No politician in India attracts as much attention from friend and foe alike as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. So it was no surprise when his speech last week at a Delhi college—the sort of thing many chief ministers would struggle to have reported at all—turned into a frenzy of television coverage and nonstop analysis.
Pundits declared Mr. Modi's hour-long address to a rapt audience of about 1,800 students the Gujarat strongman's coming-out party on the national stage. On the heels of a thumping electoral victory in his home state in December, his third in a row, Mr. Modi's Delhi foray also underscored his position as first among equals in the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, reinforcing speculation that he'll be the BJP's prime-ministerial candidate in next year's national elections. It inevitably triggered a rash of comparisons between him and his putative rival—the ruling Congress Party's Rahul Gandhi.
Mr. Modi's performance certainly appears to have struck a chord with the students he addressed, as well as with a cross-section of the middle class. But despite his ambitions, it's his ideas and his style of governance that offer the most lessons for India. Outside the echo chamber of social media, Mr. Modi's prime ministerial prospects remain slim.
The problem is electoral. The BJP lacks enough of a base in southern and eastern India to even come close to forming a government on its own, which means it has to build a coalition. Thanks to anti-Muslim riots on his watch in 2002 though, Mr. Modi appears to be anathema to important potential allies such as the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh. Plus, there's no evidence to show that his middle-class supporters outside Gujarat—including many of his 1.2 million Twitter followers—have either the numbers or the organization to count at the ballot box.
But Mr. Modi's message deserves attention for a subtler reason. His speech marks the most high-profile departure from the usual way in which Indian politicians speak about development. In a nutshell, the chief minister wrapped a call for economic competitiveness in a broader message of hope, ambition and national pride.
It's hard to think of any other major Indian politician bluntly declaring that "government has no business doing business," or bemoaning the time, before Nehruvian socialism cut India off from world-class technology, when Ahmedabad's textile mills earned it the sobriquet "Manchester of India." Or, for that matter, publicly declaring that India needs "skill, scale and speed" to compete with China.
This offers a glimpse of how politicians can approach a problem at the heart of Indian democracy—the difficulty of selling sensible economics to an electorate largely poor and nursed on a diet of handouts. So common is this leftist tilt that even anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal, whose new Aam Aadmi Party is supposed to represent the middle class, has an economic agenda that consists chiefly of berating private power companies for making profits.
The failure of politicians to update their vocabularies two decades after India embarked upon liberalization helps explain its current slowdown. The International Monetary Fund expects the economy to grow 4.5% this year, excellent for an advanced industrialized economy, but anemic for one at India's stage of development. Economists estimate 7% growth as the bare minimum for employment to keep pace with India's young population. Alarmed by a ballooning fiscal deficit, ratings agencies last year threatened to cut India's sovereign rating from investment grade to "junk," which would hike the cost of borrowing for Indian firms.
These threats motivated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to push a few symbolic reforms in September, but his government still hasn't offered a coherent message of aspiration, or enacted "Big Bang" moves like amending India's socialist-era labor laws or privatizing loss-making state-owned firms. And across the country, it's still politics as usual. Congress will likely seek re-election on the back of food subsidies and cash transfers to the poor. Against this backdrop, Mr. Modi's speech is a rare attempt to frame development in small government terms.
Still, to regard him as a messiah, as his more ardent supporters do, would be foolish. His most significant achievements in Gujarat—such as supplying reliable power as long as people are willing to pay for it—depend more on sound administration than on radically overturning the status quo. And even though Mr. Modi's speech was clearly aimed at the country at large (it was in Hindi), it's a lot easier to tout South Korean development lessons to college students in Delhi than to impoverished peasants in the hinterland.
Nonetheless, Mr. Modi's political heft and national profile give his message resonance. Even if they aren't enough to propel him to higher office, they may well lay the groundwork for a political discourse less harmful to India's economic wellbeing.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01