Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in as Chief Minister of Gujarat for the first time on October 7, 2001. This was the first time Mr Modi occupied a public office. The beginning of the twentieth year of Mr Modi holding public office, a constitutional post, is an apposite juncture to look back on the impact his persona has had in Indian politics.
Mr Modi throughout his career has been the quintessential outsider. He became Chief Minister first and only thereafter was elected for the first time as an MLA on February 24, 2002. From there to 2014, after leading the BJP to a historic mandate, Mr Modi entered Parliament first time as Prime Minister. From an RSS Pracharak to his stint in the BJP Organisation to being the Chief Ministerial choice in Gujarat to stepping into the large shoes of Keshubhai Patel to becoming not just the tallest leader of the BJP but the choice of 130 crore Indians — who gave this man, for the first time in three decades, a full majority in Lok Sabha in 2014.
When Mr Modi first became Chief Minister for the first time he was asked about his preference for the key positions in the Chief Minister’s Office. The only response he gave at the time was that he needed someone who could work long hours and could use technology. This reflected a key virtue in Mr Modi to enthuse new thinking and freshness in the old rusting steel frame of India that still is the bureaucracy. In fact, bureaucrats recall that a new CM designate initially called the Chief Secretary ‘Sir’ as that was how he was in awe of the experience such bureaucrats carried on their shoulders. When he first met the officers as CM designate in Gujarat he waited for them to sit before he himself sat down, a refreshing change from the quintessential politician turned ministers who treat government as their fiefdoms.
Mr Modi came to Delhi on the back of four electoral victories as Chief Minister of Gujarat. This was for the first time that a leader who had never been in Parliament became a viable and favoured candidate for Prime Minister. This in itself was enough to create strong opinions in his favour and even against him. To Mr Modi’s credit, he secured the first single-party majority in thirty years in 2014.
Mr Modi’s election to the office of Prime Minister in 2014 forever altered the status quo, shifted the poles and the very nature of politics in the country. The political thinking of the citizenry was fired up more than ever before. The earlier cynicism and indifference towards politics was replaced by strong opinions on political issues amongst the average Indian citizen.
Mr Modi has carefully preserved his ability to be relatable despite long years in office. This has been possible only by a conscious effort that his admirers would say are aligned with his personality. When he was to move into the official residence of the Chief Minister in Gujarat, all he requested that the large throne-like chair of Mr Keshubhai Patel, his predecessor, be replaced by a more ordinary chair that was already in use. No new purchase was his only request. In fact, insiders even say that Modi had no desire to even see the entire expanse of his Chief Ministerial bungalow or now his Lok Kalyan Marg residence as he’s a loner and with no family pressures, his office space, meeting rooms and his personal chambers are the only areas he uses most.
This quality of political persona which is of a loner and most of his colleagues in the Cabinet also claim that there is no one who knows what’s on his mind or what his views on many subjects are — yet he carries an innate ability of outreach overshadowing conventional means of mass communication like the media, making him a force to be reckoned with in the hustings. A “Mukhiya” of every voters’ family with whom they find an instant connect.
The leadership of Mr Modi is cast in its own mould for various reasons. As President Pranab Mukherjee once told Mr Modi shortly after he became Prime Minister, all previous Prime Ministers reached the high office by anointment including Nehru who was anointed by Mahatma Gandhi and the British. When Nehru passed on, Lal Bahadur Shastri replaced him and then Indira Gandhi replaced Shastri and Rajiv Gandhi replaced his mother when she was martyred. None of them became PM first time through elections. Mr Modi was the first to come to the office for the first time on a truly popular upswing in his favour at first within the party and then across the electorate.
The ideological moorings of Mr Modi have been stark and clear from the very beginning. He upended the centre-left consensus that continued even during the tenure of Mr Vajpayee. The opposition however reacted by moving even further to the left and reducing themselves by the 2019 elections to an obscurantist cult led by Mr Rahul Gandhi and the soothsayers of socialism as his advisors. Such a shift in public opinion requires flexibility of the kind that brought Tony Blair to power with New Labour after years of Thatcherite rule.
It was quite clear that Ram Mandir and Article 370 — ‘articles of faith’ for the BJP — were no longer just a mention in the manifesto. They have today become a reality because of Mr Modi’s unwavering tenacity to achieve these outcomes in his tenure. Two out of three foundational promises of the BJP are today realised.
Mr Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat heralded the state into the position of being the best place to do business in India. The focus on developing economic and social infrastructure was at the core of his legacy in the state. Mr Modi on becoming Prime Minister sought to make the same a part of the core of his agenda.
Several significant reforms including the ushering in of the Goods and Services Tax, a new insolvency framework and consistent improvement in the ease of doing business have marked his tenure. Mr Modi has not shied away from a political confrontation in favour of reform. The recent farm reforms opening up opportunities for farmers to access the market without the inefficient and exploitative mandi system demonstrated just that. This is a remarkable contrast from Dr Manmohan Singh who buckled at every stage when it came to a fight for economic reform.
It is, however, equally true that the country continues to be afflicted with overwhelming challenges to the economy that began before the pandemic and stand worsened by the pandemic. India is in crying need of transformational economic reforms to unleash its true potential. Priority areas such as banking and infrastructure investment require urgent and focussed intervention. Mr Modi’s agenda of minimum government maximum governance remains an unfinished agenda which hopefully will be the centrepiece of the rest of his tenure. The country needs Mr Modi to use his enormous political capital to see these reforms through.
Mr Modi, whether you support him or not, has changed Indian politics and thinking within government forever. The next phase of his political tenure shall be most crucial in determining his legacy and exalted position in history.