In all the discussions about the rise of Narendra Modi, we never seem to consider the most obvious explanation. There is an iron law in global politics: when things are going well, people don’t worry too much about leadership. They want non-controversial politicians who stay out of their way and let them get on with their lives without needless conflict.
But when things go wrong, people look for the opposite. They want visible leadership. They prefer their politicians to seem totally in control. They like somebody who is not scared of conflict. And though they say they want to be inspired, what they are really looking for is reassurance. They want a leader who tells them that he or she knows the way out of the crisis.
History is replete with examples of this phenomenon. The best one is Winston Churchill. For most of his career, he was reviled as a dangerous demagogue, an egomaniac, a man in search of conflict, an arrogant leader who brooked no dissent and whose views were imperialist and racist. (He called Mahatma Gandhi a ‘half-naked fakir’.)
But when World War II broke out, the same people who had once cast him out called on Churchill to lead the country. All the qualities that had once seemed so objectionable — the arrogance, the demagoguery, and his conviction that only he understood the way ahead — now seemed inspirational.
There are so many other examples — Charles De Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher, etc — that the Americans have a slang term for the phenomenon. In good times, people want to be Mummy-ed. But in bad times, they want Daddy to show them the way.
It does not require a massive leap of imagination to see how this phenomenon has manifested itself in India. The UPA took office in good times, when most Indians were not only better off than before but also believed that things would keep getting better.
In that era, we were happy to be Mummy-ed. And the mild-mannered Manmohan Singh, with his technocratic skills, was the perfect prime minister. Five years later, when things had got better, India re-elected the UPA with a larger margin.
It is significant that Narendra Modi was around in 2004 when the UPA took office. He was already chief minister of Gujarat but was regarded as a fringe figure. When the UPA won re-election in 2009, Modi had become the BJP’s most powerful chief minister.
But he was still a regional strongman, and was seen as a politician whose divisive communalised politics would keep him away from power in Delhi.
So, why is it that Modi’s fortunes have been so completely transformed? Why is he now a putative prime minister? And why is Manmohan Singh the most unpopular prime minister in recent memory?
It isn’t as though Modi has changed. He still hasn’t apologised for the 2002 riots or for the communalised campaign he ran after the violence. He is as arrogant, as polarising and as much of a demagogue as he has always been.
The difference is that times have changed. The economy has tanked. Nobody believes that we will be better off in the years ahead — not as long as this government is in office, anyway.
Law and order has spun out of control. The government cannot control prices. And corruption scandal after corruption scandal rocks the government.
History tells us that in times of crisis, people need visible leadership. And yet, this government has provided no evidence that it knows how to lead. Never in Indian history have top leaders been so remote and so uncommunicative. Rarely has a prime minister seemed less in control. At a time when India needs to feel that he knows the way out of this mess, he is himself ducking for cover.
Instead, it is Modi who has seized the opportunity and filled the gap. While the UPA’s leaders cower, he goes from rally to rally. He talks of solutions in the form of the so-called Gujarat model. He gives interviews. He blogs. He tweets. He provides sound-bites. And in his demagoguery lies the reassurance that many insecure Indians are looking for.
It is not as though India has forgotten the events of 2002. Nor is it that voters have suddenly turned communal or anti-Muslim. It is just that at a time when a crisis-ridden India is being run by an invisible prime minister, many Indians will take whatever visible leadership they can find.
The UPA has spent too long ignoring the rise of Narendra Modi. It has failed to successfully demolish his exaggerated claims on behalf of the so-called Gujarat model. It makes the mistake of believing that Modi’s polarising record will keep people from voting for him.
In fact, voters have not forgotten 2002. But they are now so fed up and desperate that they are willing to take the chance that Modi will be more responsible this time.
The only hope for the UPA is to demonstrate that there is life beyond Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet and coterie of yesterday’s men. It must push a younger generation forward and suggest that it can provide strong, imaginative and visible leadership.
Its leaders can no longer afford to parachute in and out of the issues. There must be sustained engagement in political discourse and there must be evidence of bold decision-making.
Otherwise, in urban India at least, Modi is fast becoming the man of the future; not because India has forgotten all the terrible things that he has done but because the UPA has forgotten how to govern and how to lead. And nature abhors a vacuum.
The views expressed by the author are personal