05/22/2014 05:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The God of Small Things: Modi's Divine Mission

Thierry Falise via Getty Images

In India, everyone has a chance of becoming a god.

Cricketers, Bollywood stars, politicians, even the friendly neighborhood do-gooder are not just adulated but often revered as deities.

In southern Tamil Nadu, the Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's supporters call themselves her "devotees" and worship statues of her in "temples" they have dedicated to her across the state. In villages along India's western border, locals even worship the tiny Gnat fighter plane that devastated Pakistan's air force during a 1965 border war.

Little wonder then that India's new prime minister, the Hindu nationalist BJP's Narendra Modi, is already morphing from man to god.

Modi's electoral victory looks slight -- just 282 seats in India's 545 seat parliament, a majority of 10 seats.

But no Indian party has won an absolute majority in parliament since 1984. For 30 years, India was trapped into successive (and often unstable) coalition governments. Now, the victory of India's religious right holds out the promise of a new era.

So Modi's fans can be forgiven for running through the streets shouting "Har-har Modi," their frenzied version of an ancient invocation of the god Shiva.

Modi himself is hardly averse to being worshiped. He even suggested to this reverent nation that he has been divinely chosen to rule. While filing his nomination papers from the strategically chosen holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the sacred Ganga river Modi said, "I first thought my party the BJP has sent me here. But now I think no one sent me here, mother Ganga has called me."

God & Government

Such zealousness alarms many. But perhaps India does need a god in government.

Despite having 330 million recorded gods and goddess, India's enduring problems, such as endemic poverty, widespread disease and social injustice continue. Twenty-two years of economic reforms have transformed India's economy but also saddled it with the problems of modern capitalism, including growing inequality, cronyism and environmental destruction.

The conundrum India is now struggling with is that it is richer yet worse off. India's GDP growth ranks close to the highest in the world, but its human development is among the lowest. The standard of living is rising, but quality of life is deteriorating. There is more wealth, but much of it is ill-gotten. Ambitions are soaring, but access to opportunities, such as education and jobs, is falling.

Modi's supporters divine him as a messianic deliverer who will fix India's problems as sweepingly he has done in the western state of Gujarat where he was chief minister (akin to a U.S Governor) for 12 years.

His authoritarian style there irked many. But locals, industrialists and development gurus lauded Modi for his (relatively) clean government and efficient governance; accomplishments are about as rare in India as walking on water.

Others fear Modi will be a violent, vengeful god.

The BJP's convoluted "Hindutva" ideology, a curious and contradictory mix of cultural revivalism, economic Darwinism and militant nationalism, has always been rooted in anger. Much of it has been directed against India's liberals, leftists, Dalits (as "untouchables" now call themselves) and the Muslim, Christian and other minority communities. The BJP's view is that they have milked the system and public sympathy for undue benefits, which the Congress and other parties have showered on them for electoral, and not national benefit.

Modi's own record in Gujarat has been stained by ferocious communal riots that killed more than 1000 people, mostly Muslims, in 2002. His government is also accused of extra-judicial killings and illegal surveillance. Just days after winning the polls, Modi himself was admonished by India's Supreme Court in a case where several innocent Muslims were framed in a terror case. That is why detractors, such as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, warn Modi will intimidate minorities and opponents and pummel them into submission.

Others simply see Modi as a false god, a lucky maverick whose inflated claims allowed him to benefit from widespread disgust with previously ruling Congress party. One columnist recently referred to him as a "Wonderbra." "Modi has no ideas," another pundit said dismissively.

But that may just be the point. For too long, India has preferred thinkers in government over doers. As a result, Indian politicians and parties have gotten lost in convoluted arguments over huge, complex intellectual questions, such as "What is the correct definition of 'Indian?'" "How can we change our feudal-colonial mindset?" "Do we need to move from a parliamentary to a presidential form of government?"

The BJP and its intellectual font, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an amorphous organization dedicated to Hindu revivalism, have been particularly immersed in these questions of identity. Their mission has been to overthrow what they call India's inherited colonial mindset and reassert native ideas, principles and sensibilities. (Here the word "colonial" doesn't just refer to the British but also to the Islamic invaders who subjugated India about 800 years ago). The RSS decries India's western secularism, which seeks to remove all religion from government, and demands India's native traditions become the basis for shaping society and policy.

To a large extent the RSS is succeeding in this goal, both because of its assiduous work at the grassroots and because this transformation is only natural. If India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was called "the last Englishman to rule India," it can be said Narendra Modi will be the first modern Indian to lead it.

Where the Congress Party's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was rooted in an imperial English-speaking liberalism, Modi carries himself like a commoner, talks using popular parables, and calls for common sense in government. When the Congress' Priyanka Gandhi used her halting Hindi to try and berate Modi for his coarseness, it was she who looked out of touch and remote. She and others like her simply don't understand that the India of afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches is being replaced by a new middle class whose anthems are raucous Bollywood numbers.

Modi's strength is that he realizes this and plays to it. He persistently mocks the Gandhis' high-born Brahmin lineage and westernization. Being the son of a low-caste school teacher has allowed him to bridge caste barriers and he talks constantly of how he ran away from home and a forced child marriage to become a humble tea seller, then rose through the BJP's ranks on the strength of his organizational abilities. During a victory speech, Modi uncharacteristically broke into tears when he talked of how humbled he was to have risen to lead the country and serve "mother India" as a dutiful son.

But Modi's greater strength is that while he is rooted in these macro changes, he is totally focused on the micro issues that determine governance.

