By Rajiv Chaudhri
Fans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India are comparing his arrival on the global stage to President Obama’s first election campaign. As an improbable candidate with limited national or international experience, Modi ran an unorthodox campaign against a deeply unpopular incumbent and emerged with a victory so stunning that even his critics were impressed. There is palpable excitement across the length and breadth of India for “hope” and “change.”
Could this analogy be extended further? Six years on, only President Obama’s most die-hard fans would assert that he has lived up to his promises and the expectations he aroused. Does a similar fate await Narendra Modi?
I do not think so, and here is why. Modi and Obama are fundamentally very different people.
In a revealing TV interview during the recent elections, Modi was asked about his ambition to become prime minister. He replied: “I have always wanted to do certain things. I have never wanted to become somebody.” These are wise words for all of us to live by. They are also smooth lines for any politician.
They are also true for Modi. Unlike Obama, who did not have much of a policy agenda apart from racial and political harmony, he has been developing his agenda for India for many years. The list of things he wants to do is long and ready. From promoting cleanliness, to universal electricity, water, broadband, bank accounts, smart cities, manufacturing in India, infrastructure development, cleaning the rivers, etc. Modi has a very long list of things he wants to get done within the next 10 years. He does not want to preside, he wants to be a leader. He has been preparing himself to do something for a long time. He is a patriot who badly wants India to win. Obama is ambivalent about America’s global preeminence, both in asserting it in the present, or sustaining it for the future.
As a young man, Modi took the vow of bachelorhood, choosing not to consummate a marriage and raise a family since that might interfere or distract him from the things he had to do. He could see all around him, in the Indian political environment, that family and children are breeding grounds for nepotism, dynasticism, and outright corruption.
Modi has the executive experience to get things done. Unlike Obama whose only executive experience was running his election campaign, he was the chief executive of a state of 60 million people for the last 12 years, the head of a large and powerful legislature and executive. He knows how to align the bureaucracy behind him and get things done in the Indian system. He is known as a tough, detail oriented task-master, with the management style of a CEO.
Both Modi and Obama come from humble backgrounds, Obama primarily because of race and for Modi because of caste, family, and socio-economic factors. Obama’s goal was to join the elite, to become part of it, and he has. Despite his extremely modest familial, social, economic and educational upbringing, Modi is neither enamored of, nor intimidated by India’s elite and never cared to become one of them. His goal is to turn the elite into an instrument of his ambitions for India.
Remarkably, given how poor he was when he started his political career, how corrupted by money the Indian political system is, and how tempting and easy it would have been for him to amass a fortune, he has instead created and sustained a reputation for being Mr. Clean.
Modi is one of the people who understands the power of getting people behind him. The American Presidency is a bully pulpit, whose power Obama has squandered by not using it. The Indian parliamentary system does not lend a bully pulpit to the prime minister’s job. Yet Modi has created this position for himself and is using it to spread his message to the people. He knows how to conceptualize and sell policy ideas to the public, even complex ones, in pithy memorable language, without appearing condescending.
He is a workaholic who leads by example. Obama cherishes his daily time with his family, which is inviolate, as is his golf, and his private time with his tight circle of friends/advisors. Modi is proud that he never takes vacations and that he has no personal or social life. Do not be surprised if he starts exhorting Indians to work harder (as hard as him) to achieve their ambitions. He has already exhorted Indians to clean their neighborhoods, show up for work on time, and manufacture quality products. I can see the “work harder” coming.
Modi understands that all the hard work of growth and development of India will ultimately be done by the people themselves. There are no handouts, no shortcuts and no miracles. Therefore the real role of government is primarily to be an obstacle remover, occasionally an enabler, and always a cheerleader.
Modi understands business, respects it and has high regard for business people who can get the job done. He is comfortable in the company of business people, is always looking to make deals and get ideas, both economic and political, and joked in Tokyo recently to a group of Japanese CEOs that as a Gujarati, “money is in my blood.” Obama suffers business, has little desire to understand it, engage with it, or try to align its transformative power to his policy goals.
In years past when China’s economy was growing at 10 percent per year and India’s economy was growing at 8 percent, people would ask me to compare the two countries. My response was that India and China could not be more different. In China’s case the 10 percent growth was roughly 6 percent driven by the private sector and 4 percent driven by the government. In the case of India, the private sector was actually 12 percent and the Indian government was minus 4 percent! I also said that the 1990s liberalization in India had only really meant that the government had gone from being minus 8 percent to minus 4 percent.
Narendra Modi understands this and his slogan “minimum government, maximum governance,” in part “by eliminating unnecessary laws and regulations, making bureaucratic processes easier and shorter, and ensuring that government is more transparent, responsive and accountable,” is really all about taking this minus 4 percent per year down to 0 percent and eventually turning it to positive growth. The rest will follow.
In short, Narendra Modi is a driven man with heroic visions for his country, a genius for policy formulation, executive talent to get things done, leadership and communication skills to move people with him, personal integrity, and no other distractions in his life, who will prove to be a game changer for India. That makes him a global game-changer as well.
Rajiv J. Chaudhri is an investment manager in high technology and renewable energy, and Board Member of the World Policy Institute.
[Photos courtesy of Narendra Modi Official]