Narendra Modi, as prime minister, fits no stereotype and remains an enigma despite this being his 10th year in office. Like the gods of Hindu mythology, he is a man of many avatars, some of which came to the fore in 2023 and enabled him to become, well, the man of the moment, for the moment and by the moment. He can look back at 2023 as his annus mirabilis even though for most world leaders the year was annus horribilis. Especially with two major wars—Ukraine and Gaza—widening the divide between nations already reeling under the combined onslaught of a global economic slowdown and Covid’s long shadow. Modi’s aura of unpredictability and his bold decisions proved advantageous in these crisis-ridden times. Amid the global strife and rubble, he emerged with a rare double credit for his masterful handling of issues on the domestic front and the international stage, making him the cynosure of the globe. In 2023, it was Cometh the Hour, Cometh Modi.
Let’s start with Modi the Reformer. In his first term, Modi brought in major economic reform by pushing for a one nation, one tax regime that saw the introduction of the national Goods and Services Tax (GST). In his second term, the prime minister focused on path-breaking social and political reforms. This September, in a historic decision to politically empower Indian women, the prime minister got Parliament to pass the Women’s Reservation Act, 2023. The Act ordained that 33 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures would be reserved for female candidates. Modi described it as the next big step for boosting “Nari Shakti” and to spur a “women-led development” of the country. He would face criticism from the Opposition, though, for deferring its implementation till after the 2026 delimitation process for parliamentary constituencies that is also likely to increase the number of seats from the 543 presently.
In December, the Supreme Court vindicated another daring reform of Modi’s by upholding the abrogation of Article 370 which his government had effected in August 2019. It brought legal closure to the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir under the Indian Constitution that had been hanging fire since Independence. In an exclusive interview to India Today at his residence on December 26, the prime minister was clear that “Article 370 is gone for ever” and that the “people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh are for the first time free to shape their destinies in their own hands”. On his approach to pushing through tough reforms of the nature of women’s reservation and the abrogation of Article 370, the prime minister says, “People often ask me about how I could take such a difficult decision. For me, it does not seem difficult as I take all my decisions through the single prism of Nation First.”
In 2023, Modi the Builder also stepped into the limelight. In September, the prime minister inaugurated the new Indian Parliament which he put on the ‘superfast-track’ and got ready in 28 months despite delays caused by the Covid pandemic. If the 1927-vintage Parliament sufficed for 96 years with its familiar circular shape, the new Sansad combines tradition with modernity and is designed to take care of the country’s needs in terms of expansion of representation for a full century and beyond. Not far from Parliament, Modi revamped another monumental complex, Pragati Maidan, which now includes a world-class convention centre called Bharat Mandapam. This was again done at top speed, in time to showcase it for the G20 summit, the largest gathering of the world’s most powerful leaders. There is a third structure that has come up under Modi’s watchful eye, the Ram temple at Ayodhya, that will be consecrated by him on January 22, 2024. Coming just four months before the Lok Sabha election, along with the abrogation of Article 370, it is likely to consolidate the Hindutva vote.
Modi exhibits a mystifying duality in his actions. Even while he strengthened his Hindutva plank with his moves on Kashmir and Ayodhya, he strode down the path of economic development and growth, fashioning himself not just as a Protector of the Faith but also as a Messiah of the Poor.
MESSIAH OF THE POOR
In Modi’s first term, the focus had been on construction of toilets, free gas connections, health cards to meet hospital expenses and housing for the poor. At the start of his second term, Modi announced a massive scheme called Har Ghar Nal to provide 192 million households with drinking water on tap for Rs 3.5 lakh crore. When it was launched on August 15, 2019, only 16 per cent of the households had drinking water connections. As of December 2023, that percentage has gone up to 72 per cent with 130 million households covered.
Modi’s welfare schemes now cover almost every aspect of the life of the poor. In his interview, he calls it the “progressive unfolding of my vision and plans”. Elaborating on what that curious line means, he explains, “When I start something, I know the endpoint. But I never announce the final destination or blueprint in the beginning. So what you see today is not what I worked for. It is a far bigger picture that will unfold. I work on a big canvas like an artist. I start at one point but at that time the final picture can’t be seen.” As an example, he points out that when work on the Bharat Mandapam started, no one else thought that the G20 summit held this September would happen there. But Modi was working with a plan. He says, “Whether I work towards making a new Parliament building or 40 million houses for the poor, I do it with equal planning and dedication.”
In between all this, there was Modi, the Vishwa Guru, who played the role of the balancer in a deeply divided and disorderly world. He converted what would have been a routine annual jamboree of world leaders into a grand spectacle. By holding the meetings of various G20 fora across 60 cities in 28 states, he got the Indian public involved and successfully bridged the gap between domestic discourse and foreign policy. Then Modi pulled off a diplomatic coup when he hammered out a consensus declaration even though the US and the West were aligned against China, Russia and others on key global issues including the contentious Ukraine war. By getting Africa, which has 55 nations, to become a member of the G20 during India’s watch, Modi ensured that not only were the concerns of developing nations brought to the fore but also that India came to be seen as the voice of the Global South.
