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Modi@1: the fine line between arrogance and self confidence.

Modi@1: the fine line between arrogance and self confidence.

The only thing certain about Indian politics is its constant edge of uncertainty. If in the summer of 2010, you had suggested that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would hurtle to an ignominious defeat in the 2014 general election, you would have been a certified lunatic. The Congress was so convinced by its seeming invincibility that it quickly lost the plot. Today, amidst the 365-day celebration blitzkrieg, the Narendra Modi-led government’s position seems equally unassailable: a victory in the 2019 general election appears very likely. The only question is, will hubris prove to be the undoing of the Modi regime in the manner that complacency destroyed Manmohan Singh’s government?

Jairam Ramesh, ever-ready for the quotable quotes, claims that the Modi government’s slogan should be “minimum governance, maximum arrogance”. At a recent closed-door media interaction, Prime Minister Modi suggested that when his critics run out of reasons to target him, they simply call him arrogant. When I posed the question to the second most powerful man in the country, Amit Shah’s reply was equally telling: “There is a fine line between arrogance and self-confidence and we are conscious of not crossing it.”

The charge of being arrogant has haunted Modi almost right through his political career. When he was pushed into near political exile from Gujarat in the mid-1990s, the accusation was that Modi had become a “Super CM” who expected the party’s senior leaders in the state to accept his superior status. When he eventually became the Gujarat chief minister in 2001, the concern expressed again was that his alleged king-sized ego would prove to be his undoing. And when he was pitched as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, there was again a worry expressed by no less than his mentor Lal Krishna Advani that the party was risking the emergence of an autocrat who would put the individual above the organisation.

The fact that Modi had cut his political teeth as a pracharak makes the charge of being arrogant appear a little strange. Pracharaks are expected to be self-effacing workers quietly operating in the background, devoid of large egos that often come naturally to those in the public eye. Living a spartan existence in shakhas, their absolute commitment to ideology means that the individual’s space for expressing his personal ambition is severely constrained.

So has the pracharak with the kurta-pajama, jhola-chappal look metarmorphosed into the prime minister whose power dressing is now seen to typify the personality cult that surrounds him? Or has Modi always been different? Is he simply reflecting the confidence of a self-made man or the narcissism of self-love?

Let’s be fair: the criticism of Modi’s fashion statements – be it the ill-advised monogrammed suit or his trademark Modi jacket, his fancy watches or glasses – should not determine perceptions of his personality. That we have a prime minister who is a bit of a serial dresser is no evidence of arrogance. Jawaharlal Nehru liked to dress well, had expensive tastes but was rarely accused of being haughty. If the Nehru jacket was a much admired style statement in the 1950s, why can’t the Modi jacket be a signature symbol of the 21st century?

There is also the suggestion that the endless projection of the individual – be it in glitzy holograms, large hoardings, or multimedia advertising campaigns – are all evidence of a self-obsessive personality cult. Again, this is unfair criticism. We live in the age of the media. If the prime minister has the ability to harness media power to build a larger than life image for himself, then he needs to be seen as the artful communicator. If he is able to pull off mega events across the world, that too is to his credit as a consummate event choreographer. A skill can’t be confused with arrogance.

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So is the prime minister justified in claiming that his critics have run out of arguments by labelling him arrogant? Well, not quite. The real concern remains Modi’s tendency to place the individual above the institution. It was witnessed in Gujarat where the state legislature, human rights bodies, information commissions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) found themselves severely constrained. When even a noble organisation like the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) working among Gujarat’s rural women or the milk cooperative movement were targeted, it does send out worrying signals.

Now, at the Centre, democratic institutions – be it the media, the judiciary, Parliament or even the cabinet system – seem to live under a certain fear of the “Big Boss”. In the last year, the prime minister has not had a single open press conference where he has taken questions; the country’s top law officer has confronted the Supreme Court in the judges’ appointment case; there hasn’t been a single all-party meeting called to discuss critical legislation and key cabinet ministers like Sushma Swaraj have gone into virtual mute mode. Critics, be it NGOs or rights activists, are being singled out and hounded. This is where the prime minister needs to be careful. As a leader who appears constantly in campaign mode, he could well end up confusing personal crusades with institutional reform. For example, his well-intentioned anti-corruption campaign has focused on an individual promise – na khaoonga, na khane doonga – rather than nurturing institutions of accountability and transparency which will actually make a difference in the long-term. Truth is that well-spun slogans provide for attractive headlines but won’t make up for systemic deficits in governance. The messaging has been innovative and, at times, brilliant, but a prime minister who describes himself as a “sevak” must realise that today’s self confidence may well be seen as a recipe for tomorrow’s despotism.

Post-script: As India’s first “selfie” PM, Modi has set a trend which again reveals his unmatched skill in seizing the moment. And yet, when he posed in Ray-Bans at the Terracotta museum in China, it sparked off Modi jokes on the internet. Relentless image-building is a double-edged sword.

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