Updated: September 18, 2020 10:10:17 am
Jawaharlal Nehru had some unique advantages. Considered to be Mahatma Gandhi’s political heir, he became the first PM and continued for 17 long years without any challenge. As the first PM of independent India, he had an obvious head start. Besides, his attractive personality and the perception that he will take India to a modern world contributed to the charisma that was gradually built around him. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, also had charisma, a sizable part of which she inherited from her father. Besides her decisive leadership, being the first woman PM of India also contributed to her charisma. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the other most charismatic PM. Besides his achievements like Pokhran-2 and the Golden Quadrilateral, his inimitable oratory and poetry too contributed to his charisma. However, post-Vajpayee, it can be reasonably argued that the era of charismatic leadership is over. The millennial voter of the 21st century is more business-like in her approach. This approach demands good intent coupled with honest and intelligent efforts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi satisfies these criteria completely. Add to this, his innovative ideas for good governance and his mind-boggling ability to work extraordinarily hard. He has taken the leadership discourse in India beyond charisma.
Since May 2014, PM Modi has established several things. He has shown that non-Congress governments, even after remaining in power for a full term, can successfully renew and improve on their popular mandate. He is known not just for his decisiveness but also a strong political will emerging from his courage of conviction. Driven by a strong sense of purpose, he has tried to restore the centrality of being result-oriented, something the millennial generation values greatly. He reaches out to the electorate effectively, establishes a strong popular connect and earns a mandate. He then moves ahead, unwaveringly, taking decisions in the national interest, without unduly worrying about their popularity.
To his credit are not just big economic reforms like GST and replacing the Planning Commission with the Niti Aayog, or political reforms like the abrogation of Article 370 and the CAA, but also several seemingly small but effective governance reforms. Advancing the schedule of the Budget Session of Parliament, he seamlessly ensured adequate time for the full utilisation of budgeted funds. Early this year, his government created a new Union Territory merging Daman-Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, an apparently small step that facilitated administrative convenience and huge financial savings. Similarly, converting bamboo from a notified forest produce to a farm produce also had a huge impact as several lakhs of farmers have benefited from this.
Vested interests are the most dreaded enemy of good governance and Modi is out to break this nexus. For the benefit of farmers, he has freed the trading of farm produce from the iron grip of a handful of dalals. Thanks to a strong network of vested interests, liberalisation of farm produce markets was ignored by past governments.
Similarly, in Railways, where rivalries between different services were harming the common interest, the government has now dissolved them into a common service cadre. PM Modi’s government is also actively working towards merging the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha TV channels as two independent channels for one unified Parliament are a luxury.
His courage of conviction is evident in many of his decisions. When it came to gender issues and atrocities on women, he minced no words in asking parents to be mindful of the late-night outdoor activities of boys and not just put restrictions on girls. Again, a year ago, he openly cautioned Indians about the increasing population, asking young couples to think of the prospects of their kids before starting a family. Recently, while addressing educationists, he bluntly observed that in our country, so far we were only taught about “what to think” instead of “how to think”, and the NEP is set to change this. Decisions like emphasis on education in the mother tongue without imposing any language on any group, carving out a separate quota for the economically backward and allowing lateral entry for non-IAS personnel in government are examples of his balanced approach.
Modi is also a great innovator. He introduced the crowd-sourcing of ideas and solutions through the aggressive use of social media. Thanks to him, India is rapidly moving upwards on the global innovation index. Hackathons are now a routine annual national activity. His ideas like the Ek Bharat-Shreshtha Bharat programme to ensure emotional integration, or Mann ki Baat for direct communication with the masses or introducing Swachhta Ranking for cities and towns are a few examples of his out-of-the-box thinking. Also remarkable is his decision to convert the Nehru Memorial and Library at Teen Murti in Delhi into a museum for all prime ministers — a decision in the spirit of democracy.
At 70, with path-breaking reforms in governance, Modi has shown how Indian democracy can deliver. One of the most significant contributions to his credit is snatching representative democracy from the jaws of cynicism. Rarely does one see a leader, pilloried by previous regimes, assailed by the media and ignored by academia — being rewarded by the people for his performance. That is truly moving beyond charisma.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 18, 2020 under the title ‘Leadership beyond charisma’. The writer is president, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, and a Rajya Sabha MP of the BJP.
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