Modi, focused on youth and their aspirations, has articulated a truly disruptive change: One of hope, of duties rather than rights, of standing up to the world instead of being bullied by it, says Rajeev Srinivasan… Modi is a thoroughly 21st century leader, who knows the power of symbols and of the Internet. He realises that whatever he does will be instantly analysed and judged by hundreds of thousands of both his loyal supporters and critical detractors…
As I wrote this on Diwali day, an Indian Prime Minister spent the day with the troops on the Siachen glacier. Furthermore, Narendra Modi cancelled all celebrations, and instead visited victims of severe floods in Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, there is speculation that he will soon visit the shrine at Sabarimala in Kerala. All these, if I am not mistaken, are first-time acts for Indian PMs. And they are symbolic: He is thanking the soldiers whom the nation owes a debt of gratitude; he is telling Kashmiris on this most important festival in the Hindu calendar, that they too are part of the national fabric despite the fact that some of them are religious fanatics and separatists; and by going on the difficult climb up vertiginous hills to Sabarimala he will reaffirm that he is a humble, ordinary Hindu, the chaiwallah taunt that he deftly turned into a badge of honour.
Modi is a thoroughly 21st century leader, who knows the power of symbols and of the Internet. He realises that whatever he does will be instantly analysed and judged by hundreds of thousands of both his loyal supporters and critical detractors. For instance, within minutes of his Government announcing that it wouldn’t be able to reveal the names of those who had secret Swiss accounts, even long-term fans criticised him on Twitter and Facebook.
The age of instant communication has made it possible for the PM to, in effect, reach out directly to the people without the usual paraphernalia of press conferences, press releases, weighty op-eds and talking heads discussing big things on television. He is going over the heads of the intermediaries, rendering them largely superfluous. And about time too: I read somewhere that there is a G-37, a gang of the same 37 ‘experts’ in Delhi who are trotted out to analyse anything and everything on television chat shows, including things they have absolutely no knowledge of or experience in.
Nehru was a legend. And Modi is becoming one. In almost every way, Modi is the anti-Nehru. Nehru was imperious because he believed he was born to rule India; Modi…struggled his way up the ladder. Nehru was a dreamy internationalist; Modi is a doer and a nationalist. Nehru was easily seduced by flattery; Modi is focused on results, not honeyed words. Nehru had an inferiority complex towards whites and wanted to impress them; Modi doesn’t give a damn about anybody’s race, only their ability. Nehru was a product of a feudal India; Modi is the face of digital, post-modern India.
And Modi is undoubtedly a Great Communicator. In full flow in Hindi, he is a spell-binding orator, mesmerising even someone like me who knows little Hindi and no Urdu. He has the audience in the palm of his hand, and he can make the language dance, sing, do somersaults, whatever he pleases. He has a magnetic personality, somewhat akin to Apple founder Steve Jobs with his ‘reality-distortion field.’ You want to believe in him, and you do. Modi is larger than life: and it is not just Indians who fall under his spell.
It may well be that Jawaharlal Nehru was also larger than life, or maybe it is just that that’s what we’ve been brought up to believe. That’s what the media painted him as, and his many hagiographers have built up the man’s mystique. I too believed in Chacha Nehru as a child, and I too believed that he was a great statesman whom the entire world respected. The reality was a little less glamorous, and after the Kim-il-Sung-like personality cult around him began to annoy me, I tried to take an objective look at him. Over the years, I have written two unflattering columns about him: Let us now praise famous men and The Nehruvian Penalty. So, full disclosure: I am not a fan of Nehru or Nehruvianism.
Nevertheless, I admit that Nehru had an outsize influence on India. A lot of things he did have turned out, in hindsight, to be plain foolish, but you can perhaps give him the benefit of the doubt given the fraught circumstances in which the imperialists left the country: Bankrupt, starving. Less forgivable is his disdain, if not outright hostility, for the native culture of the country, and the harmful social experiments that arose therefrom. And the less said about his economic theories, the better.
Nehru was what ‘The Economist’ magazine would call ‘urbane’ — ‘people like us’, someone whose world-view was conditioned by the West, and who was a thorough misfit in ruling India. The Economist called Modi a ‘pain-in-the-*&&’ and Amit Shah, his ally, a ‘pantomime villain.’ Now, coming from them, that is high praise, and suggests that Modi and Shah are immune to the West’s fatal charms. And a good thing too. The person who understood Nehru the best was the superlative fabulist O V Vijayan, who, with his novelist’s insight wrote the Brechtian — thus thoroughly revolting, but curiously accurate – ‘Saga of Dharmapuri’ about a sovereign and his coprophagic sycophants. He also wrote the following in his underappreciated masterpiece in Malayalam, ‘The Path of the Prophet’. I quote it here because it is lyrical, relevant, and utterly damning. The translation is mine:
The beloved leader fled, in his solitude, to escape from the screams of the kothwal, from the accusing ancestral voices, from their loving sorrows. The sight of his flight thrilled the illiterate bystanders. Ecstatic, they cried: India’s yaga stallion, he who cannot be tied up by anyone!
My cherished people, he said, his voice dulled by thirst: I am nobody, I am merely one who has worn the vestments of the king of the starving. I claimed to have discovered India, but all I saw was, like Narcissus, my own aged face in the flowing mirror of the Ganga. Ganga, mother, daughter, sister, lover, why did you not cover up the wrinkles on my face? My god, I did not discover anything, other than myself; and other than the throne I built for my daughter and my grandson. My god, forgive me, a revolution cannot exist without self-glorification; the glimpses of world history that I have seen frighten me.
