Narendra Modi’s gloating victory speech was the wrong way to usher in India’s new era

May 17, 2014
May 17, 2014

There is a group of Indians—quite a large slice of them in fact—who have, over the course of months and years, slowly warmed to the idea of India governed by a Narendra Modi-led BJP.

These are globally traveled, well educated, English-speaking Indians who have doubts about Modi’s handling of the Gujarat riots and who often cite America’s denial of a visa to Modi as a reason for being suspicious of him.

These same Indians, and I count myself amongst them, have slowly changed their views about Modi and the BJP, helped in large part by the mismanagement and lack of leadership that the Congress Party displayed through ten long years that slowed the country’s economy and made corruption front and center in the electoral consciousness. Along came Modi speaking the language of development, or “vikas,” as he calls it—and promising to put India on the path to prosperity.

A large section of the Indian electorate was immediately won over. Others like me were slowly converted, and still others remained suspicious. Election day in India changed all that. As the results swept in, terms like “tsunami,” or rather, “tsunaMo,” were being evoked and the semantics of the landslide vote that the BJP got were being discussed. In the middle of the vote-counting day, after it was clear that the BJP won by a clear majority, the party leaders came out to speak to the press.

Rajnath Singh, the party president projected clarity and discipline at the first press conference. He instructed the party workers to clear the room for the media and warned the BJP foot soldiers not to use incendiary or hurtful language. He took questions and answered them with masterful dignity. All good, I thought.

Then came the controversial Amit Shah, who orchestrated a stupendous victory in Uttar Pradesh. He spoke to a popular Indian channel with an anchor who is used to shouting above his guests and handled the questions with canny aplomb. He didn’t duck any questions about in-fighting amongst the BJP and tackled questions about the Hindu fundamentalist leanings of his party head-on. Many of my Congress supporting friends often refer to Mr. Shah as a fixer, and that too, when they are being charitable. But the man came across as a “political genius” on TV, in the words of a Congress sympathizer I know.

At 4:30 pm came the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to make a statement, but not to take questions. Rahul Gandhi’s statement was pathetically short and he grinned goofily throughout the whole thing. He said two things: that the defeat would force them to think about what happened, and that he took responsibility for the defeat. His statement was widely panned, and added credibility to the accusation that Gandhi was an entitled man-child and a political amateur lacking leadership qualities.

As the day wore on, even the hardened critics of Narendra Modi seemed hopeful about the change sweeping the country, to use a tired political cliché. The BJP were acting like adults, as opposed to the sycophancy of the Congress party members who still kept kow-towing to the dynasty despite their rout.

In the evening, Narendra Modi addressed two rallies: one in Vadodara where he won by a decisive margin; and another at Ahmedabad, both in his home state of Gujarat.

As someone who has gone from a critic of Modi to someone who was quite taken by the BJP’s way of handling things, I was expecting great things from Modi’s speech. I was disappointed. The man gloated about his victory; seemed self-absorbed about his role in it; and had no sense of statesmanship.

Indian television anchors have frequently called the Congress Party “bitter” about their defeat. In my view, Modi seemed bitter. Consider the snippets from his speech that were translated as subtitles in television channels. “Rivals were busy mudslinging and maligning me. They made fun of the Gujarat model, called it a water balloon…. Even those vested interests didn’t realize what a magician Modi is…. Rivals are forced to follow me….”

It was not a victory speech, it was more like a stump speech at a political rally

While he invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s name, his speech was also self-referential. “Go on Youtube and you will see young children who can barely say Mummy or Daddy say, “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar (this time around, Modi’s government)”

He added folksy humor with a sting in the tail. “How can they call me anti-establishment when there is no establishment to begin with?”

The best thing that I can say for Modi’s speech is that it is an Indian version of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you.” In Modi’s words. What is over is over. Forget it. I want to make all of you soldiers of development. If 125 crore people take a step forward, that is equal to 125 crore steps.”

The man is entitled to savor his win. But his arrogant, narcissistic tone gives me pause. Unlike outgoing prime minister, Manmohan Singh, Modi engages with the public. Unlike Dr. Singh, Modi has little humility to display. He is, to flip General Douglas MacArthur’s words, “proud and unbending” in victory; and hardly “humble and gentle” towards the losers.

Like much of India, I too am ready for the great purge of government that is happening now. Unlike much of India, I am not a full Modi-convert yet. I think the man needs to tone it down a notch. If he is going to take the country and the various parties along with him as he promises to do, he needs to quit blaming the opposition and share the spoils of victory. The Indian media have called this a presidential election. Now the man who will be India’s next Prime Minister needs to sound Presidential.

Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at deas@qz.com.

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