I want the Narendra Modi who goes abroad to be the Prime Minister of India. And I want the Modi who is Prime Minister of India never to go abroad. Let me explain.
If you followed Modi’s recent visit to the US, you’d have marvelled at the ease of his demeanour there. He was casual to the point of being convivial, and refreshingly accessible to the many ordinary people who wished to approach him.
A man who is haughtily authoritarian at home was candid and discursive. On one occasion, he was sentimental and autobiographical, treating his American audience—and by extension the world—to a somewhat “filmi” but nonetheless moving cameo about his mother. He may as well have uttered that finest line ever spoken in Hindi cinema: “Mere paas maa hai.” He even indulged in some vicarious filial piety on behalf of his new BFF Mark, by getting the Zuckerberg parents to stand up in the audience and soak up the applause.
Modi was rational and Cartesian, touting the best of India’s virtues to the West, appealing to an alliance of science between Silicon Valley and his motherland. His choice of pilgrimage—to the heartland of American tech—spoke of a desire to engage with America’s scientific and utilitarian leaders. It spoke of a craving to project India as a modern, competitive nation whose leader pays court to—and is, in return, courted by—Facebook, Microsoft and Google.
This aspirational symmetry and drama of techie togetherness was augmented by the fact that two of his most prominent hosts were of Indian origin.
There’s an old Irish expression: Street angel, house devil. It’s used to describe a man who’s jolly and bonhomous when out and about—in the pub, at work, in church—and, by contrast, unpleasant at home. While not suggesting that there’s any of the devil in Modi’s domestic persona, there’s no question that the man who administers India displays—when in India—none of the “street” niceties that he flaunts when he takes himself out into the wider world.
As if to illustrate this glaring difference between Modi Abroad and Desi Modi—to highlight the contrast in near-perfect “laboratory” conditions—a Muslim citizen of India was murdered in a village near Delhi within hours of the PM’s return from the Mandir of Modernity that is Silicon Valley. He was murdered by a mob who suspected him of eating beef. Those of us who had applauded Modi’s obeisance to innovation in California—and his refreshing humility, for he’d come as a petitioner in India’s cause—awaited a response to the lynching that was at least as scientific as his play for attention in America.
More than two weeks later, we still await a blunt condemnation of the murder from Modi. There is absolutely no science in his response. His reaction has, instead, been driven by expediency, and has been couched in terms so deliberately general that we have to conclude that he either doesn’t see what
was so wrong with the lynching of a man on charges of beef-eating, or is uncomfortable with saying aloud things that will antagonise his Hindutva hinterland. I’m not sure which is the more depressing.
This isn’t the Modi who goes abroad. This isn’t the Modi that Messrs Zuckerberg, Nadella or Pichai met. If only India could be governed by the man who stifled a sob in Silicon Valley, and not by the man who stifles the science in his soul in response to a political murder.
The writer is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.