No matter which end of the spectrum one is at, there is no denying that Narendra Modi is a phenomenon.
After a fruitful visit to Denmark, Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks for Paris. Image courtesy of @PMOIndia Twitter account
Narendra Modi, as we all know, conjures up extreme responses. Thus, we have either harsh critics or shameless admirers whom the former pejoratively called ‘Bhakts’. The writer would like to believe that he is somewhere between the two poles. But no matter where it is placed by readers. Like all opinion pieces, the standard condition of putting salt to taste applies.
Two developments this week were the trigger for this column. The first is the release of a book [email protected]. This is a collection of articles written by 21 eminent personalities on Narendra Modi who served 20 years of public service – first as Chief Minister of Gujarat and then as Prime Minister during the eight last years. The authors have seen Narendra Modi working up close – as colleagues, associates or professionals who have had the opportunity to interact with him. All are experts in the field and bring their personal observations of Modi’s traits, skills and operating style to the table. As one might expect, the plays border on hagiography. Yet they provide information that can be gleaned by an informed audience.
The other is a cover of The Economist magazine, which has always criticized Modi, going so far as to advise against his election. According to some reports, the newspaper’s editor and senior executive (as he calls himself) were in India some time ago and had sought to meet the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, who were turned down. Therefore, the report should be the product of input from their research office, local office, and other interviews they would likely have conducted. This writer for his part thinks that India does not need the approval of foreign media on its internal affairs, especially on governance issues. But what makes the story remarkable is – probably for the first time in 20 years – The Economist had something positive to say about Modi, albeit grudgingly and the runners attached. While giving him some credit for the achievements of the past few years, particularly during the COVID-19 period, the magazine gives the impression that these have happened despite Narendra Modi – saying that “chance played a big part role” as well as “the steady accumulation of piecemeal reforms on many governments”.
As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But the difficulty lies in finding that sweet spot. But after 20 years, the jury can’t be said to be still on Narendra Modi. After such a long stint at the helm, he certainly deserves an objective assessment. Of course, posterity will deliver the final verdict, but for now, there should be a provisional ballot.
No matter which end of the spectrum one is on, there’s no denying that Modi is a phenomenon. One may be skeptical of tea vendor stories, but that doesn’t change the fact that he comes from humble roots. Questions may have been raised about his academic credentials. If the doubts are true, his later accomplishments would seem even more incredible. After spending the first fifty years of his life in obscurity, his subsequent rise was nothing short of a miracle. Although it may be tempting to attribute success to luck and circumstance, a person cannot maintain their position at the top for more than two decades without certain innate qualities. Therefore, instead of dismissing or denigrating these qualities, it can be instructive to study these attributes even for academic interest.
Modi has often been compared to a corporate CEO. There is merit in this analogy. This is an element that emerges from most chapters of the anthology and even more from the comments of some practicing business leaders like Nandan Nilekani and Anand Mahindra. But, we are ahead of history.
No leader is perfect. Everyone has their share of flaws. Likewise, none are infallible. They have their share of mistakes throughout life. Although luck plays an important role, most of them don’t get it all on a plate. Struggles preceded successes and are almost always followed by setbacks. How a person navigates through these challenges, maximizes strengths, works around weaknesses, and handles crises differentiates the ordinary from the great. Modi is no different. He too is human. But if he’s come this far from literally zero, there must be something unusual about him. And these traits cannot be superficial. If they were only superficial, they would have been exposed long ago.
These are the elements that call for exploration. Determination, self-confidence, discipline and personal mastery can be taken for granted. But to grow, a person must be willing to learn, which requires a high degree of humility. It also requires listening skills. Those who observe Modi from a distance often tend to be wrong about these aspects. Reading some of the accounts in the [email protected] book would reveal how perceptions can be wrong.
The ability to see the big picture without losing a sense of detail is another cliché used by leaders, as is “vision”. You cannot be charismatic without being inspiring. To develop the connection between people, you have to be inherently empathetic. You can’t fake it beyond a point. Not giving credit to Modi on any of these scores would call for a lot of bias.
There is an apocryphal story of Indira Gandhi telling one of her new ministers, to enter politics you don’t need a new wardrobe but thick skin. Modi may have slipped up with his monogrammed suit, but he has the superhuman ability to stand up to critics. Without putting them on the same pedestal or exaggerating, the only other person I can think of who has withstood such a volume of hate and venom is his namesake Narendranath Dutta – aka Swami Vivekananda. People may snicker at the comparison. However, being a lifelong follower of Vivekananda, it’s highly likely that Modi has absorbed some of his inner resilience spirit.
Surely there must be areas where Modi does not score highly as a leader. It can be interpersonal skills, a collaborative work style or a willingness to delegate. Obviously, these aspects would not have been addressed in glowing essays. But a leader is gifted with a high level of self-awareness to be able to work around weaknesses while leveraging strengths. Modi has to do it too.
Every leader inherits a job under a certain set of circumstances with its own complexities, challenges, opportunities and legacies both positive and negative. Where she leaves the organization determines her success. It’s not like the successor lands in a bed of roses. Nothing is an unadulterated blessing. She/he will have new problems to deal with. The mistakes or follies of the predecessor can only resurface after a while. But that comes with the work and is part of the deal.
It’s not for us to decide now how Modi will be remembered for years to come. For now, it deserves a “balanced scorecard” – which may not have all the ticks but not just the crosses either.
The author is a news commentator, marketer, blogger and leadership coach, who tweets at @SandipGhose. The opinions expressed are personal.
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