Modi isn’t a messiah, don’t expect miracles

Can one man, no matter how brilliant or well-meaning, transform a vast nation?


Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Guwahati on 24 May. Photo: Biju Boro/AFP
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Guwahati on 24 May. Photo: Biju Boro/AFP

The messianic qualities attributed to the Prime Minister, even by economists, are puzzling to me. I am referring to the excitement over the miracles that the next three years are sure to bring. No escaping this in any newspaper you pick up these days.

What is this idea that one well-meaning, brilliant individual can transform this nation based on? Where is the evidence for it?

We are a 5,000-year-old (now 8,000-year-old, according to the latest reports) civilization. We have surely not been lacking in the right leaders.

Many great men have ruled India, in part or full, before. Many have been responsible for change. The Earl of Dalhousie brought in the railways in an age when caste prevented Hindus from sharing seats with strangers. Think about what a brilliant change that must have been. Today, 163 years after that, our ambition is limited to one (totally unnecessary) bullet train route. William Bentinck abolished sati, in one stroke stopping Hindus from murdering their widows. In our times, we are still struggling with stopping open defecation and littering. Can we acknowledge that great individuals can make limited difference in populations of this size? And, as I said, we have not been lacking in outstanding and well-meaning helmsmen.

I do not know how many Indians are taught that Mountstuart Elphinstone introduced the first real schools in the 1800s. Elphinstone might have said, and rightly, that his act would bring, in time, achche din (good days) in this den of ignorance and superstition.

Or that Thomas Macaulay, who is more India’s Solon than Manu, wrote our laws.

We have been familiar with first-rate warrior-statesmen in these parts before. The letter A alone gives us Albuquerque, Aurangzeb, Akbar and Ashok.

I wonder how many of our youngsters can look at these four men and appreciate them for their skill, capacity and achievement. I fear not many. Today, more than ever, the Indian’s true achievement is to be born into his religion. It is good to be, as I am, savarna, upper class, urban, Hindu and male.

Those who are not, no matter their achievement, no matter their ability, no matter even their intent, must first answer to the charge of being born Muslim.

Anyway, so no, it is not that we have been awaiting the arrival of one man, this Prime Minister, to change our fortunes. Others, in my opinion greater than him, have come and gone before in history, many, many times.

Why look far? We last had a prime minister whom US President Barack Obama apparently called his guru, and rightly. Manmohan Singh is a genuine intellectual of the sort few nations have had leading them. If the UN still places India 150th in per capita GDP, it is not because we have never had a giant from Gujarat lead us before Narendra Modi. Mahatma Gandhi was a great man, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a great man, Vallabhbhai Patel also. If we are still where we are, it is because it is not one man, no matter how touched by genius, who will save us.

I also find the Hindutva faith in deliverance through a saviour touching but paradoxical.

The idea of the messiah comes naturally to the people of the desert. The Semitic faiths live on harsh land. They have needed saviours like Abraham and Noah and Moses and Christ and Muhammad to bring hope in a parched and difficult land. The Palestinian prophets did not stop coming and the monotheists hated having their faith superseded, producing the strife that continues.

We are different. We are the people of the river and the jungle (Sanskrit jangala doesn’t mean dense forest but the dry bush we see everywhere). That is why we have not produced messianic faiths but animist ones.

So when I see reports, particularly from economists, which say we are on the cusp of shattering change, I worry that they are either buying into Hindutva pap or smoking the wrong stuff.

The Prime Minister said at his two-year celebration that we must not heed the pessimists who were only ever out to run India down.

I notice he expends much energy on what others think of his government. He should just get on with it. He should also assure himself that most people he sees as antagonists are really unconcerned with him personally.

I am not being a stick in the mud and am not in the least interested in applauding Indian failures merely because Hindutva is at the helm.

But can we introduce some realism, by which I mean educating people on what to expect till 2019? We are the world’s fastest growing major economy, and a bright spark amid all the gloom, etc. Yet we are also an economy in recovery (a recovery which, according to the Reserve Bank of India governor, is uneven and stressed).

So far as the happy days that are just around the corner go, any economic miracle that is conditional on the monsoon delivering may turn out to be lame.

We should expect, in these next 36 months, exactly the same sort of thing, give or take, that has been going on for the last 24 months. If you feel that the last 24 months have been satisfactory, as I do, that’s quite all right. But if you’re anticipating something miraculous, I have to break it to you that this is not going to happen. India is not a land that has produced messiahs.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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