On Friday, India woke up to a new dawn. Everyone was expecting the candidate for Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, to win, but only a few had expected this outcome – a landslide!
Since then, I have been asked at least twenty times, “Who is Modi, and what is he like?”
I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Modi in January of last year at Vibrant Gujarat, an annual day of celebration for his state, the State of Gujarat. I saw him in action again in January of this year when I was in India to receive Pravasi Bhartiya Samman, a presidential honor.
I don’t claim mastery over India’s politics (who could?) nor am I a serious political observer in any way. What I like and enjoy is watching people and their reaction to political turning points. Here is what I observed during these two encounters with the gentleman who has become the Prime Minister-elect of India.
I was invited to speak at Vibrant Gujarat and arrived 30 minutes before the start of the event in the VIP room. I was one of the first persons there, so I got to watch as the room started to fill with India’s top industrialists – Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Anil Ambani, Anand Mahindra – and top executives from many multinational companies based in UK, Germany, USA, Japan and China.
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Modi arrived without an entourage and without the drama that I am used to seeing surrounding elected officials in India. He followed the same routine of shaking hands, but then I was taken by surprise when he congratulated me on my work at the University of Houston. (He was briefed well, I thought!). My surprise doubled when he complimented me on my presentation a day before in Gandhinagar (Obviously, he was aware of my presence in his state). And then he said that his state needs help and partners to expand access and establish excellence in higher education. (He was engaged with issues, I thought further).
A few minutes later, I walked along with other speakers to the stage. It was the most elaborate stage I have ever seen – three rows of dignitaries in stacked seating making it clear to everyone that Gujarat was a business-friendly state. For next three hours, many got up to speak about Gujarat, and almost everyone spent 90 percent of their time in complimenting Modi’s leadership in transforming the state of Gujarat. On that morning, he appeared larger than life.
Thousands of people sat mesmerized for hours basking in the glory of their leader. Finally, Mr. Modi himself stood up to speak to a thunderous applause that refused to quiet down despite several attempts. People loved him. He was their leader; he was one of them!
Mr. Modi electrified the crowd with every sentence. He was not negative and he was not presumptuous. Within seconds, it became clear that he loved his people. It was a magical bond between the people and the leader, witnessed by millions across India on their television sets.
I turned to my husband and said, “This is not a wave; this is a tsunami.”
My second encounter with Mr. Modi was in New Delhi at a convention for non-resident Indians, organized by the Government of India. Other than president and prime minister, many chief ministers were also participating as speakers and panelists. If energy in the room were to be the measuring stick, it was obvious that Mr. Modi was the winner.
For his session, the hall was filled above capacity. Different audience, but the same spell-binding effect. It was as though Indians living abroad were also mesmerized by the Modi charisma. He spoke in Hindi and people listened, even though half of them could not understand that language. The English translation of his speech was distributed to everyone, and it appeared as if those who could not understand Hindi were happy to just be listening to his voice. For those of us who knew Hindi, he reached out to our hearts.
This time, my husband turned to me and said, “He has captured India’s imagination.”
Today, India has high hopes, and it has given a clear mandate. With an absolute majority, an Indian prime minister is far more powerful than an American president. Only time will tell whether Mr. Modi can do for India what he did for Gujarat. But, as a political scientist, I was thoroughly intrigued witnessing the emotional bond between this leader and his people.