With the anguish of the prophet, he hastened down the path covered with rocks and thorns and obstacles. The herds of goats on either side of the path became curious. Their unlettered tongues made odd sounds that turned into words. They said, India’s man of the millennium, our king of the goats!
The fleeing recluse cried, my fellow beings, I am nothing; I am running away from my grandfather’s outcry, his poverty, from the sweat-scent of his police uniform. Not only from that, but also from the untold generations of poor ancestors — they who came from somewhere, who knows where, and settled on the banks of a river. My forebears, who accepted the name of the river as their family name: ferrymen, fishermen, those who filled their
stomachs with dreams. I turned their hunger into the sweetness of banquets. Those who stood on either side of the path applauded. They said: King of the starving, please host more banquets, let us understand how emperors taste sweetness.
When finally, he fell, exhausted, broken-hearted, the crowds grieved for him. When that beloved corpse began its final journey, the black sky rained gently, like mother’s milk; and the earth quaked.
Yes, Nehru was a legend. And Modi is becoming one. In almost every way, Modi is the anti-Nehru. Nehru was imperious because he believed he was born to rule India; Modi, with his Horatio Alger story of achievement, struggled his way up the ladder.
Nehru was a dreamy internationalist; Modi is a doer and a nationalist. Nehru was easily seduced by flattery; Modi is focused on results, not honeyed words. Nehru had an inferiority complex towards whites and wanted to impress them; Modi doesn’t give a damn about anybody’s race, only their ability. Nehru was a product of a feudal India; Modi is the face of digital, post-modern India. In some sense, even the much-maligned native princes of India were not always as bad as they were made out to be.
October 23 was the 102nd birth anniversary of Sri Chitra Tirunal Balarama Varma, the last king of Travancore, an unpretentious, modest and much-adored prince. He had the great sagacity to make the Temple Entry Declaration in 1924, throwing open all temples to all Hindus in his kingdom, thus erasing at one stroke one of the greatest wrongs that had blighted his kingdom. Compared to Chitra Tirunal, modern India’s politicians are found seriously wanting. These spiritual heirs of Nehru are now being discarded by the public in droves, as was seen in the national elections in May, and the elections in Maharashtra and Haryana. The ancien regime is crumbling.
To understand how Modi has buried the Nehruvian ethos, it is worth considering the world of business, and the theory of innovation as articulated by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. Christensen talks about the curious phenomenon of the failure of leading firms in Innovator’s Dilemma and other books. He considers ‘incumbents,’ providers of products who have been in the system for some time, and who are dominating the existing setup because they satisfy the needs of the consumers.
Then there are ‘insurgents’, new entrants who may provide something that does not fully satisfy the consumers at the moment, but who may have some advantage, perhaps their costs are low. To begin with, the incumbents ignore the insurgents, with good reason, as they are secure for the moment. But over time, the insurgents tend to learn, and their offerings get better and better, until, at a point of inflection, time T1 in the diagram, the market switches ruthlessly to the insurgent. The incumbent ends up in the trash-heap of history. Christensen calls this ‘disruptive innovation.’
And that’s precisely what Modi has done: He has disrupted the status quo ante and the cozy world of the Nehruvian Stalinists who had a vice-like grip on all arms of society, and in particular the captive media, where the path to success lay in glorification of the Nehru dynasty. Before they realised in their complacency that there was a serious challenger on the scene, they were over-run by Modi’s disruption.
What Modi did is to offer the Indian public a far more appealing vision than the Nehruvian Stalinists’ tired old nostrums of ‘secularism,’ socialism, and the omniscient mai-baap sarkar.
In 1947, this was novel, and an innovative product. But all innovations have a finite lifetime (just ask the IT services companies, who are finding to that their brilliant innovation of 1999 has now run its course). Today’s youth are not interested in old bromides. What Modi, the insurgent, offered is a paradigm shift: Instead of having a Socialist Government giving you doles, he, by his own example, showed how it is possible for any one of humble origin to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Clearly, this vision, this disruptive innovation, resonates with the public, and makes it quite unlikely that the incumbent can make a game of it again.
It is critical to note in Christensen’s theories that a disruption is necessary to shake up the status quo. In the case where there is ‘sustaining innovation’ alone — for instance, tinkering at the edges such as National Rural Employment Guarantee Act — the incumbent can win. But when a truly ‘disruptive innovation’ comes along, the insurgent usually wins. Even though there have been some recent criticisms of the model, it makes intuitive sense and explains why companies almost never dominate successive phases of a market.
India has had one major disruption, that of 1991, when P V Narasimha Rao, under duress, turned the economy around and opened it up to external inputs. But once the shock of the potential default wore off, the disruption was absorbed into a sustaining innovation, and it was back to Nehruvian business as usual. Poor Narasimha Rao died in disgrace, unwept, unhonoured and unsung by the Congress. But Modi, focused on youth and their aspirations, has been able to articulate a truly disruptive change: One of hope, of duties rather than rights, of standing up to the world instead of being bullied by it, of accepting the world of realpolitik instead of dreaming about Emperor Ashoka’s ways and pancha sheela.
That makes Modi a Great Disruptor in addition to a Great Communicator. By Christensen’s theory, that means he has put India on a new, innovative path for the foreseeable future. With luck, by the time this innovation runs out of steam in its turn, India would have pulled itself out of its current misery and moved on to a different tr jectory as a middle-income country.