Like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, India had slowly faded away from the scene, leaving behind images of the wordless, self-effacing uniformly clad prime minister at the end of UPA 2. It was an image which was easy to ignore, easy to dismiss as unimportant, even sneer at. And now like a thunderclap comes the new kid on the block, sartorially spiffy, quick with the acronyms and one-liners, wearing his humble origins on his designer kurta sleeve.
Ah, said the Cassandras, why does he need to be so vocal, why does he not get to work? Why does he need to go trotting all over the world, when people are not getting two square meals a day at home? Who is he trying to impress with the glib sales pitch, no one believes in India as an investment destination anymore? And so on. Yes, on the face of it, all these criticisms are valid. Indeed, perhaps Narendra Modi has been a little too much in your face for the comfort of some people. But the majority both here and abroad are relieved that they can see and hear the man at the helm of the ship of State.
In case you had not noticed, India, which was at one time the darling of the investors, had dropped off the radar altogether. No one was queuing up at the door, cheque in hand, to set up shop here. We were being downgraded steadily by the ratings agencies. People were giving us a wide berth. Scandal after scandal had reduced our stock to ‘highly avoidable’ status. And now comes a self-confessed small man trying to shake things up.
Yes, the show at Madison Square Garden was not in the best of taste, yes, the prime minister of India could have avoided schmoozing with the likes of Jay-Z at the Global Citizen Festival at Central Park, New York, but at the end of the day, you are talking about it, aren’t you? India is back in the consciousness of people once again. And that is what matters, not the immediate gain this may or may not bring.
And this I think was Modi’s gameplan. He was not planning to come back home with a bucketload of contracts, he was not reckoning on coming home with sacks full of money. His plan was to come home after having made India a talking point once again, aided by the garba diplomacy of the loyal Gujarati flock.
This is the Modi version of shock and awe. A neighbour who was looking longingly at Beijing is now all gung-ho about India. People lined up on the streets of Kathmandu to greet the ‘rock star’ prime minister. In the quiet Zen-like calm of Kyoto, Modi with his hugs and drumbeats charmed the normally aloof and imperious Japanese. India, they felt, was a partner once again, even one that could perhaps stick it to the Chinese. On the sides of the United Nations recently, our man was all over the place like a hurricane, meeting and greeting other leaders from Sheikh Hasina to the pugnacious Benjamin Netanyahu. Will all this amount to real gain for India? It will, though it cannot happen overnight. But the calculation of the man, who, many feel, is the natural inheritor to the mantle of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, is that once India gets back into the international lexicon as more than a place of dynasties and despair, maybe the good times will roll.
There is nothing else that he can really do, is there? As I see it, he is trying to pull India up by its bootstraps and tell the world we are here too and not half as bad as you think. Sure, there were some over-the-top moments, but that is just his style. And sometimes you need to be in-your-face to get noticed. After all, Dubya was not exactly a retiring soul, neither was Bill Clinton, nor indeed is our dear neighbour Nawaz Sharif. So, the kvetching that Modi is a little too loud for our genteel taste doesn’t cut any ice with me.
The problem, of course, is that this is the opening band before the real show starts. Modi has got the eyeballs, now he has to play out the concert. It has been far too long that India has prided itself on leaders who were rarely seen and even more rarely heard. It is not my intention to criticise those who have gone before. But for goodness sake, Manmohan Singh with his vast erudition, his economist’s hat could surely have done a better job of selling India to investors. After all, his credentials were impeccable. He didn’t, choosing to keep quiet as all around him fell apart, as the economy steadily went southwards. And now, upon the shoulders of Modi falls the onerous task of putting things back on track. And we expect him to deliver. He is doing that by telling people that we are open for business and he will patch things along as the days go by. He has no option, really, don’t you think? He has been dealt a really rotten economic hand.
Of course, the US visit has been the most high-profile but he has been relentlessly pursuing his agenda of making India visible once again and lay out the welcome mat whether to businessmen or tourists. The tales of food deprivation add to the Modi story. On a diet of little more than water, with not even a 15-minute vacation since he took over, he was selling the India story.
So I think the critics should put a lid on it. Would they prefer that we are just a strange and large blob on the map, at best a land of poverty and scams or a country trying to dress up and slap on the make-up, not too successfully, but getting there? It is a no-brainer.
So we need the peripatetic PM, on kem cho terms with Obama, sprinkling the world with his dhokla diplomacy. It might be difficult to digest for many, but we will taste a bit of success all around if he continues his dandiya march.