I recently attended the grand Indian diaspora event in Singapore with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In today’s 24×7 media and internet connected world, I have, like many of you, been glued to the rhetoric and efforts of this man. Listening to him live just makes it so much more real, unleashing raw emotions, aspirations and patriotism. It also unleashed a flurry of thoughts that I aim to capture in this article – not so much on what transpired, but why it did.
Needless to say it was an electric atmosphere, with 18,000 Indians chanting and screaming themselves hoarse. The fact that we have come to take this for granted from him is anything but ordinary, not just for a political leader, but for any celebrity. My thoughts, however, dwell on why this man evokes such ecstatic responses from diverse demographics.
PM Modi’s oratory is widely acknowledged, even by his harshest critics, as exemplary, and the live experience only reinforces that impression. You realise that not once, in an hour long speech, does he ever refer to any notes or prompts. Yet, at the end of a day packed with diplomatic engagements, he is able to engage an 18,000-strong crowd on climate change, hygiene, culture, business, foreign policy and railways. Ever in his element, he conveys his messages through a combination of storytelling, passion and rhetorical devices. With his analogies and flair for storytelling, you find yourself nodding in agreement because the human behaviour he speaks of is so relatable to our everyday lives, even as he calls us to change the way we live to transform society. With his raw passion, you can’t help but admire the energy and patriotism in a 65 year old who works 18-20 hours a day dealing with complex issues in a complex country. With his rhetoric, he effortlessly mixes humour with serious themes to make messages memorable.
But the man is so much more than just lip service. As he boldly declared, there is not a single accusation of corruption on his government after 18 months in power. He keeps repeating this in every speech, but it never gets redundant because it rings so true. He is effectively sticking his neck out and challenging the public, the opposition and the media to prove a single instance of corruption against his government, now or in the future. How’s that for accountability? This is mind boggling in a country renowned for corruption at all levels of government and bureaucracy. Being in my mid-twenties, I have followed Indian politics for barely a decade, so I can’t even imagine the feeling for people from other generations, some of whom have probably bemoaned the corrupt system since India’s independence in 1947! This is but one of many fields where the current government has been refreshingly progressive – from bureaucratic efficiency and technology investments to infrastructure development and foreign affairs, the policies seem deliberate and strong steps in the right direction.
Thus, it is his passion (in motivation), sincerity (in intention) and authenticity (in action), that makes hundreds of millions of us invest our emotions and hopes in his leadership. For a nation, long suppressed by a vicious cycle of a dysfunctional polity and a ‘chalta hai’ public attitude, here is a leader acting with a refreshingly new approach and issuing a rallying cry to change our mindsets to make this transformation truly people-driven.
Like many NRIs, I frequently think about how to make India a better country. Our passions constrained by circumstance and distance, we NRIs have a tendency to get quite emotional about India. And team Modi sure knows how to tug at the heartstrings of our community! From the cultural performances before the speech (including Maa Tujhe Salaam, of course!) to slick, professional, feel-good videos urging you to contribute to government initiatives, it is an emotional experience. The Indian diaspora craves any connection to the motherland, and this is probably the first government to recognise value in actively engaging us.
Memorably, he summarised his foreign policy in one neat statement: “Na hum aankh jukhaa kar ke baat karenge, na hi hum aankh dikhaa kar ke baat karenge, hum duniya se aankh milaa kar ke baat karenge, baraabari se baat karenge” (Translation: In the international stage when dealing with other countries, we will not look down submissively, we will not stare aggressively, but we will make our eyes meet as equals). This may sound like simple rhetoric, but its socio-political impact may be underrated.
Many reading this article have faced the ignominy of foreigners preaching about how backward, unclean and corrupt India is. Despite the fact that it is a one-sided view ignoring unique strengths of our society, we know they are right about the flaws in the country. Even after the typically fierce “but India has a great history” retort, we look down embarrassed and helpless. Decades of this experience has manifested itself as a subconscious submissiveness in our international engagements, as a nation and as individuals. But here we have a leader, who is not pursuing meaningless jingoism, but attempting to correct the flaws and lift the collective confidence of his people to succeed in an inter-connected world. Isn’t that the classic definition of leadership?
But leaders need to be backed by strong teams. In this, PM Modi is clear, that his team is not merely his cabinet or his MPs, but is team India. His efforts at inspiring people’s contributions to government strategies are novel. For almost every initiative, from the Clean India campaign to even easing the fiscal deficit (#giveitup), he seeks the common man’s participation.
He ended his speech with a clarion call that we should stop singing paeans about our historical accomplishments as a prelude to a hypothetical great future, but rather take inspiration from the past, change our mindset, put in the hard work and collaborate towards achieving a better future.
It is on this note that I walked out that day – with immense optimism, hope and a deep desire to contribute to the transformation of India in whatever way I can.
The views expressed in this article are personal and do not in any way represent the views of any organization.
Dear Dr. Shashi Tharoor,
I first got interested in diplomacy and the United Nations as a teenager, around the same time you emerged as a strong contender for the post of UN Secretary-General. Regardless of that result, I was fascinated by your career as the most successful Indian in the field. My fascination soon turned into fandom as I was inspired by watching your interviews and speeches. I memorised your TEDtalk, I aspired for the Tufts MALD program, I rattled off your remarkable achievements in casual conversations ; so much so, that my friends started referring to me whenever they heard or read your name. You were my idol.
