Narendra Modi waves as he arrives to take charge on his first day as PM. (Reuters Photo)
As the government completes its first fortnight, are we witnessing a new Narendra Modi, as many believe, or was the media simply wrong in its initial understanding of the man? It’s a question I’ve been frequently asked and because I don’t have a definitive answer I’m encouraged to search for one.
Let’s start with Mr Modi’s personal style. On the day he was elected leader of the BJP parliamentary party he knelt and kissed the ground, called Parliament the temple of democracy, a phrase evocative of Nehru, and proceeded to praise all past governments. Did this appreciation of democracy and generosity of spirit reveal a new man or prove how little the press knew him?
I’m not sure what to make of his tears but I didn’t realise Mr Modi had a softer emotional side that he would reveal in public. They weren’t manufactured unless you credit him with Oscar-winning acting skills.
I was more struck by the fact that on the 27th, with three presidents and four prime ministers to meet, he began his day with a tweet in praise of Nehru, a prime minister he has political reservations about, and ended it calling on Manmohan Singh, who he had just defeated. Was this politesse or heartfelt courtesy?
Of course, you could say the aura of prime ministership that now surrounds him leads us to perceive Mr Modi differently. Maybe. But then why didn’t office reveal a different Manmohan Singh or Vajpayee?
For some it’s Mr Modi’s actions that explain why they see a new man. The invitation to Saarc leaders suggests a vision of India’s position in the region and a capacity to deftly articulate it they had not spotted. The warmth of the welcome to Nawaz Sharif suggests he can rise above prejudice, which few thought possible. I can’t deny Mr Modi’s early response to foreign policy was a surprise.
More anticipated, but equally surefooted and swift, was the way he set out his domestic agenda. His 10 priorities may be well-intentioned clichés but after the uncertainty and ad hoc nature of UPA rule most view them as welcome reassurance. His advice not to ignore state governments may reflect a personal interest but it finds resonance in many hearts. And the decision to abolish GOMs and EGOMs was sound good sense.
What then does all of this add up to? Let me suggest a few tentative and hesitant conclusions. I didn’t expect displays of emotion, rich symbolic gestures or a facility for the mot juste. I didn’t think Mr Modi had it in him. I didn’t expect little personal courtesies or warm effusive handshakes. I didn’t think he had it in him.
Mr Modi’s personal behaviour is impressive. It’s not office that’s changed how we view him. He’s made us think again.
I’m less surprised by his decisions because I expected swiftness and promptness. He has, after all, been preparing since September. So though welcome, I knew he had measures in mind to ensure a flying start.
Many in the press predicted what the Prime Minister might do. You can’t fault them on that count. Few anticipated his style or the generous side of his personality. We never realised there was this dimension to the man.
So whilst we were not wrong to focus sharply and, even, singularly on 2002 — and the glaring failure to condemn the Pune murder underlines that and is cause for concern — we now need to look elsewhere as well. A third eye would be a great help!
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)