On paper, of course, Manmohan Singh had better credentials.
An education at Oxford and Cambridge, complete with a professorship at the elite Delhi School of Economics and a successful career as an economist. So, it’s not entirely difficult to imagine that a Teacher’s Day interaction with hundreds of school students, broadcast across the country, could’ve been a platform crafted just for him.
But nothing of the sort happened during Singh’s 10 years as prime minister.
Instead, his successor, Narendra Modi, on Friday turned an unlikely celebration into a remarkable attempt to connect with India’s next generation. From New Delhi’s Manekshaw Centre, the prime minister reached out to presumably millions of school children—the exact number who tuned in is difficult to ascertain—and subtly sold his story of rising to the top of India’s democratic system, something Singh never really attempted.
After an unusually ordinary speech, the expectedly rehearsed questions that a group of children from across the country fielded were answered with spontaneity. Modi seemed relaxed, patient, funny and honest—he even admitted to stapling people’s clothes together at weddings during his childhood.
Those who claimed that India knew very little about prime minister Modi, the man, now have a little to chew on.
In all, he spent nearly two hours at the event, even as Australian prime minister Tony Abbott arrived in town to seal a civil nuclear deal.
When a student from Manipur’s capital, Imphal, asked Modi how he could become the prime minister of India, first there was a guffaw and then the short answer: “Start preparing for 2024.”
The more serious reply that followed credited India’s democratic framework for allowing anyone, including him, to lead the country. “If you can win the respect and love of the country, then any Indian child can reach this place,” said Modi, whose expansive election campaign had repeatedly flagged his rise from a teenage tea seller.
Singh had no easy childhood either. “I was born into a family of modest means, in a village without a doctor or a teacher, no hospital, no school, no electricity. I had to walk miles every day to go to school,” he said in 2011. But he always remained reluctant to play it up, despite being somewhat lionized by the Indian middle-class after he became prime minister in 2004.
In his 2014 book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, Sanjaya Baru, Singh’s media advisor during his first term, writes:
I once said to him that his life story was comparable to Barack Obama’s and his professional achievements greater than Obama’s. Obama made history by becoming America’s first black President. Dr Singh, too, made history by becoming India’s first prime minister from a minority community.
Modi’s performance wasn’t entirely flawless either. He spoke almost entirely in Hindi, though the event was being broadcast nationwide including in non-Hindi speaking states. A handful of students even asked their questions in English.
And then there was a somewhat convoluted explanation of climate change that the prime minister offered. “Climate has not changed. We have changed…our tolerance and habits have changed. If we change then God has built the system in such a way that it can balance on its own,” he told a student from Assam.
But little of that is likely to matter in the long run because the decision to connect with India’s future electorate is undoubtedly a smart one.