<b>Newsmaker:</b> His very own man
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a bit like a method actor whose immaculately practised moves look spontaneous. Details emerging since he came to power reveal the depth of preparation into apparently on-the-spur-of-the-moment actions. The Lahore stopover for a Sharif family wedding or the demonetisation of high value currency comes to mind, even his victory walk in Delhi after the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. He answers to the description of the archetypal developing world charismatic leader, demonstrating a high level of engagement with his people. That clears the way for tough, sometimes unpopular decisions. It helps to further the mandate – proved to an extent by the spate of election victories, some going beyond the cow belt.
In the three years since he has been at the helm, it is difficult to say if he has modelled himself on any leader. Perhaps, his sense of moment is a bit like Atal Bihari Vajpayee – even though his oratory does not match the former prime minister’s – and his Hindu Hriday Samrat persona a variation of Lal Krishna Advani's Hindutva hardliner identity. Yet, he is every bit his own man, his Gujarati sense of leaning on what is practical shows through in his politics. This is perhaps what also makes him a risk-taker, a sharp change from the risk-averse model of UPA-II which he succeeded. The jury is still out on the benefits of demonetisation – a highlight of his government – and to date no one has given a clear answer on why he went in for it.
The results have been mixed. Banks, flush with liquidity, have lowered the cost of money but this has been accompanied by a fall in deposit rates. It has generated a positive mood in the fight against unaccounted wealth but has also been responsible for rural distress and joblessness. But for the scale of the operation, there is unanimity that it was a tremendously bold move. As for the negative fallout from demonetisation, he once again proved that he is a master of damage limitation, an aspect of his leadership seen often during his chief ministership in Gujarat, as he successfully conveyed to people in poll-bound states how important it was to bring the filthy rich to book.
The positive mood, emblematic of his leadership, has generated the kind of sentiment that has taken the stock market to unprecedented heights and placed India among the top-ten equity markets in the world. The depth of this begins to sink in when market analysts say there could still be some jet fuel left in the market to take the indices up further. The rub-off is expected to be visible on the economy in general with India Inc and the political establishment likely to join hands to spread the cheer.

The positive nature of the Modi prime ministership is accompanied by his other persona: that of the strong leader. There are several aspects to this, latent threat is one of them – that there will be hell to pay if plan execution is poor and results are not met. The number of top bureaucrats removed for poor performance is growing. It is also why GST rollout has been advanced to July from September. Clearly, Modi does not like slip-ups. He also does not like litigious and over-cautious people. This is what he told civil servants when he met them earlier this month. In short, he has put in place in a mere three years, a committed bureaucracy to implement his government's plans without creating impediments.
Modi's practical politics and his strong leadership go beyond the ideological and even the quintessentially ethical. Add to that his seemingly spontaneous actions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his foreign policy. For many, Indian foreign policy has been hemmed in by ideology, and constricted by the need for continuity. Modi has tried to break the mould. His upcoming visit to Israel will be his 28th trip abroad. And during this time he has come a long way. There are some important signposts. When Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to India in September 2014, Modi invited him to his home state of Gujarat, signalling a warming of relations and an urgency to get on with the tasks ahead. A few months later, in May 2015, when Modi visited China, Xi met him in his ancestral home of Xian in Shaanxi province. It was a departure from the norm for the Chinese. Over time, there have been tensions, on the border dispute, the Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh and the Chinese refusal to take India's side on Hafeez Saeed. And now India has boycotted the Belt and Road Initiative Forum in China, which runs the risk of ruining what started in September 2014.
The relationship with Pakistan has nosedived spectacularly, and could worsen in the light of the Kulbhushan Jadhav case in the International Court of Justice.

However, it is difficult to say whether these could be seen as more than episodic failures on the external affairs front. Modi is a man with a demonstrably strong sense of destiny and he knows he can turn things around when the chips are down. One instance will prove the point. When he faced flak over the ‘Rs 10 lakh’ monogrammed suit that turned the conversation towards a ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’, the prime minister was quick to do a course correction in his style of politics. As things turned out, the ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ narrative failed to run a long course.
With the kind of mandate that he has, Modi does not need the services of the faithful to buttonhole petty enemies and manufacture anger to wind people up and win elections. There is enough work at hand to keep the Prime Minister of 1.2 billion people busy.
Ananda Majumdar