And then you decided to enter Indian politics. That decision gave millions of people, like me, hope that our rotting political system can change. You were our ideal MP – highly educated global thinker, eloquent speaker and a seasoned politician; a combination of competency, experience and integrity rarely seen before in Indian politics. Regardless of which party’s ticket you ran with, people would have voted for you in 2009 – as evidenced by your thumping margin of victory despite being an outsider to Thiruvananthapuram politics.
But 2014 is a whole new ballgame.
The mood of the country has changed, hopefully irrevocably. Over the last few years, the UPA and most state governments, across party lines, have engaged in open and blatant abuse of power. Corruption, nepotism, misgovernance and votebank politics have become alarmingly routine. But, more importantly, the emergence of a strong media determined to showcase stunning exposés and the mass awakening against corruption, led by Anna Hazare, has led to dizzying levels of political awareness in India. People want change. We will oppose identity politics, we will reject dynastic politics, and most of all, we will punish brazen corruption. You, of all Parliamentarians, should recognise this trend and join us in eliminating these archaic and immoral practices.
But, these days, the more I listen to your interviews, hear your speeches and read your tweets, the more it seems you have lost your once fiercely independent voice. Before you joined Indian politics, you have openly criticised the Congress Party, its “true dynastic tradition”1 and its corrupt core. In your book, From Midnight to Millennium, while recollecting Rajiv Gandhi’s term you wrote that after a promising campaign, “the rot set in…Compromise followed sellout as New Delhi returned to business as usual”  as this government too was charged with massive corruption. Do you honestly believe that Sonia Gandhi, the woman you are so loyal to now, and the other Congress stalwarts who continue to rule today, were not involved in what you yourself call, the “sellout”? Yet, just last month, despite the deluge of corruption scandals over the last few years, you unambiguously defended the UPA’s term harping on outdated phrases and a spasm of extravagant statistic-listing in The Indian Express . You call India a “thriving, entrepreneurial and globalised economy”, when inflation, investment levels, balance of payments, the Rupee’s value and other key economic indicators have all worsened exponentially. You declare that the UPA is responsible for substantial employment generation, despite The Economic and Political Weekly and even a government study terming these numbers grossly exaggerated  . You even go so far as to state that “the UPA governance has changed the face of our society”. Yes, Dr. Tharoor, it has. And the face of our society is mutilated beyond recognition.
Please realise that every day you continue to endorse and defend the Congress Party, you lose your own moral high ground and become part of the herd of mindless politicians this country has unfortunately elected. It is, quite frankly, insulting to see educated ministers not having the courage and honesty to admit obvious lapses in governance and then absolve the UPA government of all corruption cases without trial. It is, quite frankly, embarrassing to see experienced parliamentarians, including yourself, acting like court sycophants, falling over each other to praise ‘Rahul baba’, a man with no notable experience or achievement . Let the other obsequious partymen sacrifice their self-respect and dignity at the altar of the Nehru-Gandhi family. You, Sir, deserve more. You have accomplishments of your own throughout your glittering career as a diplomat. You deserve respect from common people like me. And we need educated, independent and sensible voices in Parliament. Please do not sacrifice our hopes of change by succumbing to the Congress disease of sycophancy and dynastic politics.
I do not ask you to jump into the Modi camp either. It doesn’t need extensive research to know that you are ideologically against what the BJP stands for. I am no fan of the BJP; I believe the BJP has been a grossly irresponsible opposition party guilty of insulting Parliament through regular disruptions and corruption at the state-level on countless occasions. As a Bangalorean, I was thrilled when the BJP lost the Karnataka elections last year. Because it proved to me, as it did to you, that Indian voters were ready to punish, in your own words, “flagrant financial malfeasance…charges of nepotism and crony capitalism, real-estate and mining scandals, policy paralysis” . But in your Project Syndicate article, you took that premise and somehow managed to come to the conclusion that it bodes well for the Congress. You are far too experienced a politician for me to expect that you do not recognise the massive failures of the UPA government, or the current political climate against the UPA. The Congress-led central government is guilty of everything the BJP-led Karnataka government was, but on a larger, more devastating scale.
I do not discount your significant contributions as Member of Parliament, Foreign Minister and Human Resource Minister. But as a well-wisher and a patriot, this is my plea: please, leave the Congress Party.
Contest as an independent and voice your independent opinion in parliament. Continue all the good work you have been doing in your constituency . I have heard first-hand that Thiruvananthapuram has changed for the better since 2009 because of your active and sensible leadership. Continue raising India’s international profile using your invaluable experience as a former UN diplomat. Your proactivity and sensitivity as Foreign Minister was instrumental in nurturing important diplomatic relationships with states across the world as evidenced by numerous testimonies . Continue contributing to our policymaking in Parliamentary committees. Your initiatives have found support across party lines primarily because your reasoning is backed by a career of political and developmental expertise. And finally, continue giving us hope that capable and honest individuals can exist in Parliament. In fact, beyond setting an example, you could lead the charge and promote the idea to other qualified, educated, and most importantly, honest people across the country.
I have faith, Sir. I have faith in you and in our country. Millions of my peers do to. Please do not disappoint us.
A well-wisher, desperate for change in India.