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Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Canada last week, I spent two weeks in India looking at how the country had changed since the polarizing leader swept to power nearly one year ago. It was fascinating to arrive back in Canada, where he was received by a rapturous diaspora and feted by Ottawa politicians eager to exploit Mr. Modi's popularity among 1.2 million Indo-Canadians.

Because in India itself, what I heard about Mr. Modi's accomplishments – most strikingly from the conservative business people that powered his victory last May – was skepticism and disappointment. Despite acknowledgments that expectations were likely always too high, there was still a sense Mr. Modi hadn't yet delivered. There was very little celebrating.

The good news, though, is that it wasn't all bad – India is moving again. But like everything else on the subcontinent, it's much more complicated than the simplistic hype that is constantly whipped up whenever Mr. Modi tours the world, marketing anew India's vast untapped potential and receiving uncritical plaudits for work that has yet to be done.

Abroad, Mr. Modi is hailed as an unwavering, pro-business micro-manager who achieved remarkable success in Gujarat, where he was the long-time chief minister. His election prompted many foreign investors to aim cash India's way, convinced Mr. Modi would not let anything stand in his way as he developed India's economy.

The reality is more complex. Business people in India told me repeatedly they were hopeful his agenda might finally begin to bear fruit this year, but that they were still waiting – with an eye on India's long-term challenges.

Promised infrastructure investments will take time, and India is a very big place. New skills and education, especially among a population as vast as India's more than 1.2 billion people, will also take years. Legislation he has passed, in some cases, was formulated under the last Indian National Congress government. There are also centre-state relations to deal with: Despite a majority in the lower house, Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party lacks one in the upper house – where a party gets seats based on state-level power. And Mr. Modi lost recent elections in Delhi, and is not guaranteed to win important state elections coming up.

Gujarat, though a nice place to do business, is not exactly paradise. Mr. Modi never created there the widespread employment he now promises at the national level, and whatever he does deliver will not employ the astounding one million Indians joining the work force each month.

Like his political rivals, Mr. Modi is a product of a vibrant but chaotic Indian political system. He has roots in the Hindu nationalist movement, and rose within the pro-business BJP, which gains votes on sensational flashpoints such as banning beef (which is eaten by Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Hindus) and trying to build a Hindu temple on an ancient mosque demolished by Hindu radicals.

Overseas supporters who fail to understand Mr. Modi's day-to-day political realities within India could delude themselves into thinking his agenda will roll out smoothly and that, unlike other leaders, he won't stop to play politics. But just ask Muslims in Gujarat's Ahmedabad, who fought Mr. Modi's government for compensation after anti-Muslim riots on his watch – or in Uttar Pradesh, where little has been done for victims of similar riots in 2013. Christians, too, are fearful as churches are attacked and Mr. Modi says little. Unlike U.S. President Barack Obama, who arrived in Delhi recently and warned "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along lines of religious faith," there was no such criticism from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who used one event in Vancouver to call Mr. Modi "one of the world's great leaders."

Mr. Modi, who has been mocked at home for his frequent trips abroad, came and got what he wanted – mainly uranium, but also to persuade pension funds to invest in Indian infrastructure. Canadian politicians, too, got what they wanted: Plenty of adulatory airtime with a leader popular among a key political demographic. But in Canada, as elsewhere, the hard, critical reflections took place in boardrooms and behind closed doors, and ordinary people tuning into coverage of his visit simply saw a one-sided celebration that failed to capture the true dynamics – messy, frustrating and inspiring – now unfolding in India.