Union home minister Amit Shah, in providing an answer, has provoked a very powerful question about who is truly a national leader, and how to define or identify one. The answer by Mr Shah was obvious; there is only Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the current political firmament, and none else. But, if one asks a question beyond the political context of the answer, or the person answering it — undoubtedly the closest of allies of Mr Modi for the longest time in his career — it has deep value.
In the last century, in Indian political context, the one leader who would find near unimpeachable approval as a national leader was Mahatma Gandhi. His values were sustainable — spiritually, intellectually, politically, socially, economically and globally. Gandhism is a real living force. He viscerally understood every human being’s angst, brilliantly read the faultlines of society and conflict, and with his sustained actions was a living embodiment of his preaching. Above all, he succeeded in his life’s greatest aspiration, which was to achieve freedom for India.
Babasaheb Dr B.R. Ambedkar was the only other leader who could match a mahatma in stature, his teachings and vision, his actions and the sustained impact on Indian society. He suffered the pain of the most oppressed and gave us a Constitution which, no matter what its critics and naysayers might hold evident, has the power to show India a way to achieving social justice and a sense of equity.
Between Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar, India had its greatest national leaders who also served as icons to inspire the next generation of leaders.
Since Independence, the shift in both the aspirations and expectations and the reality changed quickly because Indians now had power. They were leaders of political parties and could afford to strive for a part rather than the whole; appeal to a niche constituency and emerge regional leaders — without having to burden themselves with the aspiration of being a national leader; or even within a chosen area, a leader of all people but some.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi as prime ministers did appeal to people nationally, led their parties to victory in elections and scripted huge changes to lay stake to the claim to the title. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Lal Bahadur Shastri had very little time to go on to achieve everything they could have.
In the darker days of Indira Gandhi, Jai Prakash Narayan (JP) emerged as the ray of hope and galvanised the country but faltered at the final step when the Opposition alliance government collapsed due to internal contradictions. Years later, V.P. Singh, first as a crusader and later as a reformer, promised a lot but stoked more fires than he doused. P.V. Narasimha Rao was an achiever as a reformer and administrator but hardly inspired confidence or won polls.
Atal Behari Vajpayee rose to deserve the tag, as a statesman, as a leader with a big heart who could appeal to the finer feelings of people across the political divide, while Lal Krishna Advani, coming a close second to everything Vajpayee, failed to match most of his peer’s achievements.
India was equally lucky to have had great leaders of the same DNA, grit, struggle and achievement, even if not at a pan Indian level, making a difference to states and regions.
Modi most certainly wins elections and gives confidence to a section of people but can he, or anyone else around currently, match the ability to heal, reconcile, unite and lead as a Gandhi, or Ambedkar, or even a Vajpayee — only time can decide.