The person (or maybe the copywriter) who, in a bout of linguistic inspiration, first suggested that Narendra Modi kem cho and conquered America probably never had politics on his mind. Unfortunately, when it comes to India’s Prime Minister, politics of a sharply partisan variety is never far away. From the innocuous “may the force be with you” aside to a rock concert in New York City to the severity of his Navratri fast, almost everything Modi does is minutely dissected by an army of pundits, in a constant state of readiness for the first major lapse — something more substantial than saying ‘Mohanlal’ for ‘Mohandas’.
For the moment, Modi has given his detractors few opportunities to show him up as a desi bumpkin, totally out of his depth in the glitzy world of politics and diplomacy. Initially, when it was suggested that the Prime Minister would conduct his global diplomacy in Hindi, there were a few sniggers from those comfortable with Indian leaders speaking to the world in English, and that too in unaccented Received Pronunciation — what in Indian parlance is dubbed ‘convent English’. Unfortunately for them, this unwillingness to flaunt the Commonwealth connection was widely appreciated in India. Indeed, the fact that Modi chose to emulate Atal Bihari Vajpayee and speak to the UN General Assembly in Hindi was internalised by India as a symbol of national pride, even by those who believe that the English language has an important role to play in India.
From purposeless mutterings about insisting on Hindi when he has an adequate grasp of English to misgivings over overdoing the Gujarati bit was a short step. Unlike HD Deve Gowda, the self-professed “humble farmer” who was ridiculed as the ‘Prime Minister of Karnataka’, Modi’s regional identity hasn’t yet been projected as a political liability. Yet, Modi is unquestionably a Gujarati in the same way as President Pranab Mukherjee leaves people in little doubt that he is a Bengali. More to the point, Modi makes no attempt to conceal his Gujarati-ness. In his speeches he draws freely from his experiences as chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years and it is also likely that at home he keeps a Gujarati table. On their part, Gujaratis, whether in Ahmedabad or New Jersey, see him as one of their own — a local lad from Vadnagar made good.
Does Modi’s deep regional roots make him less of a pan-Indian leader? This certainly was the implicit suggestion of those who tried to brush off the spectacular reception he received at the Madison Square Garden rally as a made-in-Gujarat event that it clearly wasn’t.
Unconsciously or otherwise, the contrived charge of a creeping Gujarati-isation of India’s public life has a great deal to do with the ‘model’ leadership of the Nehrus and Gandhis. Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who set the tone of Indian cosmopolitanism, was a Kashmiri Pandit whose family settled in Allahabad. However, thanks to his very English upbringing, Nehru never acquired regional roots. He was undeniably an Indian, but an Indian who could never call a part of India his own. Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel were unmistakably Gujarati; Subhash Chandra Bose cut his political teeth in the Bengal Congress; and Lokmanya Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale were rooted in the social churning of the Bombay Presidency.
The above-it-all cosmopolitanism that Nehru and his dynastic successors assiduously projected was an aberration and belonged to a culture of patrician rule. In their own way, the Congress’ first family sought to create an elite that saw India as an intellectual abstraction — something to be studied, understood but not identified with. Modi is a break from this tradition. He epitomises an India that is increasingly self-assured, even self-contained. His style — including sartorial preferences — and engagement with the world is much more located in an evolving India.
“You have the money, but you don’t have class,” a public personality is said to have taunted a group of Modi loyalists in New York last week. It was an arrogant remark befitting a sub-strata that feels politically and culturally dispossessed by social forces Modi has unleashed. As long as condescension defines the opposition to him, Modi has no reason to feel threatened. Entitlement is rarely able to overwhelm energy.