We have had 13 prime ministers, some who have served multiple terms, and some for a few days. But few fall in this category since they came from within the system, and their policies and perspectives hewed close to the norm.
Modi may be an RSS pracharak and four-term chief minister of Gujarat, but as of two years ago, he had, at best, an outside chance to become PM. But this is not about how he became a front-runner within his party, but about what can happen when an outsider gate-crashes the system.
If he wins, Narendra Modi will join an elite band of outlier PMs
He propelled himself into the ranks of front-runners by a well-organised PR campaign stressing decisiveness, good governance and incorruptibility, but his real strength came from the fact that both the RSS and BJP soon realised that there was just one man who could enthuse the cadre, and that was Modi.
GovernanceThis said, the question remains of figuring out how Modi, the outlier, will impact on India's governance and polity. We know what he stands for in Gujarat and his narrative of Gujarati asmita will presumably translate into Bharatiya asmita once he takes up residence at 7 Race Course Road.
His economic policies are fairly clear - oriented towards growth and the promotion of manufacturing industry - witness his quick invitation to Ratan Tata to establish the Nano car plant in Gujarat after the contretemps with Mamata Banerjee, or his proximity to industrialists like Gautam Adani, Mukesh Ambani and others.
But where we could expect innovation and surprises is in his dealings in foreign and security policies. How, for example, would Modi deal with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, or for that matter Pakistan, China and the United States? The easy answer is that he will be firm and decisive. But there is just a degree of separation between what is considered "firm" and "decisive" and what can be "rigid" and "rash."
Likewise, how would he handle the complex trade and climate change negotiations going on, or respond to the regional challenge that China is throwing at us.
A better understanding of how outliers impact on policy comes from the career of some previous prime ministers.
Heading the list is Indira Gandhi. When Panditji passed away in May 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri became PM. But he passed away suddenly in Tashkent in January 1966, and Mrs Gandhi was pushed into office by the Syndicate of old-timers who didn't want to give the office to one of themselves.
They thought that the goongi gudiya (dumb doll as she was pejoratively called) would do their bidding. In a matter of two years, she had outmaneuvered them and become PM in her own right. Her moves included a Left-ward swing by abolishing privy purses of former Indian rulers, nationalising banks, and later coal, steel, copper, cotton textiles and insurance.
After sweeping the 1971 elections on the Garibi Hatao slogan, she became supreme. Each twist and turn of the Indira story was unpredictable - the decision to liberate Bangladesh, grab Sikkim, declare Emergency or order Operation Bluestar.
SubterfugeAnother outlier was P V Narashima Rao. Recuperating from a heart bypass operation, he sat out the election of 1991. But it was he who became Prime Minister after the untimely death of Rajiv Gandhi.
As a member of the Congress (Indira), Rao was always careful to hide his talents and true inclinations. It is this ability for subterfuge, and his considerable intelligence, that he used to liberalise the Indian economy, with the actual work being done by his finance minister, Manmohan Singh.
Unfortunately for him, a similar move to derail the Sangh Parivar's Ram Mandir plan ended in disaster when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992.
A great deal of what Rao achieved is still under the covers, especially his role in India playing catch up with Pakistan on the nuclear front. His "Look East" policy and recognition of Israel are another example of what happens when the outsider becomes the insider.
The third outlier in our list is Atal Bihari Vajpayee. When L K Advani was single-handedly building up the BJP through the Ram Mandir agitation, Vajpayee remained in the sidelines. But, soon Advani realised that he could never find acceptance in non-Parivar political formations.
For that reason when the opportunity came knocking for the BJP in 1996, it was Vajpayee who was put forward as the acceptable face of the party, the mukhota, as someone termed it.
OddballVajpayee had always been the oddball in the Parivar. Though technically an RSS pracharak, he was known to enjoy the good things in life, and as an MP, at least in the 1980s and 1990s, he was not known for shrillness when things started getting shrill.
But beginning with the nuclear tests of May 1998, the Vajpayee prime ministership came up with policy moves which would have been considered unthinkable earlier: the outreach to Pakistan despite Kargil, the 2002 visit to Beijing that created an opening for a border settlement, which was derailed only because the BJP lost the 2004 elections.
The move towards the United States who Vajpayee termed as a "natural ally." There have been other outliers in India's prime ministerial stakes - HD Deve Gowda, I K Gujral, or Chandrashekhar, but their role was insignificant because they were there by the grace of someone else.
Leading this pack is Manmohan Singh. He did come from nowhere to become India's third-longest serving prime minister. But, he, too, is someone else's creature and that has been his tragedy these ten years.
To come back to Modi. As of now there are more questions than answers before us because we do not know the size of his victory, nor the composition of his team. We have some understanding of his domestic policy perspective from his role as CM of Gujarat. But as for his foreign and security policies, we will have to wait and watch.
If the history of past outliers is a guide, he is likely to spring more than his share of surprises.
Mail Today April 15, 2014