New Delhi, Feb. 6: Narendra Modi flagged his ambition to be Prime Minister, choosing "the disciples of Google Guru" to unveil his "vision" of a brand new India that would minimise state intervention, maximise "good" governance and capitalise on its "greatest asset" called the youths.
The Gujarat chief minister cherry-picked his venue ' Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), one of the best commerce and economics colleges in the country ' to make his national pitch.
An audience that is among the beneficiaries of Manmohan Singh's liberalisation heard out Modi in pin-drop silence because he projected himself as the next multiplier force of reform the class blessed by it can hope to have.
Modi struck a chord with the youngsters ' some of who are expected to land jobs with astronomical pay in the country and abroad ' by riding a wave of college-canteen one-liners, management evangelism usually found in self-help books, national pride and a blackout of unpleasant home truths.
"The government has no business doing business. I believe in minimum government and maximum governance," Modi said. He did not add "Yes, we can" but he came close.
The India of his vision had everything the new generation would want to see: it will foster entrepreneurship and specialised skill development to service the "thousand things a human being requires from birth to grave".
From the moment Modi set foot at the venue, his gestures spoke for themselves. He wore a typical half-sleeved "tussar" silk kurta with a dark blue silk printed stole thrown around. He waved to the students who had squeezed themselves on the expansive spectator rings around the dais.
The students reciprocated with a standing ovation. The girls filmed him through the hour that he held forth and, in American political fashion, pressed flesh when he went to each stand after his speech. He was repeatedly applauded for every hope he held out and every promise he made.
As Modi was wooed ' the girls stopped him for a handshake and an autograph ' and he wowed them, it was evident that he would have to discard the divisive legacy of his political baptism if he visualised a larger mandate for himself.
A student explained why: "We like him for the model of governance he stands for but we do not like the RSS's culture of intolerance."
Aware of the mood of despondency that settled over Delhi over the past year or so, Modi played in part to the antipathy to the political call, counted himself as a member but endeavoured to show he was "different".
His refrain was: "I think differently." "This is my fourth term as chief minister. Based on my experience, I can say I have worked with the same laws, the same Constitution, the same rules and regulations, the same files, the same officials and yet we can change the system and do a lot," he said.
The catalysts, he added, were "self-belief and optimism". Lifting a glass of water from which he frequently sipped, Modi said: "The optimists will see this glass as half-full and the pessimists will see it has half-empty. To me the glass is full, it is half-filled with water and half-filled with air. I am an inveterate optimist."
Conscious of speaking to a gathering that comprised the "demographic dividend" ' Modi pointedly addressed them as "friends" to show he was talking to and not down to them ' he said India was blessed with ample natural and human resources but the challenge was one of seeking opportunities.
"China and Europe are ageing countries. We have a 65 per cent of under-35 population that remains underutilised," he said and went on to explain how he would encash on and celebrate this "asset".
"I was in Taiwan 15 years ago, as a BJP office-bearer. On the day of my departure, my Taiwanese interpreter asked, 'Is your country a land of snake-charmers?' I said we are not a country of snake-charmers. We have been devalued into one of mouse-charmers," he recalled. "But our youths have rebranded India simply by placing their fingers on the computer mouse. No political leader has done it," he said to wild cheers.
Modi cited another example to fit his "yes, we can" construct. "All of you are familiar with the Nano story. But there is another equally significant one. A young man, an Indian from Africa, came to me and said he wanted to do something. He was inarticulate, somehow our chemistry didn't match. I directed him to the Vadodara collector and said he would help out. The paperwork was done.
"Almost 13 months later, he came to see me again, this time he wanted me to inaugurate his factory. I was astonished and said I would. He said, 'You will have to come again after six months and see the first products roll out.' And what was the product? It was the train coach that goes to the Delhi Metro many of you use," he said.
Modi's development "vision" largely drew from Gujarat. "India's development is Gujarat's development," he proclaimed, saying that the milk used in the tea consumed in Delhi came from his state as did the tomatoes that travelled to Afghanistan.
His model, he said, consisted of three equal parts, agriculture, manufacturing and services. "The outlays and investments are equitably divided so that if one pillar gets weak, the other two are still strong enough to hold the structure," he said.
But he went on to say he dreamt "big" and, like Swami Vivekananda, his "spiritual mentor" (he didn't utter the RSS's name), he wanted to give "Bharat Mata" (India) her place to lord over the universe.
The rhetoric was laced with caution. If India wished to compete with or surpass China, it would have to adhere to the three Ss: skills, scale and speed. "From birth to death, I have made a list of the 1,000 things everyone requires. Servicing each need will mean honing a thousand skills. Scale means everything will have to be done big and speed means sticking to deadlines or beating them," said Modi.
Palash Gupta, 20, a second-year commerce student of SRCC, said: "I have always personally admired Narendra Modi. Today's speech reinforced the faith I repose in him. He came across as a quick decision-maker and an able administrator. Truly inspiring."
Dinesh Rajput, 24, a first-year MA history student of Kirori Mal College, said: "I loved Modi's punchlines, especially the one on minimum government and maximum governance. But his potential as a national leader has still to be tested."
Neha, 19, a first-year commerce student of SRCC, was impressed with the no-frills approach. "A no-frills, no-fuss speech, no tedha-medha (crooked) or jalebi-like confusing statements. Spoken straight from the head and the heart."
But Sucheta De, national joint secretary of the All India Students Association (AISA) and a PhD from JNU, said: "In a democratic country like India, Modi should be punished for his crime instead of being given legitimacy to talk about India's development."
Outside the venue, hundreds of students protested and held placards on Modi's alleged role in the Gujarat riots. Police used water cannons and canes to disperse the students, many of them from unions such as the AISA, AISF, DSU and the SFI.