Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extraordinary speech at the Christian Conference in New Delhi earlier today is destined to stand out as one of the finest moments in this enigmatic politician’s tumultuous political career and his meteoric rise in India’s current history. It takes him way past the glory of winning the 2014 poll with a massive mandate from the Indian people, and takes him into entirely new heights of statesmanship. This was a speech that would have made Mahatma Gandhi feel proud of Modi.

Modi’s message was direct, unambiguous:

“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence. My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions.

“India is the land of Buddha and Gandhi. Equal respect for all religions must be in the DNA of every Indian. We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.”

Modi’s continued silence about the ravages perpetrated by Hindu fanatics in the recent months was steadily eroding his political stature and tarnishing his credentials as a truly national leader who belongs to all Indian people. He came up for some sharp criticism from the international community as well.

Looking back, it seems he was hoping that the steam would run out of the Hindu zealots and their attacks against the minority communities would pass as an aberration. But he seems to have realised that his private admonitions were ineffectual in reining in the Hindu fanatics and that his hopes have been proven wrong. At any rate, he decided that it is about time to read the riot act to them.

There are three key subplots in Modi’s speech. One is his invocation of the Buddha and Gandhiji as his guiding spirits. There couldn’t have been a more powerful symbolism than that in stressing the primacy Modi attaches to the ideals of mutual respect, tolerance, egalitarianism and non-violence in his charter of governance. He should know that it is against this solemn pledge that he will be tested and judged henceforth and, arguably, he is also insisting on being made accountable that way.

Second, Modi has defined his development agenda with a clarity of purpose that underscores his compassion for the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalized who in their multitudes constitute the bulk of our nation. Modi’s definition of ‘development’ is as follows: “In simple terms it means food on every table, every child in school, a job for everybody and a house with toilet and electricity for every family.” This has never been put so plainly and loudly for the whole nation to hear.

Modi has distanced himself from elitism. A high degree of sensitivity toward the problem of poverty in the country has been a hallmark of Indian politics up until Manmohan Singh arrived on the scene in the early 1990s. An impression was gaining ground that the much talked about development agenda of Modi’s continues to put heavy emphasis on the statistical growth rate of the economy and pays insufficient attention to the social aspects of development. Modi has reiterated that poverty is a matter of shame for India.

A third thing that comes to mind is the boldness with which he has acclaimed the contribution made by the Christian religious figures in the field of social reform, education and women’s empowerment. Most certainly, Modi has rubbished the shibboleths being spread today by the big guns of the Sangh Parviar, falsifying the role of Christian missionaries and English education in India’s modern history. To my mind, what stood out more than anything else in the speech is that Modi paid respect to the wonderful work done by the Christian missionaries in Kerala in the early part of the last century. (See my blog A history lesson from South India.)

Frankly, I fear for Modi. Much of what he said today constitutes an affront to some very powerful quarters in our country. And they happen to be extra-constitutional centres of power and their immense clout over the ruling party is never in doubt. To compound matters, Modi is also a subaltern who happened to reach the top echelons of the Brahmin-dominated Sangh Parivar.

It is always breathtaking when someone takes a leap of faith. In this case it is particularly dangerous because Modi is surging ahead, and not only leaves the diehard Hindu fundamentalists behind but also makes them look primeval.

But then, they also happened to form Modi’s core constituency until very recently; and, they themselves have been under the belief all this while – mistaken belief, as it seems now – that he was but one of them and that his eloquent silence regarding their atrocities against the minority communities only meant passive acquiescence.

Fanatics – be it of the Right or the Left – are bound to seek vengeance on those they consider to be renegades. Such defiance, such boldness, such ideological deviation by Modi would attract retribution from those who claim mentorship over him and would feel betrayed by his speech today. There is an inherent danger to Modi’s rites of passage in the coming period.

For, it is unlikely that the forces of obscurantism who have stormed the citadel of secular India are unlikely to give up without a fight. They may still think that Modi won’t dare to act against them if they continue to transgress the law of the land. And when he does, that might become a flashpoint.

The forthcoming state elections in key states – Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh – will be of critical importance to Modi’s political consolidation. His party chief and close confidante is already under fire following the election debacle in Delhi.

Paradoxically, the forces of secularism and egalitarianism and social justice in the country, who ought to support Modi if and when he travels on this path, will only continue with their opportunistic line, baiting and harassing and debunking him at every conceivable turn of events in the coming period, notwithstanding the pledge he made today. India’s electoral politics is highly competitive and does not allow them to see Modi in any light other than as an existential threat.

That brings us to an intriguing question: Who is indeed the real Modi? Today’s speech at Vigyan Bhavan seriously damages the caricaturing of Modi by his political opponents as an incorrigible blood-thirsty Hindu revanchist and an arch reactionary.

Personally speaking, I had always had a lurking suspicion at the back of the mind that Modi might not be in reality what he was all along made out to be by the detractors. Maybe, it was the empathy that one subaltern would instinctively feel toward another. But today’s speech by Modi clarifies things greatly.

Indeed, how could a robust nationalist like him continue harping incessantly on India’s Buddhist heritage?

Could he be blissfully unaware of the shameful chapter of the history of Hindu revivalism, bestially erasing the last traces of Buddhism from India’s social, cultural and historical landscape?

Could he be unaware that in the ultimate analysis, Hindutva ideology is not compatible with Buddhism?

Again, how could Modi be a fundamentalist when he invokes Gandhiji at every turn at a time like today’s when the Hindu zealots are animatedly discussing the creation of a monument to honor Nathuram Godse, the assassin who murdered the Mahatma?

These are troubling questions for which there are no easy answers. All in all, Modi’s biggest challenge is going to be in sidelining the ‘Sangh Parivar’ and his speech today outlining the quintessence of his development agenda and making the fight against poverty as the core of his “vision of a Modern India” — and not the Hindutva ideology — is a clarion call to redefine the battle lines in Indian politics. Modi has outlined his historical legacy.