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Prime Minister Narendra Modi is beginning to be described as the most powerful head of government India has had since the heyday of Indira Gandhi. Even senior opposition leaders are now acknowledging this, with one of the senior most from the Congress party recently describing him as “the most dominant political leader.”
This is now not just disputable opinion, but simply a matter of fact. After winning in 2014 as the first single party majority in the Lok Sabha in 29 years, that should have been obvious, but such once-in-a-generation political dominance takes a while to be accepted by opponents. Nevertheless, the results of the recent elections to five states, especially the northern heartland of Uttar Pradesh, have now established this.
It is a tribute to the world’s largest democracy that it enabled such upward mobility, from humble beginnings to the highest office in government. But equally, it must be acknowledged that in our democracy, the biggest and most diverse in the history of the world, it takes certain extraordinary attributes to achieve such mastery.
At various times Shri Modi has been compared to legendary world political figures like US President Ronald Reagan, UK PM Margaret Thatcher, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, and Singapore’s PM Lee Kuan Yew. In reality, he shares some characteristics with each of them, which has helped him not only emerge as the tallest figure in Indian politics, but one of the most influential statesmen globally.
Like Reagan, he is a gifted orator in public, with a disarming demeanour in private, and has similarly succeeded in reaching beyond his party’s traditional base to connect with voters. Like Thatcher, he has a formidable personality, exudes confidence and ability to take on tough situations without demur.
In common with Deng, he has shown tremendous persistence in overcoming political setbacks, as well as in turning around a behemoth of a nation with a focus on attracting investment and boosting the economy.
Finally, he shares Lee’s vision about transforming a nation from third world to first, ability to sell that vision to the nation at large, a reputation for personal integrity, and increasing acceptance as a statesman with influence across the world.
He has tapped the hugely successful Indian diaspora all across the world in an unprecedented manner. But even as he was building a reputation as a foreign policy Prime Minister, Shri Modi was equally effective in communicating to Indians at home. His Mann Ki Baat radio broadcasts are reminiscent of the “fireside chat” radio talks of US President Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1940s, which helped elect him to the White House an unparalleled four times.
In terms of policies, the Prime Minister has shown the ability to have the courage of his convictions to take big steps. One such was demonetisation, which was criticised by many in the media and in the echo chambers of Lutyens’ Delhi. It was odd to see that while reputable international ratings agencies first refrained from commenting while waiting for the data, and later expressed cautious optimism, many domestic commentators insisted it was a calamity, which the data ultimately belied.
My own experience from spending on average nearly two weeks every month in the constituency was that the vast majority of citizens were extremely enthused by it. They saw in it a real blow to black money, though of course further policy reforms will be necessary to make the effects more lasting. It is no surprise that a couple of the most successful chief ministers in the nation also extended cautious support to the policy.
Similarly, the subject of cleaning up political funding has long been discussed in India without anyone in government actually doing anything about it. The steps announced in this year’s budget are the first ones that will have some impact when implemented.
I have been analysing the issue and have been writing to the Election Commission and Law Commission for several years with specific proposals, as well as opinion columns in major publications, and was therefore glad to see action being initiated.
It is ironic that some people have quibbled about these steps, such as the drastic reduction of the ceiling up to which political donations could be received in cash without recording donor details. When the EC had specifically suggested that step a few weeks before the budget, it had received widespread support, including from some of the very people who opposed it later as inadequate.
Twenty first century India is rapidly emerging as a vastly different landscape than what most of our politicians, administrators, and opinion makers are used to. Our young citizenry expects much more from us than politics as usual, and Shri Modi has clearly demonstrated his grasp of these aspirations. Others would do well to adapt quickly.
(Baijayant “Jay” Panda is an Indian politician, currently serving as a Member of the Lok Sabha. Elected from the Kendrapara constituency, he belongs to the Biju Janata Dal party. Previously, he had served in the indirectly elected Rajya Sabha, from 2000 to 2009.)