Narendra Modi is an extraordinary combination of demagoguery, self-belief and remorselessness. He is a politician who has no stake in the prevailing political order and hence has no problem dismantling it without any compunction. It is hardly surprising that the more traditional political class is looking askance as Modi goes about railroading them at every step.
It should be clear to anyone reasonably discerning that no amount of secular or liberal outrage will stop Modi in his tracks unless his own constituents turn against him. In fact, a stronger secular and liberal outrage will merely enhance his stature among his followers who see him as a figure who compensates for their own sense of emasculation. One primary reason why Modi has succeeded as an individual rather than a party leader is because he has been able to present neatly formulaic, if deeply flawed, messages to the largely uncritical Gujarati community. He has been able to not just co-opt a large number of people into his cause but also make them complicit in it.
The predominantly mercantile Gujarati community is particularly drawn towards a political philosophy shorn of nuance. And Modi offers that philosophy with devastating effect. Centuries of mercantile culture has conditioned a vast number of Gujarati people to look at life in sharply defined terms. It is no accident that "nafa-nuksan" (profit and loss) is one of the most frequently used expressions in Gujarat. Although Gujarat has a glorious tradition of philanthropy very often led by top businessmen, the motivating instinct is still nafa-nuksan. Modi knows that Gujaratis like and understand an uncluttered, albeit often unsophisticated message rather than intellectually obtuse arguments.
Gujaratis also like singular leaders untroubled by encumbrances of deep and complex political and social reflection. Before Modi, another leader who successfully harnessed this natural antipathy for layered thinking was the late Chiman Patel in the 1970s and 1980s. Modi relishes and thrives on the utter bewilderment that the secular/liberal establishment feels at the way he conducts himself politically.
In many ways, Modi is perhaps the first Indian politician in the past few decades who positions himself as someone who could not care less about the very people he seeks to serve. There is self-assurance bordering on arrogance in his demeanor as well as his conduct that is hard to counter.
All politicians have a degree of self-belief but in Modi it has reached proportions not seen before. In his interviews he comes across as someone who thinks a second opinion is not just incidental but it is inconsequential. People like Modi invest in themselves to the exclusion of anyone or anything. They assume for themselves the role of the ultimate savior against what they perceive to be a great threat or the ultimate champion of a great cause. This assumption is not necessarily rooted in reality but their powerful motivation launches them into a dizzying trajectory that is nearly impossible to stop. Eventually, they burn out but not before causing considerable damage in the process.
A common mistake that a lot of people in India make while dealing with Modi is to hand out strong and abusive denunciation as if he actually judges himself by or cares about those normal standards. One typical example was the Congress party's reaction that Modi should be tried in the international court for conniving at staged killings. Modi would immediately turn that into an advantage by calling it an attack on someone who champions Gujarat's pride. He is so glib and good at political adlibbing that hardly anyone among his main detractors is able to go toe-to-toe with him.
It is possible that the coming assembly poll in Gujarat may yet deliver Modi his comeuppance but given the way he is he could well treat it as anything but a defeat. He would spin it to say that people did not understand the lofty purpose that propels him.
There are only two ways to deal with a personality like Modi.
One is to create an equally compelling, charismatic and demagogic secular/liberal counter to him or make him irrelevant by not paying any attention to him. Since he is chief minister of an important state who impacts the daily lives of millions, the latter option is not viable.
It is a fact that the Congress party has not been able to create a state level challenge to him. If after committing the prestige of Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh behind the election, the party still loses it will make Modi that much more unassailable with a clear shot at the national leadership.
Of course, despite all the hype and hoopla Modi is still very much a regional satrap who would find it extremely difficult if not altogether impossible to persuade the vast diversity of India's political, cultural and social opinion.
It would be interesting to see whether the demagogue manages to seduce the people of Gujarat for five more years or confronts the limits of his chicanery.