THE VISHWA GURU
By famously saying that this is not an era of war, the PM struck the right chord, getting both Russia and the US to appreciate India’s approach while keeping the high moral ground. Asked how the Ukraine and Gaza wars could be settled, Modi in the interview called for “honest dialogue and sincere diplomacy as the preferred path to resolve differences, in an atmosphere that is free from fear and coercion”. But he carefully nuanced his replies to ensure India’s stand on terrorism and border intrusions is not diluted by saying, “Giving primacy to diplomacy does not mean that we compromise when it comes to terrorism and territorial integrity.” India’s relations with its neighbours are a mixed bag now, so without referring directly to the two bugbears, China and Pakistan, Modi said his way with them was “to be constructive and cooperative where required and, equally, to be firm and steadfast when needed”.
Earlier, Modi pulled off one of the most successful visits by an Indian prime minister to the US when he and President Joe Biden signed a clutch of agreements in defence, space and critical technology in July this year. This included setting up a co-production facility for manufacturing GE 414 jet engines for the Tejas Mk2 light combat aircraft. But there were also diplomatic setbacks. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau levelled embarrassing charges that an Indian government agent had abetted the killing of Canadian citizen Harjit Singh Nijjar, an alleged Sikh militant. The US government had a similar complaint about a plot to murder a US citizen, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, another alleged Sikh radical. The Modi government has denied these charges and said India would investigate them if evidence was provided.
When it came to politics, Modi was the Master Strategist. At the start of 2023, the BJP showed signs of vincibility when the Congress, rejuvenated by Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, made a spirited comeback by winning assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh in December 2022, and Karnataka in May 2023. In July, a new threat to the BJP emerged with the formation of the Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), a 28-party coalition that included the Congress and all the major regional parties opposed to Modi. The glue was the potent narrative of increasing reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBC), a Mandal 2.0, after Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar unbottled his state’s caste survey. It revealed that the OBCs constituted 65 per cent of the population but had a reservation quota of just 27 per cent. It was critical for Modi and the BJP to arrest the march of the Opposition by winning the battle for the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh that went to the polls in November.
The BJP decided not to project any state leader and made Modi the party’s prime mascot. He addressed as many as 34 rallies in these states. Sushil Kumar Modi, the former deputy chief minister of Bihar who was assigned to help in the MP elections, recalls being wonderstruck by how the PM connected with the crowds. He says, “Modiji knows the pulse of the people and understands the social dynamics of the country very well. Each speech of his is filled with new ideas and he rarely repeats what he says in a rally.” During these elections, Modi cleverly appropriated the Congress welfare guarantees that won it Karnataka by introducing what he called the “Modi ki Guarantee”.
THE MODI GUARANTEE
With the PM leading from the front, the BJP won all three heartland states handsomely, puncturing the Congress party’s growing electoral confidence. Modi is modest about his role saying, “Victory comes through the joint efforts of everyone. So it would be unfair to give me the credit. It belongs to our karyakartas and their hard work.” Asked what the Modi Guarantee would be for the 2024 election, the prime minister turned serious and said, “For me, the guarantee is not mere words or election promises or a formula to win elections. When I talk of a guarantee, I bind myself to it. It doesn’t let me sleep, it propels me to work harder, and it leads me to give my everything for the people. Today, every poor person is aware of how political parties in the past have broken their trust. But they all know that ‘Modi’s Guarantee’ can be trusted.” The PM then went on to use a telling Hindi phrase, saying, “Makkhan par lakir toh sab karte hain. Karni hai to pathar par lakir karo. Kathin hai to kya hua, shuruat to kare (It is easy to draw a line in butter, if you have to draw a line in stone it is hard, but let’s make a beginning). This is what I believe in, which gives me the conviction to take on difficult tasks.”
Is the 2024 General Election then a done deal for the BJP? In the interview, Modi seemed confident but said he and his party would have to work hard to ensure it. Indicating that his pitch would be for a stable and performance-oriented government, the prime minister revealed his dim view of the INDIA alliance, “There is a consensus among the people that the country doesn’t need a mili-juli sarkar (coalition government). We have lost 30 years due to the instability resulting from such sarkars. People have seen the lack of governance, appeasement politics and corruption in the era of the mili-juli sarkar. So naturally the choice of the people is the BJP.”
