How far will Narendra Modi go

He dazzles with modesty: Why the Indians Narendra Modi hold the rod against their better judgment

The last few years and the handling of the corona crisis have not been a sheet of glory for the Modi government. Nevertheless, the prime minister enjoys more popular support than ever. The Indian psychologist Sudhir Kakar gets to the bottom of the paradox.

Anyone who deals with Indian politics is currently faced with a mystery. Prime Minister Modi is responsible for the disastrous economic performance of the past three years; he suffered humiliation in the Indo-Chinese border conflict; His short-sighted approach at the beginning of the pandemic brought suffering and misery to the millions of migrant workers who lost their jobs and had to return on foot to their villages, often several hundred kilometers away. And yet the people's trust in him has not been damaged.

On the contrary: the latest opinion polls have shown that the approval rate for Modi is over 80 percent higher than ever before. So I would like to take a closer look at one of the Teflon layers that protect the prime minister from the harsh facts in the eyes of his supporters.

Bonus for visionaries

I do not derive my considerations from the political context, but from my twenty years of experience as a lecturer in the four-week leadership courses at Insead in Fontainebleau, one of the world's most important business schools. The 400 or so course participants from all over the world were executives, mostly in companies, but also in public institutions, such as the prorector of a Swedish university or the mayor of a city in the Netherlands.

One of the tools used in the courses is the leadership inventory. The participants are evaluated with regard to various aspects of their leadership qualities, both by their colleagues and by those employed in their company.

Interestingly, it turned out that those who achieved a high number of points in the “Vision” category were generally also rated above average in other categories - for example in planning and implementation, promoting teamwork, communication and emotional intelligence . A leader who is considered a visionary receives a bonus in assessing other qualities, even of people who work closely with him and who should therefore have a more objective view of those quite different skills.

Belief is crucial

A visionary leader is generally considered to be someone who thinks in large contexts and does not allow himself to be slowed down by detailed questions; as someone who always has a future in mind that is completely different from the status quo. Followers may think his goals are unattainable, but they fuel their imaginations and touch something in their hearts.

With this, I want to show that vision is perhaps the most important characteristic of a leader, the essential element that secures people's trust in him. It doesn't matter whether the vision is flawed, insubstantial or unrealistic; what matters is the belief that the leader is a visionary.

This fits the story of a rabbi in a Polish village who was known as a seer up to the capital. A skeptical journalist from Warsaw decided to get to the bottom of the story and traveled there. He politely asked the rabbi for proof of his ability, whereupon the rabbi climbed onto the roof of his house, peered into the distance and announced that a fire had broken out in a village fifty kilometers away.

The journalist went there immediately: no fire far and wide. So he went back to the rabbi's village, where he explained to people that what he had said was wrong. “Oh,” came the chorus back, “it doesn't matter whether there was a fire or not. Don't you think it's great how far he can see ?! "

Belief in a leader's vision cannot be challenged, no matter what the facts speak against it. What matters is the thought that he is a visionary - "how far he can see".


One element of the story already points out why people who are otherwise skeptical and perhaps even cynical about political matters lose the critical view of such a leader figure: It is about believing in their authenticity. Authenticity is difficult to define if you don't just want to call up its synonyms - integrity and originality - or its antonyms - namely manipulation and hypocrisy.

The rabbi in the story has the advantage that he does not have to convince the villagers of his authenticity. This is guaranteed by the Jewish tradition, which ascribes humility and caring to the rabbi, regardless of his personal characteristics - virtues that are indispensable in this tradition for an ideal leader figure.

Is there an ideal image of the authentic leader in Indian culture too? Most of them would probably name the god Rama here, in his human-mythical form as king of Ayodhya; or, closer to the present, Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence. The characteristics of the ideal leader are radical selflessness in the service of the people, renunciation of material comfort and even sexual life.

When the people began to rumor about Rama's beloved wife Sita, he banished her to a forest for twelve years, even though she was pregnant. He believes he owes this to his people because of his office as king, but he has not touched any other woman during this time. Gandhi, too, swore at the age of thirty-four that he would live his life in poverty and, in addition, imposed sexual abstinence (without first asking his wife).

Nepotism is the norm

The renunciation of the ideal ruler, called "tyaga", runs counter to the Indian psyche, especially where it means renouncing family life and kinship ties; that is precisely why it has all the more resonance. Because for the Indians, caring for the well-being of the family is the highest goal in life.

That is why «tyaga» enjoys great respect in a culture in which one has got used to the fact that the powerful usually serve the interests of their families first and foremost; in a context in which the word «nepotism» is considered a Western abstraction and one understands, even if perhaps with a shake of the head, that a politician reacts stunned when his decision to promote his own son to a high party post goes by a journalist is questioned: “But who else should I appoint? Their Son maybe? "

Modi, however, can adorn itself with the attribute of «tyaga». He is childless and separated from his wife shortly after they got married fifty years ago; he only maintains sporadic contact with his elderly mother, who lives in modest circumstances far from Delhi.

The rude awakening

Obviously, when a leader appears who appears to conform to the traditional ideal of a culture, that is enough to cast aside doubts and concerns. Many Indians believe - skeptics would say: have been fooled by the propaganda - that Modi corresponds to the classic model of the "tyaga" and that this, like the rabbi, gives him an authenticity that makes his vision credible.

However, reality will also catch up with such leaders at some point. And once people realize that their idol's vision is hollow or that its authenticity is just a hoax, it usually doesn't just mean “politics as usual” - but an eruption of anger over betraying someone who is highly revered cultural ideal.

Sudhir Kakar is known far beyond India's borders as a psychoanalyst, scholar and writer. Many of his works have been published in German by C. H. Beck. Translated from the English by as.