New Delhi: It is a puzzle till you dig deeper. Why has Prime Minister Narendra Modi been able to market economic reforms where his two illustrious predecessors failed, namely P. V. Narasimha Rao and A. B. Vajpayee? The simple answer is that Narendra Modi is a complete politician and they are not. It is this completeness that makes his projects viable.

In the third year of his prime ministry, Narasimha Rao realized that he could not sell reforms to people. His party, the Indian National Congress, lost Andhra Pradesh in 1994. Reforms held no traction for the voting public. As he began backpedalling, he ran into his finance minister, Manmohan Singh’s opposition, who threatened to resign. He was prevailed to remain. But Narasimha Rao could not be shaken from his belief that reforms had killed his second term beyond other factors.

In Vajpayee’s case, the India Shining campaign failed to impress the electorate. Unlike Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee was convinced about reforms. He was of the Conservative, pro-market Right. For all his understanding and admiration of Jawaharlal Nehru and the early necessity of five-year plans, state-owned companies, subsidies and so forth, he was keenly aware that India’s future lay in decontrol. He chose highway development and picked the threads where the Narasimha Rao government had left. Public sector disinvestment was assiduous. He backed a minister committed to disinvestment like Arun Shourie. Jokingly once, he questioned the speed limits on highways. It was his metaphorical way of saying full speed to reforms. But he came crashing at the end of his third and only five-year term.

This history of wrecked regimes would naturally warn future prime ministers against reforms. But Narendra Modi has followed in the footsteps of Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao without the least foreboding, and been none the worst for it. Where did Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee lack in their reform initiatives which Modi has remedied? How is he different from them in selling reforms?

In the main, Narendra Modi has not made a shibboleth of reforms. His concept of reforms is very different from, say, that of a trained economist like Manmohan Singh or the Chicago school doctrine followed by Raghuram Rajan, the Reserve Bank governor. Modi adopted reforms as the chief minister of Gujarat but it was often antithetical to textbook practises. For example, he did not privatize the public sector but brought it to profit. Now he wants the same with Indian Railways and stated in Benares that he had no intention to sell it. He said the railways moulded him, alluding to his countless journeys through the length and breadth of India to understand its dynamics.

When Narendra Modi spearheads reforms, it is not a standalone entity. He brings the completeness of his politics and vision to bear on it. To reforms, he joins young entrepreneurship, and progress and development for all. He sees himself as a catalyst to big enduring changes. The Swachh Bharat campaign is in that direction. His resolve has brought the private sector back to highway development. Often, he is doing nothing more than giving impetus to good but abandoned policies.

Since his days as chief minister, Narendra Modi has realized that governance is an organic process. It combines science as well as instinct, tradition and people’s goodwill. He has moved reforms beyond CII, FICCI, etc, and taken it to the people. He took a gamble of only speaking of progress and development in Gujarat in the latter half of his chief ministry and was rewarded. In his Lok Sabha and assembly election campaigns, he has not deflected from the theme. He has the courage of his convictions.

Astute though he was, Narasimha Rao was never a vote-getter like Narendra Modi. Therefore, he couldn’t sell reforms. A. B. Vajpayee, on the other hand, won all the Lok Sabha elections he contested bar two, but could never be counted a mass politician like Modi. Moreover, he was not a details’ man. Modi gets to the bottom of things and knows the pulse of the country. He understands how to sugar-coat bitter medicine.

Those who closely watch Narendra Modi’s government say corruption at top levels has been decisively contained. This change will drive some portion of the reform dynamic by itself. By his election victories at the same time, Modi is connecting the bottom to the reforms’ process. It is slow. It will take Narendra Modi at least two terms to achieve a degree of success. But he is undaunted.

At every stage of the evolution, Prime Minister Modi is keeping the people in step. Hindsight suggests that both P. V. Narasimha Rao and A. B. Vajpayee lost in this region.