What Will Narendra Modi Be Remembered For?

His unchecked ego.

Each of our prime ministers has left behind his or her own unique legacy. In most cases, this legacy has been a mixed one, and not necessarily the one they may have wished for. 

Jawaharlal Nehru is remembered for his fierce commitment to science and secularism. He is also held responsible for the Kashmir imbroglio and having lost the 1962 war with China. Lal Bahadur Shastri, on the other hand, is remembered for winning the 1965 war with Pakistan, coining the slogan “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan”, and his mysterious death in Tashkent. Indira Gandhi is remembered for her “Garibi Hatao” pro-poor policies, spearheading the Non-Aligned Movement, and of course, the Emergency and Operation Bluestar.

Rajiv Gandhi is remembered for introducing computers to India and revolutionising the telecom sector, and the Bofors scandal. P.V. Narasimha Rao is remembered for ushering in the age of economic liberalisation but also for not doing enough to stop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Atal Behari Vajpayee is remembered for his ability to cobble together a 13-party alliance, the nuclear test at Pokhran, and also the complete rout of the BJP despite “India Shining”.

Also read: Modi’s Reign Is Proof India Will Be Better off Under a Coalition

Manmohan Singh will be remembered as being one of India’s most academically qualified leaders under whose prime ministership India’s GDP went into double-digit growth. He will also be remembered for not doing enough to stem the tide of corruption that marked the tenure of UPA-II.

What will Narendra Modi be remembered for?

At the end of his five-year term as prime minister, the verdict is divided. His fan base will credit him for “putting India on the world map” and probably without stating it too explicitly, “putting Muslims in their place” and “restoring Hindu pride”.

His detractors will criticise him for too many world tours and for allowing communal passions to burn unchecked. They will also criticise him for the damage that demonetisation and a poorly-executed GST have done to the Indian economy, and for weakening the institutions of democracy.

Barring the prime minister’s most die-hard supporters, and ministers/party spokespersons (whose job it seems to be to bend facts to fit narratives), it is fair to say that very few in India today will state with any degree of conviction that Narendra Modi has fulfilled the promises he rode to power on. These include providing employment to crores of youth a year, ending corruption, making India a major manufacturing hub and a safe country for women, halting the rise of petrol and diesel prices, and ushering in achhe din for all.

The one thing that Narendra Modi will most likely be remembered for is his ego.

The people of India started getting a whiff of Mr. Modi’s ego early on during the 2014 election campaign when he began talking about his 56-inch chest. (As far as we know, no other prime minister in decades past has public boasted about any part of their anatomy.)

Then came the preoccupation with selfies and cameramen. Little video snippets of the Prime Minister pushing security guards and even Mark Zuckerberg out of the way of a good photographic angle started going viral, and when a journalist’s telephoto lens managed to zoom in on his Rs 10 lakh pinstripe suit monogrammed with his own name, we realised that the Prime Minister’s preoccupation with himself was a serious one.

Also read: Ten Reasons Modi is Just Like Indira Gandhi. And That’s Not a Good Thing.

This realisation was further reinforced when a high percentage of yojanas introduced by the government began with the pre-fix “Pradhan Mantri – Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Ujwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, etc., etc.

As the years rolled on, the Indian populace started coming up against the prime minister’s face everywhere – in offices, on calendars, at petrol pumps, on billboards at airports, railway stations and bus stations, everywhere. And while leaders of lands since time immemorial have had their faces stamped on coins and pillars for reasons of political control and historical legacy, one would be hard pressed to find a government in recent times that has spent as much money on advertising its leader as has the BJP government of 2014-2019.

India started getting a whiff of Mr. Modi’s ego early on during the 2014 election campaign when he began talking about his 56-inch chest. Credit: Reuters

Modern psychologists use the word “egotist” to refer to someone dangerously focused on themselves and with little regard for anyone else. “Ego” in this sense refers to arrogance, self-centred ambition, and an unhealthy belief in one’s own importance. Egotism has often been compared to alcoholism. Both are highly addictive and ultimately end up putting their victims out of touch with reality.

The big difference between the two, in the words of Harold Geneen, however, is,

“The egotist does not stumble about, knocking things off his desk. He does not stammer or drool. No, instead he becomes more and more arrogant, and some people, not knowing what is underneath such an attitude, mistake his arrogance for a sense of power and self confidence.”

Unchecked ego is extremely dangerous for the leader of a country because it closes him off to the virtues of genuine statesmanship. Egotistical leaders find it impossible to collaborate with others, for they do not value others’ opinions. They take unilateral decisions because are incapable of receiving objective feedback from those more qualified. They cannot empathise with others because they are much too full of themselves. They view their political opponents as enemies to be destroyed.

Egotistical leaders find it next to impossible to apologise for their mistakes or admit their shortcomings. They end up became anxious and paranoid, fearful that their lack of talent or honesty will be found out. The worst part of this type leadership is the high percentage of bad decisions that end up being made and the huge amount of damage it ultimately ends up doing to a country.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi Could Be a Credible Alternative to Narendra Modi

Whether the Modi years come to a close in 2019 or further down the line, (although one wonders how India will survive another five years of this type of ego-driven leadership) the fact remains that political scientists, historians and psychologists will analyse Modi’s policies, actions, decisions and relationships in great detail. They will also ask a lot of questions:

Why did the prime minister inflict the scourge of demonetisation on the country, despite being warned by the finest minds not to do so? Why did he roll out the GST in such a half-baked manner? Why did he restrict himself to a “me-thee-thou-and-no-other” coterie of advisors? Why did his alliance partners leave him one by one? Why did so many established diplomatic relationships with friendly countries turn sour over the years? Could it be that despite many voices of caution trying to make themselves heard, his ego ultimately got the better of him?

The myth of the “strong leader with all the answers” is just that – a myth. The last five years have shown us that very clearly. The 21st century is a complicated place and in order to negotiate it successfully, we need leaders who can listen, learn, collaborate and make well-rounded, empathic and courageous decisions, not self-centered, self-serving and self-aggrandising ones.

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescence issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.