The defeat of the BJP in Bihar — the defeat, in truth, of Narendra Modi — has prompted unstinting glee in liberal circles. Much has been written about the clipping of Modi’s wings, of his paying a price for hubris. There is substance in those assertions, but much less substance in what follows in the minds of many “progressives”, which is the belief that India is now on the cusp of finding an alternative to Modi.
It is not. There is no alternative to Modi.
The country has reason to be dissatisfied with the Prime Minister. Even those who support him are tiring of his relentless campaign mode and frequently empty slogans. Many on the non-Hindutva right — this writer included —are aghast at the slow rate of economic change. The Hindu rate of growth is now happily behind India, but this Hindu rate of reform is hurting a country that needs — by every objective yardstick — radical change in the way it conducts its economic affairs.
Modi is a highly intelligent man. In his own way, he is also a subtle man. Witness how he responded to a question from a journalist from The Guardian at the press conference with David Cameron in London on Thursday. He was asked what he thought of the UK leaving the European Union, a question that sought to seat Modi atop a grenade. The debate on “Brexit” — a British exit from the EU — is shaping up to be an explosive affair. A clunky response from Modi could have placed his host, Cameron, in a very awkward position.
The Indian PM responded with great diplomatic finesse, emphasising both the importance of Britain to India as a business partner, and also its importance to India as a gateway to Europe. He made his point gently: He’d like the UK to stay in. But it was made by indication, not assertion.
Modi will need to draw on those same reserves of subtlety when he returns to India, and to a political battleground now teeming with an emboldened opposition. He will need to be humble, too, drawing on the same surprising reserves of humility that led him to address the British parliament in English. He knows he’s an electrifying orator in Hindi, and that a speech in Hindi would have reached many more in India than his words in English did. But he knew, foremost, that he had to satisfy the people seated before him, for whom a translator’s voice-over would have been a wan and unappetising affair. So he gamely chose English, a language over which he has very poor command.
It was a heartwarming display of grace and common sense. India would benefit from a dose of the same on his return. Not an English-speaking Modi — heaven forbid — but one who acknowledges the legitimate expectations of those beyond his core constituency, who acknowledges that he is the Prime Minister of all Indians and not merely of those who swear by Hindutva.
India is in a rut. Its economy is still directionless, its infrastructure calamitous, its manufacturing base anorexic, its defense strategy naïve, its social fabric tattered. Rahul Gandhi cannot fix any of this. Nor can Nitish, or Lalu, or Mamata, or any of the regional chieftains that are the bane of modern India.
There’s only one truly pan-Indian party today, the BJP, whether we like it or not. There’s only one truly pan-Indian leader, Modi, whether we like him or not. The salvation of India rests with him, provided he reforms himself as he sets out to reform India.
The writer is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Follow Tunku Varadarajan on Twitter at: @tunkuv