India's "Small" Problem

Unlike China which is still struggling with questions over the correct architecture for its state, the right choice of political system and the correct role of religion in society, India has addressed all its "big" political questions correctly.

This is a gift India got, like America, from its founders, who were uncompromisingly committed to the rights of man.

While Mao Zedong set China on a path where 1.3 billion people are fundamentally at odds with the one party that determines their destiny, India set itself up as a democracy with an independent judiciary and an open, entrepreneurial society of great creativity.

What cripples India, and where it is really struggling, are the "small" things.

India still hasn't learned how to keep a city park clean. Or give citizens a water connection without hair-wrenching delays. Or buy a jet for its air force without wasting 15 years in debate. Or create an organization of 100 people with less than 101 subcommittees.

In short, Indians just do not know well enough how to organize, problem solve, take decisions, implement them and self-correct as needed.

This is generally true but especially true in government, particularly at lower levels.

If you compare New Delhi and Beijing, the corruption and petty politicking gripping both capitals is about the same. If you compare an Indian and Chinese minister they would both be about as competent, corrupt, or committed. But the efficiencies of their offices would be very different, from the speed with which a phone call would be returned or a file cleared.

The difference is even greater further down the line. If you compare the abilities and efficiency of a waterworks manager in a fourth-tier Chinese town like Wuxi with a waterworks manager in a fourth-tier Indian town like Warangal, the difference will be night and day.

This is why Indian metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai have worse civic conditions than most fourth-tier Chinese towns.

This is where Modi comes in.

Even his worst critics admit Modi gets things done and is incorruptible. As a chief minister who has run a state, Modi is a proven administrator while almost all of India's previous PMs were New Delhi legislators whose main claim to fame was either their ancestry or their insider status.

Economist Jagdish Bhagwati says Modi moves with "deliberate speed" to execute whatever he sets out to do. His record shows he makes decisions and implements them. He makes clear commitments and follows up on them. He knows how to get listless bureaucrats to move their behinds. He is detail-oriented and tracks key data points for his state diligently. He often knows more about ministries than his ministers. He keeps roughs off the streets. Essentially, he knows how to keep parks clean.

The absence of the same across much of India is the chief reason behind the public anger against the routed Congress. During its 10 year rule, the Congress pushed by its President Sonia Gandhi created a solid framework of social services for the country. Through landmark legislations, such as the Right to Education (RTE) Act, Congress gave Indians a slew of new rights.

But the same government has failed miserably at implementing even the most basic tasks required to make these paper rights real. For example, in Rahul Gandhi's own constituency only 1 percent of schools comply with the RTE, according to a study conducted by RTE Forum.

It is embarrassments like this that led many Indians who are more in sync with the Congress' secular and centrist ideology than the BJP's "Hindutva" to back Modi.


To turn these new converts into faithful fans and to get India back on track, all Modi needs to do is shun any anti-minority actions and run a reasonably efficient government.

Modi assures voters this is precisely what he intends to do and relentlessly repeats the "more governance, less government" mantra. While a cliché in the West, it represents a totally new paradigm in India.

Though Modi will only be sworn in to office on May 26, indications are he will shut many of India's 71 different ministries, merge-related ones, and empower competent bureaucrats to run them. In his first meeting with top officials, Modi asked them to frankly assess past mistakes and create new five-year plans for their ministries.

Where the previous government sent ambivalent signals to foreign investors, Modi is seen as very investor-friendly. His government is expected to make it easier to acquire private land for projects and streamline clearance processes.

Modi's willingness to break bureaucrats' stranglehold on government and force officers fighting turf wars into collaboration is also legendary.

Where the previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delegated several key decisions to empowered committees, Modi has already indicated that he will take all important calls himself.

He is also expected to cut the massive graft and waste in the government's social spending, implement much-needed tax reform and rescue from suspended animation hundreds of mega infrastructure projects. Several of India's expensive subsidies and anti-poverty programs could also be overhauled.

Modi's critics say such I-will-make-the-trains-run-on-time promises have always been the plank of authoritarian leaders from Mussolini to Pinochet and Putin.

But Modi has been assuring India he will engage closely with state leaders, chief ministers and opposition parties. In fact, many expect he will decentralize decision-making and give greater autonomy to India's 28 states.

Modi is also allying fears he will pursue any kind of anti-Muslim or anti-minority agenda. He has publicly rebuked the BJP's more extreme elements when they spewed anti-Muslim venom, such as threatening to deport critics to Pakistan, and constantly warns against communal tensions.

In a remarkable display of guts, Modi virtually prevented a riot when bombs were found planted at one of his public meetings. Worried that angry supporters might automatically assume the bombs were planted by Muslim extremists, he cautioned the crowds to desist from any violence by saying, "It is up to you to decide whether you want to fight each other or fight poverty."

The power of this message is what drove Modi's poll success. One of the Modi stories that got the most applause was one about how when the RSS suggested he include more 'Hindutva' ideals in his government, he reportedly retorted, "my work is my worship."

Today's India is really not looking for visionary intellectuals like Nehru or even the BJP's religio-social leaders, such as previous party leader LK Advani. Indians simply want an efficient manager who will dot the i's and cross the t's and get their country to work.

So if Modi really has set his sights set on becoming a god, his best bet is to become the god of small things. This is what India needs and what Indians are praying for.

Correction: This post previously misstated the majority number of parliament seats won by Modi as 8. It is in fact 10.