Ahead of the game
Narendra Modi’s prime ministry is not the big gamble it seems.
28 September 2014: In some ways, Narendra Modi’s prime ministry appears more counter-intuitive than those of his predecessors. You would imagine that he would seek to make friends and allies in the ruling establishment to stabilize and strengthen his position. By that logic, he would placate his party colleagues in and outside the government and the extended Sangh Parivar which assisted him to gain power. He would wire the permanent civil service in his favour and give it a share of power as happened in the previous United Progressive Alliance regime. He would curry favour with the press, appear beholden to the fat cats of the financial world, and gush at big business.
Counter-intuitively, Narendra Modi has done none of these things.
The media loathes his guts. Every passing day of his prime ministry makes it more irrelevant. Industrialists are not crowding Delhi as in the past; the prime minister is said to have pulled up some of his more errant ministers who thought to cozy up to them on the sly. After last week’s bloodless massacre, which saw scores of mid-career officials transferred, the Central bureaucracy is alternatively terrified of and enraged with the prime minister. At a private dinner of Indian Administrative Service and Indian Foreign Service officers, there were powerful voices urging sabotage of the Narendra Modi government. One dialogue resonated above all else, and that was, “We have to break the prime minister before he breaks us. He has to be made to realize he cannot do without us.”
Nor is the sentiment in Bharatiya Janata Party circles in favour of Narendra Modi. Lok Sabha members from North India feel specially let down. Their group-talk follows this general pattern: “We thought we would make money and have fun in Delhi. No way. Modi has put a stop to all that. We literally drink milk and go to bed. We don’t know when this man will summon us for a late-night meeting. If we smell of alcohol, it is the end of us.”
This may be typical cow-belt exaggeration. But the fear of Narendra Modi is real. In their fears, he appears omnipotent and omniscient. In any other administration, you would expect MPs to be vying to become ministers; not in this dispensation. Junior MPs plead not to be recommended for ministerships. They consider it a prison sentence, with Modi being the fearsome head warden. Equally, senior members of Sangh Parivar front organizations are unhappy with the prime minister because he won’t slacken the purse strings for them. At one meeting apparently, he exasperatedly explained to them that he was answerable for every naya paisa of government expenditure; they left disgusted.
Over and above all this, the opposition won’t give him any quarter. If he succeeds in this term and wins another, the dynastic parties are finished for the next twenty years; there will be a generational wipe-out. The Nehru-Gandhis, the Mulayam and Laloo Yadavs and the Karunanidhis won’t stand for that at any cost. Hence the exultation at the victories notched in the Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat by-polls, which may be premature.
At the same time, Narendra Modi’s foreign policy successes are stirring envy at home and new competition abroad. The Chinese leadership cannot countenance a strong Indian prime minister who would once for all erase the ignominy of the 1962 debacle. Pakistan has already moved into reflexive obstructionist mode, with the Pakistan military stoking jihadi terrorism again in Jammu and Kashmir. And if India rises with Modi, the great powers shan’t be ecstatic; it will mean more multi-polarity.
Some of the opposition to rising India and Modi is inevitable and unstoppable. If the country’s rise is peaceful, as it is bound to be in India’s case, that would bring its own acceptability. But why would Narendra Modi wish to stir up so much domestic opposition to him after such a handsome victory? Perhaps the answer resides in two things. One is that by nature he is transformative; the status quo does not satisfy him. Second, India is in a political, economic, financial and military-strategic mess; this is all too apparent. Unless Modi cracks the whip, the system will not reform and deliver. But isn’t he making enemies in the system? Won’t the system strike back?
This writer is convinced that Modi has evaluated the risks and feels no threat to his position so long he can deliver. To deliver, he needs the system, which means the ministers, the bureaucrats, the party apparatus, and so on. He knows the system inside out; he is confident of dominating it. But he needs a bigger alliance with the people to win their recurrent legitimacy and to gain the cushion of time to deliver; hence his direct address to masses via new vehicles of communications like Teacher’s Day and the improvisation of older forms such as the Independence Day speech: defying expectations, he spoke in it of toilets for girls and admonished mothers who wouldn’t rein in their wayward sons.
Isn’t all this a big gamble; thrusting ahead on people power with a dysfunctional system and a mutinous crew? It is. But Narendra Modi believes he can pull it off. He works harder than anyone in government; he is streamlining the system; he is weeding out the corrupt and plugging the loopholes against bleeding the exchequer. He is imposing new moral norms on his ministers and setting right the warped steel frame of the civil service. The conviction of J.Jayalalithaa indicates the depths to which the country has fallen. Years from now, Modi’s ministers would be glad that he kept them on a tight leash.
Imperceptibly, the country is changing. Honesty and integrity count for more than ever in public life. The spread of communications, education, knowledge and awareness has diminished the hold of political power on people. Narendra Modi is alive to this vital change and his actions are complimentary. They are probably not as counter-intuitive as they seem.