He was a brawler and a courtier, a duelist and a conciliator, a warrior and a lover, a hothead and a cool calculator. Five summers ago, when I started reading deeply in the life of Andrew Jackson, I was struck by a seeming contradiction: he was at once the most remote of heroes and the most modern of men. He was the first truly self-made man to rise to the White House, the architect of the presidency as we know it and champion of democracy in an age of elites. Scarred and bloodied, wounded physically and emotionally, he carried two (that’s right, two) bullets in his body for much of his life; wracked by pain, he nevertheless persevered, enduring much in order to make America work for the good of the many. He was a candidate of change, and his White House—riven by passion, sexual scandal, political intrigue and fears of secession—was the first we would recognize as a presidency in action. But I should not have thought Jackson ’s complexities surprising: America is complex, too, and he was the consummate American. Not to be too grand about it, but if you want to understand America , you have to understand Andrew Jackson.
So here is my question to you—about whom could we say the following words?
India is complex, too, and X was the consummate Indian. Not to be too grand about it, but if you want to understand India, you have to understand X.
Well, yes, India is too varied for anyone to be a “consummate Indian”—but who comes closest? In my view, it isn’t Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani or Prakash Karat, even Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi. Instead, I’d say the two politicians who come the closest are Mayawati and Narendra Modi.
IU readers know the contempt I hold both leaders in (most Indian politicians, in fact, but these two especially), but Mayawati and Modi embody the attitudes and aspirations of millions. They are both genuine grassroots leaders, and they’re chief ministers of their states because millions of people see in them the kind of India they want. Neither of them is a “consummate Indian”, for they are too divisive for that, but if you want to understand the India of 2009, you have to understand Mayawati and Modi.
You can’t say that about Sonia or Manmohan.
And to state the obvious, this post is not an endorsement, it is a lament.