Narendra Modi is not Reagan. Or Obama. Or Evita. Or Margaret Thatcher

This portrait evokes connections.
This portrait evokes connections.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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One of the most astonishing sights during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent rock star performance at Madison Square Garden was the abundance of likenesses of an iconic American political poster designed by Shepard Fairey, with Modi’s image sitting in for that of the now-US President. This was a purposeful connection, of course, since much of Modi’s campaign strategy for the 2014 election was modeled after the historic and groundbreaking 2008 victory of Barack Obama. In India, these innovations proved all the more dramatic when contrasted with the more slow-footed dynast-aurs of the Congress Party, and helped cement a certain image of Modi as a man of the future. (This was no doubt pleasing to acolytes so desperate to leave the past, or a certain part of it related to Modi’s Chief Minister-ship in Gujarat, behind.)

It is perhaps ironic, then, that many stories that have run since the new government has taken power have tried to define Modi as a man of history. The premise is that Modi can best be understood by drawing parallels with major figures from the past whom he closely resembles. His detractors leap to a certain mid-twentieth-century German leader, drawing eye-rolls and shrugs from many for whom there was and always will be only one Hitler, and anger from his ardent supporters who feel he is being unfairly maligned. Other standards of comparison meant more positively have included Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Evita Peron, Lee Kuan Yew, and Obama himself. This typecasting-by-analogy is meant to make Modi more understandable to broad swaths of the global public for whom he remains an unknown, a clone whose likeness to the original is so overwhelming that he practically represents a reincarnation. (This is also not a trend limited to coverage of Modi by any means, as a famous Time magazine cover of Obama-as-FDR demonstrates).

The comparisons of Modi are based on real or perceived similarities to his historical brethren, and they perhaps do provide some framework for helping to understand him, or that element of sameness in him, in the present day. But the very multitude of connections undermines any claim to a second coming of any one, particular figure. Modi is many things, because he is, ultimately, unique. He’s his own thing, but a clear product of history as well.

Modi claims to be a self-made man, and this is undoubtedly true. Many see his rise from tea seller to the highest office in the land as inspirational, emblematic of a new Indian Dream (one clearly modeled after the one enjoyed and heralded by cousins who previously crossed the Atlantic [or the Pacific]) that reassures that if one aspires, one will achieve. But Modi’s self-making extends beyond simply pulling himself up by his chappal straps. He and his handlers have seen to it that every tweet, every hologram, every facet of his public persona is finely crafted and controlled, and this machinery of invention is so thorough and extensive as to constitute a virtual factory of self-manufacturing, image-making on an industrial scale.

Modi does not reflect so many figures of the past by accident, but rather purposefully, exemplified in his adoption of Obama campaign tactics, for the new Prime Minister seeks to draw lessons from the methods of success of his predecessors. What works in getting the message across, or in creating a “bridge to the people” a la Evita, is adopted, though adapted to fit Modi and his desired outcome. Jawaharlal Nehru too was rapturously received on his world tours, even—especially—in the United States (in 1949). And so Nehru’s jacket, long a symbol of India’s first prime minister and his much-different outlook, re-emerges in saffron color to fit a new ideological view, to summon the spirit of past success while banishing the ghost of its former bearer. It is in this same mode that Open Magazine ran a celebratory post-election cover of Modi with the startling banner headline “Triumph of the Will.”

Despite this effort to tightly control the narrative, or rather because of it, Manufactured Modi is by the very design of cherry-picked historical trappings someone who appears differently to different audiences. He is, just as Obama was before him, a human Rorschach test. True Believers see qualities like strength, vision, efficiency, and productivity where others see authoritarian tendencies.

Just who is the true Modi? Is he a pro-business technocrat? Is he a hardscrabble manager who will make India’s notoriously cumbersome bureaucracy work? Is he a dogmatic, exclusionary person who puts creed and religion first? Is he a messiah of cleanliness, functionality, and service? Is he a democrat who listens or one who dictates? Some combination of these things? What exactly is the desired outcome that Modi’s PR is trying to facilitate?

The real task lies in understanding in all its nuances the ideology that drives Modi, and not in figuring out what person he most resembles. History is a powerful but complex force and it is impossible to extract elements from the particular contexts and ideas that gave rise to them.

To be champions of the future requires a wariness of dangers presented by certain courses of action, and this awareness, informed by deep readings of the past and present, can only come if criticisms of every idea and policy are welcomed and debated in a healthy and productive way in the public sphere.

It is true that a race to the future cannot be won by looking backwards, but neither can anyone actually outrun the past.