Narendra Modi promises to be the most colourful prime minister in Indian history – someone unafraid to present himself in hues that are both daring and striking. He is also the most voluble – a particularly sharp contrast to not just his immediate predecessor, who (the joke went) would not open his mouth even in the dentist’s chair, but also the one before that. I once sat through an official dinner that Mr Vajpayee threw for the visiting Australian prime minister, John Howard. Neither spoke to the other throughout the meal! In contrast, Mr Modi speaks freely and confidently, indeed expansively, never stumbling in search of the appropriate word, though the thoughts are often banal, or his comments off the mark – as when he responded to an interviewer’s question on rape by saying the “main thing” was the education of the girl child. He trips into inaccuracy, too – as when he attributed something in the Bible to “a saying in India”, reminding one about similar gaffes during the election campaign.
But his confidence remains unshaken, and his glass of acronyms is never half full, though certainly filled with some air. MOM (originally Mars Orbital Mission) became a play on Mom (for mother). FDI is now First Develop India. Then there is something about Inches to Miles. Also, there are those alliterations, like 3D – for democracy, demographic dividend and demand. For someone more comfortable in other languages, he certainly has a flair for English coinage. This is a man who is enjoying the moment and the spotlight, and having some fun … and why not? Meanwhile, we now have a lion made of wheel cogs to symbolise “Make in India”, making for quite a welter of images along with the national animal (the tiger), the national bird (the peacock) and the national symbol in economist-talk (the elephant). What next, one wonders. A national fish?
The new prime minister is a showman – beginning with the spectacle of leaders from neighbouring countries attending his swearing-in. One day he is sharing a swing in Ahmedabad with the Chinese president. Before that he is beating drums in Japan and inviting the professional drummer present to join in a jugalbandhi. Later he is doing a “Vibrant” show in New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, with the country’s leading businessmen lining up to speak on his call to “Make in India”. When boarding his 747 for the United States, he runs all the way up the steps – Obama-style, but impressive for someone who is a fairly bulky 64.
The Modi style includes his eschewing of English on formal occasions, though he did take the trouble to break periodically into English during his long speech to space scientists, most of them South Indians. There is the banning of non-vegetarian food on his plane, but not at official banquets. It will be an interesting sight if he fasts during Navratri while seated as the chief guest at formal dinners in the United States; will his host feel awkward while tucking in, or be obliged to merely peck at the repast? We will see a lot more of the showman in the coming few days – addressing the General Assembly (will he settle for the standard bandhgala, or should we hope he gets adventurous?); then working up a crowd of videshi countrymen in Madison Square Garden; and finally the official razzmatazz and photo ops in Washington though his is classified only as a working visit. Meanwhile, we are told, there will be a full-fledged TV studio at the prime minister’s residence, so that he can go “live” and address the country whenever the spirit or occasion moves him. Unlike with Dr Singh and Mr Vajpayee, we are going to get our money’s worth with Mr Modi – in many colours, at many performances, and with a steady flow of clever or corny (depending on your taste) acronyms and alliterations.