By Ravi Agrawal ,CNN India Bureau Chief
If there is one new global leader who captured public imagination in the last year, it is India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi; 365 days on, how has he performed? In politics and life, expectation is everything. The India I have observed for the last three decades has generally had low expectations. This shouldn’t be surprising: the average Indian makes less than one-twentieth what the average Singaporean or American takes home. Indians have learned to make do with their own incomes and with the deficiencies of the state. Businessmen would conjure up loopholes because they were defeated by the system; Indians talked of ‘frugal innovation’ �X there’s a single word for it in Hindi, ‘jugaad’ �X in part because major Western-style R&D projects were a pipedream. Dreams were dreamt, but they were modest dreams of a sober Indian middle class life. Gradually, through the 1990s and 2000s, as India began to open up and liberalize, Indians began to get more and expect more. They began to hope-cautiously, of course-that India could be something bigger. Then came Narendra Modi.
Great Expectations No Indian politician has ever talked so big and so well. I remember the electrifying 2014 campaign trail. Half of India’s population doesn’t have access to toilets? No problem: we’ll fix that in five years. Communications are a problem? Not anymore: there will be a smartphone in every hand. Not enough jobs? Here’s the ��Make in India�� campaign. Think India is dirty? Try the ��Clean India�� initiative. Global investors scared to put money in India? We’ll make India business-friendly. There was an answer to every problem, a dream for every Indian. It was a winning formula. Here was a fresh national leader, a bold outsider, saying all the things people yearned to hear. Narendra Modi won big last May: he was the first Indian Prime Minister in three decades to control a complete majority in the country’s lower house of parliament. The mood was euphoric. Big business was confident they finally had their man, and that their man had a mandate. Middle class India was proud that one of their own had made it. Global investors couldn’t believe their luck: India was finally going to fulfill its potential. Across India, and even around the world, Modi marketed India Inc. He sold the dream. But with great expectations comes the danger of a great fall.
When Marketing Backfires If clothes make the man they can also break the man. During U.S. President Barack Obama’s high-profile visit in January Modi made a bold sartorial choice, going with a dark pinstriped suit. It wasn’t just any suit: each pinstripe contained his full name ��Narendra Damodardas Modi�� in micro-print, inscribed hundreds of times across his jacket and trousers.
India wasn’t impressed. The suit cost nearly US$20,000, some ten times as much as the average annual salary in India. Later, in May, at a speech delivered to Shanghai’s Indian community, Modi said this to his audience: ��Earlier, you felt ashamed of being born Indian, now you feel proud to represent the country.�� The remark was Modi’s way of marketing his year in power, but it drew an instant backlash on Indian TV. Many Indians said Modi was mistaken in assuming they had ever been ashamed. #ModiInsultsIndia began to trend on the social media platform Twitter. Modi’s relentless marketing worked when he was a candidate but it is tougher to pull off as an incumbent. The aura of invincibility that Modi carried a year ago has been punctured. In February, despite hitting the campaign trail himself, Modi’s BJP suffered an embarrassing defeat in Delhi state elections, picking up just three out of 70 seats available. The stock markets are beginning to sour. Reality is setting in: India was always going to be a chaotic, messy democracy. But opinions can seesaw. How has Modi actually performed in the last 365 days?