"Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope." This was one of the first hologram messages that we ever chanced upon. Four decades later, another message was broadcasted through a hologram in India, not one of a damsel in distress, but quite the opposite. It was a message of hope; it was a message to the masses of the country that promised change and a better future.
The face of a new leader proclaimed itself to the masses and came forth with a bright outlook for the country's future. In the world's largest ever elections, a stunning mandate has seen the rise of Mr Modi, a personality as colourful as the nation he now leads. Yet, ironically, there are few (if any) politicians with more detractors than India's Prime Minister. For a man who has always faced more opposition outside the Lower House than inside it, one could argue (à la Mr. Gandhi) that the opinion of others has limited value, but one must take a closer look at what it means to be the constitutional head of this peculiar nation we know by at least three names even today.
Let's take a step back. Where do we stand today? There has been a lot of talk about development in India in the last two decades, post the historic economic liberalization of 1991. The urban middle class has witnessed the change that being part of the global economy has brought about. The frustrating bit here is that for every statistic signifying development, there is another signifying the opposite. Home to 37% of the world's adult illiterate population, India's decadal growth in literacy slowed down from the 1990s to the 2000s. In ten years, we have also dropped from the 127th position to the 135th in the world's Human Development Index ranking. In what many journalists called a national "shame", a UN report recently stated that 620 million Indians, or half of us, defecate in the open today. Think of it this way -- the sheer scale of the problems we have means that solving every issue will require the setting of a new world record. So can Mr. Prime Minister do it? Or more importantly, how can Mr Prime Minister do it?
How can we improve healthcare with burgeoning illiteracy? How can we eradicate illiteracy without eradicating hunger? How can we fight hunger without eradicating poverty? How do we eradicate poverty without looking at unemployment? How do encourage businesses to offer higher employment without building better infrastructure? But if we build more infrastructure, won't we be diverting money from welfare, on which people depend for dear survival? It's the puzzle of the century, and we haven't had a government answer it satisfactorily in more than 60 years.
Mr Modi has said on several occasions that "running the government" and "running the nation" are two different tasks. Now that the former is ensured for the next 5 years, the spotlight is (thankfully) on the latter. But what could Mr Modi have in his bag of tricks that Mr Nehru, Mr Shastri, Mrs Gandhi, Mr Gandhi, Mr Vajpayee and Mr Singh, amongst others, couldn't conjure? Are we expecting too much? Is there a precedent in history for such a change? Not exactly, but to the north of the Himalayas, a story which started in 1978 shines like a lighthouse to the ship of our hopes. After the liberalization of China in 1978, there hasn't been any looking back for the nation, be it in the domain of economic growth, human development, urbanisation, or income disparity.
The architect was China's premier at the time, Deng Xiaoping, who held the post from 1978 till 1992. In the Chinese model, which ensures almost absolute control of the premier over policies, Deng Xiaoping championed decentralization of decision-making in the rural economy. Interestingly, in Deng's views, an authoritarian government was the nation's only hope for reform and several centrally-controlled policies which one might consider flawed (like the infamous one-child-per-family law) came into existence under him. The one thing Deng proved was that there needn't always be conflict, and that there indeed can be harmony, between central mandates and local execution. Though all wasn't rosy under Deng, who faced constant criticism from Western intellectuals throughout his rule, he demonstrated what vision can help achieve once it permeates into a nation's consciousness and way of living.
Is that to suggest that Mr Modi can be India's Deng Xiaoping? The answer isn't as straightforward. In the federal fabric of India, the Centre and the states share responsibility of governance and Mr Modi holds but a few keys. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for this diverse nation and one can't help but feel that we wouldn't accept a Deng. It is time for Mr Modi to make this era and this chance at leadership his own. He cannot afford to tow any ideology but his own: "Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikaas".
Finally, we must come to the question of where true inspiration comes from. Has India not had inspiring leaders throughout its history? Mr Nehru led an organised fight for independence for decades before he held the post. Mr Shastri, an idol of humility and Gandhian thought throughout his life, came to be known as a brilliant General as he led the country during the war of 1965 against Pakistan. Mr Vajpayee, sent to prison during the Emergency, came to be known as a man of fierce resolve as he thrice fought political battles to the top post and saw through India's transformation to being a nuclear power amidst global opposition, apart from leading us through the Kargil war. Mr Modi might not equal his predecessors in the power of his words, but he has been given the mandate to showcase the power of his vision for development and that he must deliver on.
Nothing can inspire this country more than opportunity, speaking of which, Mr. Modi, here is yours.
(Vaibhav Vashisht is a Mumbai-based professional working in the telecom sector; Sunil Rinald is a Mumbai-based professional working with a media house)