The Modi Magic

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

One of the ways in which people judge their leaders is the extent to which the latter deliver on their electoral pledges, especially when the next election is due. I remember that before their last general election in Australia, a scoring system was devised based on which the performance of the outgoing government was assessed. This was discussed in an article in The Conversation, and broadly if my memory serves me right, it would appear that across the board in different sectors of the economic and social spectrum, less than 50% of targets had been reached. There was some comparison with other countries, where roughly the score was more or less the same.

The performance of the leaders in some big democracies was much less than what had been anticipated based on their respective electoral manifestos. Not so with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom the people of India returned to power a second time round with an even greater majority than the first time. Photo –

I may be wrong on the actual figure, but the point is that the performance of the leaders in some big democracies was much less than what had been anticipated based on their respective electoral manifestos.

Not so with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom the people of India returned to power a second time round with an even greater majority than the first time. One of the major reasons surely would have been because they had been satisfied with his performance on a number of fronts – rural electrification, development of renewable energy (especially solar), expansion of sanitary requirements such as provision of potable water and toilets (nearly 100,000 new ones built) which resulted in the reduction of water-borne infections in children, more girl students going to school and a significant decrease in the practice of open defaecation. Along with these, there was the launching of the Swacch Bharat (Clean India) campaign, the opening of hundreds of millions of bank accounts by the rural population, lifting tens of millions out of poverty though this is still too high comparatively. All told – and of course there was much negative criticism by the opposition and others – therefore, this record was deemed good enough by a majority of India’s population to re-elect Narendra Modi.

And, as it has been drummed into our heads, that’s democracy.

In the case of Modi, the expression Modi magic has been used. As I listened to him on the occasion of the Bhoomi Pujan at Ayodhya three days ago, to which he had been invited by the Temple Trust set up on order of the Supreme Court in its judgement on the Ram Mandir issue, I had the same feeling of being enthralled by both the contents of his address and his delivery as I had been when I first heard him speak.

That was in 1997, when he accompanied Murli Manohar Joshi, a BJP leader, to the International Ramayana Conference that was being held at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. I was invited to join in for a cup of tea with him by a couple of friends who were there, and we interacted for nearly half an hour. He was then, as I was to learn later, a simple karyakarta (worker) of the BJP based in New Delhi, and had not yet been a candidate in elections. While we were waiting, it was Yashwant Pathak who was giving his talk inside the auditorium. I had met him during an earlier visit of his – he had stepped down from his chair of pharmacology at Wisconsin University to devote himself entirely to the work of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, being responsible for North America and Europe. We ‘connected’ because as it happened my own Prof of pharmacology way back in 1969 in Kolkata had done his PhD in Wisconsin – as we say, it’s a small world. Anyway, I remember that Yashwant too had spoken very well.

Next was Modiji’s turn. Much as I had been impressed by Yashwant Pathak’s speech, to say that I was overwhelmed by Modi’s oratorical skills is to put it mildly. Especially when my knowledge of Hindi was then more limited and I could make out perhaps 75% only of what he said. But what had struck me, as I recall, was that he spoke entirely in Hindi, and did not use a single word of English, in contrast to the other stalwarts who had intervened during those three days – including Murli Manohar Joshi (a physicist), who had interspersed their speeches with some English from time to time, as most English-speaking Indians do. This also led me to ask myself whether Modi knew any English. With due respect, in his white kurta pyjama he had looked like any average Indian of the kind I had met in Kolkata and elsewhere. And so my impression of him which, as it turned out, was erroneous. 

This was what I realized on listening to him when he visited the US as Prime Minister for the first time. ‘May the Force be with you’, he wished to the 60,000-strong crowd gathered at the Central Park in New York to celebrate a Global Citizens Concert. Familiarity with this catchphrase from ‘Star Wars’ connected him further to the mostly young people who listened to and wowed him as he delivered a short address in perfect grammatically correct English to them. I could sense that that was the Modi magic, the ability to connect with people of all ages, whether it is from a podium or when he breaches protocol, as he had done on India’s Independence Day the previous August – to mix and interact with the youngsters gathered there, to their obvious delight and pleasant surprise.

He seems to have a knack to reach out to youth, by direct contact with them as the example above shows, and probably also because he uses their preferred portal, social media, as much as they do. And the fact that he proclaims to the world that India is a young country of 800 million people under 35 years of age, in whom he believes and on whom he has pinned his trust and hope, repeatedly exhorting them to take their country forward. Before his election as prime minister, at a talk he gave at Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi in February 2013, he expressed his confidence in India’s youth, and he has been consistent in emphasizing this message since.

The ‘Force’ wish, which had come at the end of his speech, was preceded by his quoting the well-known Sanskrit universal prayer, a peace mantra, which he then translated into English to thunderous applause:

Sarve bhavantu sukhinah

Sarve santu niramayah

Sarve bhadrani pashyantu

Ma kaschit dukha bhagbhavet

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

‘May all be happy, may all be free from disease, may all enjoy prosperity, may none experience sorrow. Om peace, peace, peace’.

This is the same kind of universal message of peace that he conveyed once again in his address at Ayodhya, and once more I sat and listened to him, spellbound. 23 years on, he spoke with as much vigour and clarity as he had done at the MGI in 1997, and this time round I could grasp all that he had said, both the literal and the symbolic meaning of his message not only to his country but to the whole of the Indian diaspora as well as to Ram Bhakts – devotees of Rama – to be found around the world.

Building of the Ram Mandir was one of the items on his electoral manifesto. From the beginning of his mandate, he has been delivering on his pledges one by one. What more can one ask of the country’s leader? No wonder hundreds of millions want even more of the Modi magic…

* Published in print edition on 7 August 2020

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