On party matters, Modi’s avatar is that of The Mentor. Modi has made use of the recent victories to bring about a generational change in the BJP’s leadership by betting on fresh faces for chief ministers, including on a first-time MLA, Bhajan Lal Sharma. BJP president J.P. Nadda says, “Modiji always leads from the front, asks for the minutest details, is sharply focused and every sentence he speaks brings out an important observation. He always wants a wider choice, and more youngsters to be brought into leadership roles. In every election, he urges us to go aggressively forward, tackle issues that strengthen the party and test our strength. When the BJP wins, all he says is ‘Good work, but now look ahead’.”
Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma says the PM never discusses politics of the state with him but is keen on knowing how he is ensuring inclusive economic growth. One thing Sarma has learned is to take notes whenever the PM meets him, for he knows that in the next meeting, Modi would reel out all the points they had discussed and enquire about the progress made. Modi even advised Sarma to tell his ministers to form MLA clusters, invite a group for lunch every month so as to listen to their feedback on how the government is performing. He then told Sarma that whenever he opened a new party office, he should invite the elder partymen in that block and wash their feet (in an aside, he also wanted to know what Sarma felt when he did this). Says Sarma, “Modiji gives us full freedom to run the government the way we want to. I feel that with every interaction I become richer as a human being and more mature as a politician.”
Modi’s other avatar is that of a CEO. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union minister of state for electronics and information technology, would vouch for this. He recalls a recent policy presentation of his ministry (which he thought was brilliant) till Modi pointed out that there were no details of how he was going to harmonise it with other ministries. The minister confessed that he hadn’t thought of it and Modi asked him to include that before he cleared it. Chandrasekhar says, “Modiji could be 80,000 feet above sea level, but he backs every vision with his feet on the ground. There is a robustness with which he approaches every issue, an underpinning of substantive knowledge and experience that helps execute solutions.”
In the interview, Modi explained how he arrived at the decisions he takes. He says, “I believe in learning from the experiences and wisdom of others. So, in a way, I am blessed with a strong ground connect. My approach to policymaking is to listen to all the economists and experts and formulate my policies and strategies through a mix of their advice, my ‘ground connect’ and the ‘lived reality’ of the country. As a result of my ground connection, I have strong convictions. Mein kuchh bhi achha lage isliye nahi karta, achha ho isliye karta hoon (I don’t do things because it looks good, I do it because it will do good).” He believes in the optimal usage of resources and outcome-oriented monitoring.
The prime minister is a great one for constantly brainstorming with experts to keep up to date with major developments, and expects the same from his team too. When OpenAI CEO Sam Altman called on him in June 2023 to discuss the early adoption of ChatGPT, Modi called an impromptu meeting with NITI Aayog CEO B.V.R. Subrahmanyam and his team and got them to listen in to what the man had to say about the future of AI. Modi also enjoys playing with technology himself. Dr Hiren Joshi, OSD (communications & information technology) in the PMO, says that when he recently sent the prime minister an AI software that helped compose music, Modi immediately created some music on it. Later, he sent a note to Joshi saying he didn’t find the software good enough.
THE TECH CHAMPION
That’s another avatar of Modi, the Tech Champion. The prime minister is clear that India should leapfrog into what he calls “the Techade”; in 2023, the government launched missions on mastering quantum computing, semiconductor chip manufacturing and AI, sewing up collaborations with major countries, including the US. Modi points out, “The semiconductor mission is something we should have started 30 years ago. We are already late.” But his aim is not to keep up with the Bidens and Macrons. Chandrasekhar says Modi told him, “I want to use technology to transform the governance narrative of India, and I want it to impact lives. We must embrace tech not just to make unicorns or billionaires but to ensure that the last man in the queue sees its benefits.”
After the successful moon landing of Chandrayaan-3 on August 23 this year (India joins an exclusive club of only four space-faring nations to have achieved the feat), Modi called up Union MoS for science and technology Jitendra Singh. He wanted Singh to hold a national quiz so that children would be motivated to learn more about space sciences. Within a month of launching the quiz, Singh’s department received over half a million responses. In May, the prime minister formalised India’s space policy that broke the monopoly of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and permitted the private sector to build satellites, rockets and launchers on their own. He even allowed them to use ISRO facilities to do so. Singh says, “The prime minister has the courage and conviction to break taboos of the past and believes in synergy between the public and private sectors. He wants all stakeholders onboard.”
THE GROWTH KING
Modi is acutely aware that providing jobs and enhancing per capita income is key to the nation’s development and the BJP’s continuance as the ruling party. That’s where his avatar as Modi the Growth King kicks in. To offset the Covid-induced devastation to the Indian economy, the PM, rather than handing out doles, decided to give a massive boost to infrastructure spending to spur growth and create jobs. Modi points out that in budget 2023-24 capital investment outlay has gone up steeply to Rs 10 lakh crore, a far cry from 2013-14 when it was only Rs 1.88 lakh crore. He asserts that infrastructure creation, be it highways, airports or a railway connection, has been “happening at a never-seen-before pace”.
