Follow Modi’s India | Sunday Observer

Follow Modi’s India

5 February, 2023

What is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trick? Some wag said it was intestinal fortitude. But it’s not just that, crudely put or otherwise. He has got what Kenneth Galbraith referred to as a functioning anarchy, to function.

He had accomplished this while neighbour Sri Lanka in the 75th year since independence is reeling from an economic meltdown. Not that the rest of the neighbourhood is doing that well either, but India is now, as Kishore Mahubani says, at its strongest ever. Not just among SAARC countries, but from a global perspective, India is at its zenith, period.

This didn’t seem to be possible under the former Congress leadership some nine years ago. At that time India was riven with insurgent attacks and incidents of terrorism and was economically floundering as well.

In the teeth of all this and with considerable international obstruction challenging his own legitimacy, leave alone the legitimacy of his regime, Narendra Modi seemed to have turned the tide and made India great again. This must have been after centuries, which is not said for literary effect.

What lessons could Sri Lanka draw from Modi? It’s a more pertinent question than what lessons could Sri Lanka draw from say Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore or Mahathir in Malaysia. These leaders are worlds apart in many ways. They are or were in countries that are steeped in the South East Asian dragon-ethos when men and women work as if there is no tomorrow, or at least as if they know that hard work pays for a better tomorrow.


But South Asia is not known for any of that. India as those such as MP Shashi Tharoor never tire of saying, was totally laid waste by the colonial power. The country was disrupted, and it’s wealth appropriated. Recovery seemed almost impossible in the light of this, despite highly regarded statesmen such as Jawaharlal Nehru who can never be accused of lacking in vision.

But yet truth be told, neither Nehru nor his daughter could turn the tide back and bring recovery to colonially ravaged India even though they cannot be blamed for it, because getting that capsized ship of State back on even keel was an impossible task after centuries of oppression and disruption.

But then India had to start somewhere and the rest of South Asia, save perhaps for Pakistan for obvious reasons, was looking towards India for some inspiration. But none ever came.

Until a leader by the name of Narendra Modi appeared from seemingly nowhere and gave India solid, unfailing leadership despite the fact that many — including of course a good deal of India’s Western educated intelligentsia — resented his style and had an almost visceral hatred for the man, and his methods.

But, again, truth be told, Modi is a preternaturally gifted type of leader and politician. Mahubani is right. Nobody can deny that in many ways India is stronger than the country has ever been before.

It’s difficult to disagree with Mahubani perhaps even for those who want to for some reason or the other. He was Singapore’s representative in the UN and though of Indian origin, knows how a nation grows, having grown up and done most of his writing and professional duty in the State of Singapore that he represented rather astutely.

Appearing on Fareed Zakaria GPS, Mahubani says that he doesn’t know how Modi did it, but he had ‘woken up a sleeping giant’. Of course he was asked about India’s stand on Russian aggression in Ukraine and he had some precise words on that topic, being as he is a trained diplomat who has seen India’s interactions with the world at close quarters.

But what he emphatically stated about India the country in that conversation was what was striking. He said that India is now at its most promising moment in history, and that nobody can argue that India is an economic powerhouse.

Those are strong words indeed. If it’s the most promising moment in history, what did the Indian leader do to bring that about? Also, what’s the contrast with Sri Lanka which according to Mahubani’s own erstwhile leader Lee Kwan Yew was the promising country in Asia, after the exit of the colonial power from South Asia in the 1940s?

It seems that Modi’s greatest asset was his belief that India could be a roaring success. Hundreds of thousands would have told him otherwise, but he was not shaken and didn’t give up on his ideal to above all else, give the people of his country a sense of identity.

That identity was controversially defined by some of his detractors as being racially biased, but all that criticism didn’t faze him either. He seemed to know innately that the people needed inspiration from somewhere, and that in any event he is never going to be able to please everybody, including those who saw his project as being disruptive of his country’s ‘cherished secular traditions’.

But also, it’s not just that Modi had a project that gave most Indians a sense of purpose. The gentleman has tenacity, and as stated earlier an almost preternatural ability to inspire by his mere presence, words and actions.

When he makes a speech, he doesn’t copy anyone — no, not even Nehru. Certainly not Nehru, one may add. He does lead by example, being given to a simple lifestyle and having no particular desire to show by way of dress or otherwise that he is ‘the leader’ and therefore is cut away from the rest. He is as simple or simpler than most average Indians in the way he dresses, the way he conducts himself, and even the way he eats.

This image and idea cannot be underestimated. When leaders lead by example they are followed, but when they led by speechifying or words only, they are always suspect in the eyes of the people. There is a lesson right there for Sri Lankans.

But beneath this positive veneer, there is also obviously a way in which Narendra Modi is able to get things done. This he seems to accomplish in a low profile way. Meaning that, he has no outwardly articulated method or recipe for getting people to do the job, and this is in contrast to those such as the late Lee Kwan Yew who loved to project his own Lee brand of technocracy in his speeches, books and so on.


It seems by contrast Modi reasons that if he gives the people a sense of purpose, and political stability and goals to achieve, they would deliver, and discover their own methodologies. It’s not as if people didn’t predict the demise of his nation building project. There were difficult times, with the farmers protests and the demonetisation policy by which he made Rs. 1000, and 500 notes invalid with a couple of hours notice.

He was criticised by the Opposition and labelled a lunatic for some of these actions. Nobody says that now, years later, and as Mahubani says India is at its most promising moment in history, so there.

In contrast to other Indian leaders before him it seemed he had a plan and wasn’t afraid to follow through on it. It was as simple as that. Obviously for a man of his vision, he’d be glad that most of his plans worked, though all of them didn’t.

But that’s what leadership is all about. By contrast he makes the Indian Opposition look amateurish or even school boyish, and his trick is he is able to carry the majority of Indian people with him when he implements his often extremely controversial policies.

No country in the region seems to replicate the Indian success story save perhaps for Bangladesh which seems to have found a recipe of its own, even though the country’s success is still in the shadow of India’s, which of course is natural given relative size of the populations, geographical spread and so on.

There is no doubt that India’s leadership example in the last few years under Narendra Modi is phenomenal. Whether it’s replicable will of course be questioned by the cynics, who would say that Modi is a leader who suits the particular conditions and circumstances of India. But very probably, those who say that, couldn’t hold a candle to India under Modi.