Asian of the Year 2014: The importance of being Narendra Modi

Ms Leena Sarma, a senior officer in Indian Railways, recounts an overnight train ride with two politicians from Gujarat state a quarter century ago.

The previous day, the journey from Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh, to New Delhi, had been a harrowing one for the young woman and a fellow probationary officer. Forced to vacate their reserved seats by thuggish elements accompanying some politicians, they had spent the night fearing for their honour and security.

Now, as they travelled on the next leg from New Delhi to Gujarat's state capital Ahmedabad, the worry was greater. They did not have confirmed seats and the Ticket Examiner temporarily put them into a coupe with another pair of men, also politicians.

To the women's surprise, and in contrast to the behaviour they had witnessed the previous night, this pair squeezed themselves into a corner of the coupe to make room for them, paid for the meals and at night, opted to sleep on the floor so the young women could use the padded berths.

As she detrained, a grateful Ms Sarma asked them to scrawl their names in a diary she was carrying. The younger of the two, a bearded man with a brooding presence, wrote: Narendra Modi.

"Every time I see him on TV I remember that warm meal, that gentle courtesy, caring and sense of security we got that night far from home," Ms Sarma wrote recently in The Hindu newspaper.

It has been a while since Indians felt secure in the knowledge that they had a strong leader at the helm, thanks to the dysfunctional dyarchy that prevailed in New Delhi for a decade as the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh duo lurched around.

In Mr Narendra Damodardas Modi, the first prime minister born in the post-Independence era, however, there can be no doubt about who is in charge; the man is everywhere, travelling around the world, around his vast nation, spending time with space scientists as they successfully eject a spacecraft into Mars' orbit, even occupying cyberspace where his tweets are followed by no less than 8.4 million people and often providing the first source of information on government decisions.

Not since the early days of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's founding prime minister, has the nation seen a man of his vigour and stamina. Indeed, it is remarkable that India, a nation where two-thirds are below the age of 35, chose to vest its fortunes with this 64-year-old politician rather than the Congress party, fronted in the polls by Rahul Gandhi, a man two decades his junior.

Already, thanks to his vigour and charisma, Mr Modi has succeeded in projecting his Bharatiya Janata Party to power in two key provinces-- Maharashtra and Haryana-- states that had never had a full BJP government before. Today, the BJP controls states that contribute fully half of India's US$2 trillion gross domestic product, seen as positive for economic reform and a key factor that's cheering investors who have poured in no less than US$16.5 billion into Indian stocks this year.

Analysts believe India is the only one of the Bric nations-- that also include Brazil, Russia and China-- likely to show economic acceleration in 2015.

The Modi effect is palpable overseas too where Indians are regaining their swagger after having had to cast eyes downward for years thanks to the perpetual bad news that used to emerge from India. In September, more people showed up in New York's Madison Square Garden to hear Mr Modi speak than at rock singer Billy Joel's concert at the same venue earlier that month.

But the thrill of the Modi effect lies not just in the promise of economic performance and the long due shaking up of the bureaucracy.

In him, Indians sense a refreshing absence of humbug. While the classic Indian politician affects frugality while hiding vast corruption, Mr Modi by contrast likes to be unapologetically fashionable.

Then there are the issues he focuses on.

In his address to the nation on Independence Day, Aug 15, Mr Modi spoke of a Digital India and a Make in India campaign to woo manufacturing. But what surprised one and all was his call for the need to build toilets and to curb the predatory sexual instincts of male children. Indeed, even as Mr Modi has shunned his wife for decades, many feminists have begun to claim this macho politician as one of their own.

Mr Modi is fortunate that he has taken office at a time when his nation is staring at two sweet spots-- demographic and strategic. With a median age of 25, India has one of the youngest population profiles at a time when China has started aging and Japan, already way over the hill. This window will stay open until about 2030. India's big chance for the big ticket reforms essential to find jobs for its teeming youth and propel it into the ranks of middle income advanced nations is now. Conversely, if it fumbles this opportunity, India could look at widespread social unrest.

Likewise, India is in the happy position of being wooed by every major power. This month, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in New Delhi. In January, President Barack Obama is chief guest at the Republic Day parade, the first time a US leader has been given the honour. China's Xi Jinping visited in September while both the Japanese emperor and prime minister have been in New Delhi in the year past.

To be sure, strong as he is politically, his challenges are daunting. First, Mr Modi needs to shake India from the stupor left behind by Dr Singh, with growth averaging below 5 per cent in the last two years, the weakest in a decade. Since there is often a three to four year lag between policy and results, he needs to scramble to put India on a high growth path as he prepares to ask his people to vote him in a second time. The national budget in February is his opportunity to send the clearest message to the world, and to his own people, that he is serious about this mission.

Another criticism of the man is that he is a control freak, and so much in a hurry that he tends sometimes to paper over genuine issues that need deeper consideration. His bench strength in Cabinet is thin. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is an experienced and capable man, and has the PM's ear. The defence minister is well-regarded but is new to the job. The Foreign Minister, Mrs Sushma Swaraj, is a capable politician but not a Modi camp-mate.

Beyond them, the talent in his Cabinet can be squeezed into the back seat of a Maruti Suzuki car.

India's media, cowed by his personality and resentful of the lack of leaks from his government, is also waiting to pounce. They will do so at the first signs of weakness from him or policy mis-steps.

There is also fear that he is under the yoke of the militant Hindu nationalist organisation, RSS. India's minority communities are not fully comfortable with the man although political analysts calculate that one in five Muslims did vote for him.

Because of all this, there is what corporates know as key man-risk. It is a safe bet that many opposition figures in India, and some even in his own party perhaps, would like to see him out of the way.

In a perverse way, in Mr Modi's strength also lies India's fragility.

velloor@sph.com.sg