The result of all this is that India, for the second year, continues to be the fastest growing economy in the world. In October, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that India’s real GDP would be above 6 per cent in 2023 and 2024, putting its annual compounded growth rate above China’s 4-5 per cent (the global economy was looking at 3 per cent with advanced economies like the US averaging 1.5 per cent). Modi dismisses the Opposition’s allegations of jobless growth and rising inflation, rolling out numbers to prove his case. He points out that the unemployment rate has declined from 5.8 per cent in 2018-19 to 3.2 per cent in 2022-23. Labour force participation rates have increased from 50.2 per cent in 2019-20 to 57.9 per cent in 2022-23. As for inflation rates, he quotes figures to say that average inflation from 2014-15 to 2023-24 (up to November) was 5.1 per cent compared to 8.2 per cent during the previous 10 years when the UPA ruled.
The Opposition, though, opines that India’s economic growth is K-shaped, meaning that the upper middle class and rich have seen their incomes rise while that of the poor have crashed. They claim the fact that every party, including the BJP, was offering freebies to win votes in the recent round of assembly elections was a sign of the silent rural distress. Economists also argue that it is not the quantity of jobs but the quality that is a cause of worry. This was because most of the growth has come from the self-employed sector rather than the formal economy and that the percentage of unpaid workers (for example, those who tilled their fields) was high.
There is also criticism that Modi has moved from being the federalist when he was Gujarat CM, to becoming “80 per cent unitarist” in his approach; this has resulted in over-centralisation of decision-making in the hands of the PMO. From the outsider he was when he came to power in Delhi, Modi, his critics say, has become the ultimate insider now. Others say he has become like a banyan tree that lets nothing grow under it. Modi had some glaring blind spots in 2023, especially his inexplicable reticence over the bloodshed in Manipur and over the suspension of 146 MPs in Parliament. There were also electoral setbacks in Telangana and Karnataka that saw the BJP draw a power blank in the South.
Meanwhile, his latest avatar is that of Modi the Visionary. While everyone is focused on the next general election, Modi is focusing on the next generation. In the interview, he talked about the generation of Indians between 1922 and 1947 who believed that freedom was their birthright and wanted to contribute towards achieving it. Now, he said, there is an amrit kaal period again where the next generation believes that India, between now and 2047, will become a truly developed country, a Viksit Bharat. “That aspiration will drive the country to achieve the goal,” he felt.
Modi is clear that the traditional definition of a developed nation—of those having a high per capita income, world-class infrastructure and democratic governance—is too limiting for India. Instead he says he would focus on three major priorities. The first would be to ensure good health and fitness for the youth and equip them with appropriate skills. The second is to nurture small and mid-sized businesses and incentivise these enterprises to create high-productivity and high-wage jobs. The third aspect is to prepare the financial sector and capital markets to meet India’s investment needs. The PM has made NITI Aayog the nodal point for brainstorming on the goals of Viksit Bharat. CEO Subrahmanyam, who is overseeing the entire exercise, says, “The prime minister believes in the Indian version of exceptionalism. If the Americans believe they are an exceptional country, he believes India’s manifest destiny is to be a great country, one with a great heritage and a great future that is not bound by what the rest of the world thinks of us.”
The Niti Aayog has formed 10 Sectoral Groups of Secretaries or SGOS to present an action plan to him by the new year. This is the classic Modi style of management—contrary to the Opposition charges of him being authoritarian, he prefers consulting a vast range of experts before deciding on an issue. His cabinet colleagues vouch for him being a patient listener, with an eagle eye for detail and the memory of an elephant. All the meetings Modi convenes are laser-focused, have agendas listed, timelines fixed and the prime minister himself comes well prepared.
Having launched so many schemes and missions, 2023 saw Modi also focus on ensuring that all of them have delivered, in some cases even sending out central officials to the states to check out the progress. Pramod K. Mishra, principal secretary to the prime minister, says, “The PM’s main thrust continues to be to ensure saturation coverage of his welfare schemes and also seeing to it that last-mile delivery has taken place. We hold frequent review meetings with all the departments and agencies concerned to monitor progress.” This is crucial to Modi’s narrative of fulfilling his “guarantees”, contrasting his “performance” with the so-called “parivarvaad” approach of Opposition parties.
The year 2023 was not just India’s moment (as Modi puts it) but truly also the prime minister’s. Despite being in the final year of his second term, his personal popularity and credibility remain high. He has redefined the contours of Bharat and rightfully claims that “from a country that earlier used to feel left behind, we have become a country that is leading from the front”. Whether it’s economic growth, progressive legislation such as women’s empowerment, big electoral wins, or his arrival as a global leader, Narendra Modi dominated the headlines and is without doubt India Today’s Newsmaker of the Year 2023.