We are now in the second phase of the Modi government. The first phase consisted of positioning the brickwork for a five-year term. Key states had to be won in elections to buttress the Modi image and to seek to augment the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) strength in the Rajya Sabha over time. And in a surprise sprung upon the country, Mr Narendra Modi showed an unsuspected sure touch in making foreign policy moves, including in getting President Barack Obama to witness the Republic Day parade.
What then can the country expect now that the Prime Minister has his initial structure of government in place? The journey thus far has demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of the Modi dispensation. The irony is that the baggage that is pulling him down was an essential element in catapulting him from Gujarat to the pinnacle of power in New Delhi. But apart from a sure-footed approach to foreign policy, he has also given many signals of his economic objectives the world is watching with anticipation.
On the negative side, Mr Modi’s compact with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is proving an increasing liability for his party and government. Apart from the RSS’s own belief in Hindutva, which the organisation’s chief Mohan Bhagwat keeps stressing, the more embarrassing part, which is bringing great opprobrium and some disbelief, is a continuing army of BJP members of Parliament and other eminences declaiming the virtues of obscurantist ideas.
For a time, the BJP received a pass by a helpful media describing them as fringe elements. But each day these venerable men and women are proving that they represent the mainstream, not the fringe of the party. What seems to have changed is that they are in a mood of triumphalism, relishing the first BJP victory with a majority at the national level in the country’s history.
That the Prime Minister has chosen to offer his apology only in one instance in Parliament after constant needling reveals his Achilles’ heel. After all, the ludicrous propositions his members are expressing are very much part of the RSS diet on which Mr Modi himself was reared. The jury is still out on whether he himself subscribes to such sentiments (judging by his public remarks, he does believe in ancient Indians possessing knowledge of plastic surgery). But even if one assumes that he is willing to disguise his feelings at the altar of realpolitik, he is apparently in no position to penalise his supporters for such beliefs.
It is for similar reasons that Mr Modi has had to give a carte blanche to the RSS in shaping the country’s future education policy, with the minister concerned, Ms Smriti Irani, having to carry the can. And in appointing a new censor board for film certification after the previous lot resigned in protest, the government has outdone itself in getting a chief censor who proclaims his worshipful attitude to Mr Modi. What kind of education the country’s young generation will receive in the years ahead is too dreadful to contemplate.
There are, of course, many positives to take away from Modi’s innings at the Centre so far. After years of a lackadaisical government of the UPA-II vintage, the firm slap of decisive decision-making is welcome. Second, it is good for a new regime not merely to see the cobwebs, for instance, but do something about removing them. Clearly, the Manmohan Singh government had outlived its usefulness and it was good to have a successor question the logic of how things were done.
In any case, changes in governments are an essential aspect of the democratic system. The Congress, which built up modern India, lost power only to regain it after the incompetence of successor regimes, bar a coalition spell led by the BJP, seemed to have fallen into a rut compounded by the dual-key arrangement. Mr Modi capitalised on his good fortune and took office in a wave of great optimism and every initial decision it took was welcomed almost because it demonstrated that New Delhi could take decisions.
Inevitably, the euphoria has somewhat worn off and the second phase of the Modi government will be more testing, depending as it will be on concrete results and the harm the disruptive capacity of Mr Modi’s supporters can cause. There is a built-in dilemma here in the Prime Minister’s own mind and in that his mentor, the RSS. Some contradictions are part of life, but anomalies seem to be the rule, rather than the exception, in the BJP’s persona.
For a man so taken up by modern technology and the power of digital wonders, Mr Modi coexists with a mixture of fact and fiction that is an essential element of the Sangh Parivar’s belief systems. It remains to be seen how he will resolve this dilemma and at what cost to his essential self and the tolerance levels of the RSS leadership.
For a leader obsessed with controlling his public image, Mr Modi must be aware that the pearls of wisdom one sometimes hears from the Prime Minister himself and much too often from his supporters are objects of great derision for the outside world. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the same mind that can think big in terms of modern technology can be partial to theories of ancient Indians’ ability to fly aeroplanes, employ human cell transfer and other feats associated with the progress of science and technology in the last and present centuries.
Possessing a sharp political mind, an ability to connect with people and dramatising objectives in people’s language, Mr Modi must be conscious of his handicap in taking the Indian development story ahead. The case of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an object lesson in what to avoid. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has already taken his country in an Islamic direction, compared to modern Turkey’s founder, Ataturk. Lately he has been dispensing such gems as Muslims having discovered America 200 years before Columbus and declaring that women are not the equal of men.
(By S Nihal Singh The author is a senior journalist)