No one jokes about Narendra Modi. If you google “Narendra Modi jokes”, you get links to news items about Modi joking about something, or Congress statements that “Rahul vs Modi” is a joke. But when you google “Manmohan Singh jokes” or “Rahul Gandhi jokes”, hundreds of authentic gags pop up. And Twitter overflows daily with cheeky one-liners about them. But no one jokes about Modi. Apparently, you can hate him or love him, but he has left no scope in the public space for satire, irony or disdain.
Modi is clearly a force the likes of which Indian politics has not seen for decades. And when on Wednesday, at the Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), he delivered his first speech in Delhi after his victory in Gujarat, what one saw was a man at the top of his game. At the very least, it was a lesson to every Indian politician on what to say and how to say it to young Indians.
The statistic we are constantly bludgeoned with is that nearly 60% of India is under the age of 40. A recent Asian Development Bank report mentions a more palpable figure: a million young Indians will be joining the workforce every month for the next 20 years. This is both terrifying and exhilarating. How Indian polity and economy respond to this will, quite simply, determine the country’s future for the next 50 years. If these massive waves of aspiration find no productive network of channels, we could be looking at a disaster of unimaginable scale: a tsunami of anarchic despair. At SRCC, Modi faced 1,800 soon-to-be members of that great wave. Yes, they will be among the most privileged (SRCC is the country’s top commerce college), but Modi’s words went out to millions of other young men and women looking for their destinies, which will in time shape India’s future.
No one writing about what Modi said can escape comparing it with Rahul Gandhi’s speeches to the youth. Rahul, whose party has been in power at the Centre for most of the years India has been independent (and currently for eight straight years), talks usually of a rotting corrupt exclusionary system and appeals to the young that only they can change it. In contrast, Modi, who has ruled Gujarat for more than a decade now, showered the audience with examples to prove that he has brought great prosperity to Gujarat, using the same laws, officials, government machinery—that is, the same system. Underlying message: Stop blaming the system, because the system is you, and you can do better if you want to.
Anant Rangaswami has very perceptively pointed out in firstpost.com: “Decode (Modi’s) speech, and these are the words which pop out: Development, education, youth, progress, brands, india, success, profit and wealth creation, going abroad, pride, technology, brains and employment. That about covers all that the youth focus on.” Dripping with positivity, Modi almost seemed like a professional motivational speaker, using pithy metaphors, humorous anecdotes and simple examples. One metaphor will surely be remembered for a long time. Holding up a glass of water, he said: “Some say this is half empty, others say this is half full. I say this is full, half with water, and half with air.” This is corny, but this is young populist corn at its best. In social media, a new word has already been born: Modivation.
He delighted his audience with the sort of acronyms that the young thrive on: P2G2 (pro-people good governance), 5F (farm to fibre to fabric to fashion to foreign), 3S (skill, scale, speed). He spoke of building India’s largest convention centre in 162 days, of having 50% of India’s gross domestic product under one roof in his Vibrant Gujarat summit, of having completely eradicated 120 cattle diseases in six years (SRCC’s principal provided further proof of Modi’s efficiency when he said that the college had invited 11 people, including five cabinet ministers, to address the students, and Modi’s office was the first to reply; some replies were still awaited).
Modi played masterfully with words when he said that we are now seen, not as a nation of snake charmers, but mouse charmers. Congress’s riposte, that the IT revolution was started by Rajiv Gandhi, was silly and irrelevant. Modi was not claiming credit for India’s IT boom; in fact, he ascribed it all to the Indian youth.
In essence, while Rahul says that India needs the young to save the country, Modi said that India is rocking because of its young, and they should just keep following their dreams tenaciously and carry the nation with them. And when he said that the nation has had enough of vote bank politics, it was now time for development politics, that the government had no business to be in business, that the only way forward was minimum government and maximum governance, his words resonated in every jaded middle-class heart.
The past two years have taught us that the Indian middle class can no longer be defined by mere demographics. It is an outlook that has little to do with income, defined by aspiration, pride, utter lack of faith in the state, and a willingness to fight for one’s rights. Modi addressed 1,800 college students, but he spoke to that larger mindset across India and may just have connected with millions.
Whether he will ever be the prime minister (PM), and whether his being PM is a good thing are questions that time and circumstances will answer. But Modi’s performance at this premier Delhi college stamps him as the one Indian politician who truly has his finger on the pulse of a very large section of the population, while perfectly disguising his appeal in trans-political garb.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.