" government and polity - where all "non-Hindu" elements are obliterated or made to surrender their identity - can redeem India's destiny.
Modi's New India, thus, has two inextricably intertwined sides to it. On one hand, it is about rooting out black money, building toilets, giving up LPG subsidies, enhancing India's space programme et al. On the other, it is 'Hinduizing' both State and society by obliterating the myriad influences on art and culture, ideas and scholarship from 'non-Hindu' sources that have so enriched India over millennia.
The men who killed Junaid Khan because he was wearing a skull cap and taking home Eid gifts, Yogi Adityanath's comment that the Taj Mahal does not reflect Indian culture, and Modi's belief that India's efflorescence has only begun with his victory in 2014 are all facets of the same Golwalkarian mindset - a mindset that forms the bedrock of New India.
In his Sabarmati speech, a newspaper report said, Modi narrated a childhood memory of a cow who gave up eating after it was overcome with remorse for accidentally killing a child. "His voice choked with emotion and he fought back tears as he detailed the compassion of the cow," it noted. Modi never mentioned Junaid Khan, whose bloodstains are still visible on the platform of Asaoti station.
In New India, suicidal cows evoke more tears than murdered human beings. But then a cow, we are told, experiences remorse and compassion that a prime minister seems incapable of feeling.