Sunday, May 25, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
The UPA Government, it is now grudgingly admitted by its best friends and most avid supporters, suffered grievously on account of its failure to communicate. For nearly three days, or at least until a senior BJP leader stepped in to counter a wave of needless speculation and misconceptions, was in serious danger of allowing Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 26 to be hijacked by those who had their own version of what the change of government meant.
Let us be clear on one point. The objective behind the invitation to leaders of the neighbouring SAARC countries (and to Mauritius) was two-fold. First and most important, the invitation to neighbours was primarily to showcase a stupendous democratic achievement. India has reason to be proud that the world’s largest festival of democracy, involving nearly 700 million voters, was successfully conducted. The election may have been bitterly contested but its outcome, leading to a change of government, was accepted with grace. Yes, there were some notables who seek to shift the goalposts with retrospective effect. But their churlishness tells us more about them than the efficacy of a system that has endured since 1952. India’s bi-partisan commitment to democracy warrants broadcasting to the entire world, and especially the troubled neighbourhood. The Americans celebrate the inauguration of their Presidents. India too is well deserving of a more austere celebration.
In India, the custom is for an auspicious event to be celebrated by not merely the family but with the entire neighbourhood. The logic of the swearing-in follows the same custom: neighbours must also join in.
Secondly, there is an overtly political message that Prime Minister-designate Modi has sought to send both internally and externally. It is that India is witnessing more than a mere shift from the Congress-led UPA to the BJP-led NDA. What is being heralded is a completely new style of politics whose contours will become more and more evident in the coming days. For the moment, Modi is merely setting the first of the many new precedents he will set.
There is a third dimension of Modi’s swearing-in ceremony which is being wilfully understated but is at the same time clearly understood: that India is at the very centre of South Asia. Critics may call it imperial assertion and suggest that this is Modi’s recreation of the Imperial Durbar of 1911 but no one deny that, modified to 21st century realities, the suggestion isn’t entirely untrue. Indeed, the more enlightened among India’s neighbours are mindful that an economic resurgence of India will impact their countries positively. India has always been the elder brother of the region and the successor regime of the mighty British Empire. Unfortunately, overcome by its internal incoherence, the Manmohan Singh Government shied away from the karta’s role and conceded valuable political space to a large eastern neighbour. To reclaim our inheritance will naturally involve building domestic capacity and reinforcing India’s civilizational reach—something that won’t and can’t happen overnight. But at least Modi has issued a clear statement of intent.
It is important to bear in mind that the importance of the swearing-in ceremony is potentially rich in symbolism. However, this is not to suggest that Modi will live up to the journalistic cliché of ‘hitting the ground running’ and use the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to engage Nawaz Sharif in a discussion on the Siachen heights. Many of India’s diplomatic correspondents and, for that matter, diplomat-politicians, have been terribly underworked in the course of an election campaign where neither foreign policy nor the commodity that passes of as ‘strategic vision’ got even a casual mention. Their irrelevance in the cut-throat world of democracy is, perhaps, lamentable. But that is no reason why they should now proclaim their own relevance by discovering hidden ‘nuanced’ meanings in the invite to SAARC leaders.
Narendra Modi wasn’t elected by the people of India to devote the energies of his government in the thankless and perhaps unrealisable task of rediscovering lost brothers on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. That could well be the agenda of some English language TV channels who were dreading their loss of influence but Indians elected Modi to improve their lives and create more opportunities for Young India. In the cloistered world of Delhi it is often easy to live in a bubble and lose the central political plot. The Vajpayee Government devoted disproportionate time and energy in trying to effect an enduring peace with Pakistan, with disastrous consequences in Kargil.
It is definitely a priority to strive for a tension-free neighbourhood. But expectations in that direction have to be tempered by the realisation that Pakistan must first resolve a larger existential dilemma that confronts it. India can merely wait for its resolution and, at best, do nothing to jeopardise the process. For Modi, economic diplomacy aimed at building domestic capacity must remain at the centre of its foreign policy. If India prospers and becomes an economic power centre, the neighbourhood will automatically benefit. That is something the present regimes in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal understand. Pakistan, unfortunately, is confused about its priorities and its future course. That’s a situation India doesn’t have the capacity to alter.
On Monday, the focus will be on the team that Modi has chosen to help him transform India. The foreign leaders will be there to honour India’s democracy. But they are the embellishments. The real substance will be found elsewhere.
Sunday Pioneer, May 25, 2014
Monday, May 19, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
It is bad form to torment the beleaguered. Last Saturday, however, Narendra Modi’s more committed supporters delighted over the understated fury of India’s secularist guardians at the elaborate welcome accorded to the Prime Minister-designate by the Hindu establishment of Varanasi. What the dejected upholders of the ancien regime found galling was not the puja at the Vishwanath temple and the Ganga aarti but the huge media coverage of the occasion. To them, the symbolism was ominous—an impression reinforced by those who interpreted last week’s unequivocal mandate as the restoration of Hindu pride after centuries of self-effacement.
Both sides appear to be overstating their version of the change they anticipate. While sectarian faultlines were clearly visible in some parts of India, notably in western Uttar Pradesh and Assam, during the campaign, this election was not centred on a Hindu cultural renaissance. While the disaggregated data from the opinion and exit polls do suggest a large measure of ‘Hindu consolidation’, cutting across caste, language and class, it would erroneous to conclude that this was a religious Hindu vote. On the contrary, the slogan that gave the BJP its decisive edge was achcha din aane wale hain which was about the future, not the past. Indeed, by trying to make secularism and the so-called ‘idea of India’ the theme song of the election, it was Modi’s ‘secular’ opponents who tried to inject identity politics into the arena. That they failed miserably tells a story.
It is necessary to emphasis what this mandate was not about in order to dispel fears, particularly among the global fraternity of well-connected liberals, that India 2014 is witnessing a re-run of Germany 1933. Modi may not have secured the support of Muslim voters but that owed to entirely to a received version of what he stood for rather than what he said in his 450 odd speeches and how the campaign was run. In effect, there were two very divergent perceptions of what this election was about but the final choice was only nominally influenced by inter-community tensions on the ground.
This isn’t to suggest that Prime Minister Modi will be a sterner version of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Apart from the differences in temperament and personality, the nature of the mandate secured by Modi and Vajpayee are dramatically different. Under Modi, the BJP has secured a clear majority on its own. This implies that although he will head a NDA Government, he cannot fall back on either ‘coalition dharma’ or ‘coalition compulsions’ to explain either under-performance or retreat into expediency. The electorate has given Modi a stark choice: perform or perish. The ambivalent nature of Vajpayee’s mandate, ironically, allowed him the luxury of a more easy going approach.
The sheer weight of expectation and the enormous hunger for self-betterment makes it virtually impossible for Modi to engage in either consensus-building or get derailed by extraneous agendas. Ironically, this suits Modi admirably. Before the verdict, the concern was expressed that a Chief Minister who led a one-party government and distinguished himself by his no-nonsense decisiveness would find it difficult to manage a multi-party coalition where compromises are the order of the day. Nominally, Modi will head a coalition but it is amply clear that India has reposed its faith in ‘President’ Modi. The Gujarat leader isn’t a first among equals; he is clearly the boss.
Modi’s willingness to follow the mandate would imply that many of the old rules of governance will have to be made fit for purpose. This doesn’t imply that the over-cautious and somewhat obstructionist bureaucracy will be marginalised and replaced by impetuous technocrats who will bring a more purposeful work ethic into government. In Gujarat, Modi worked wonders with the existing bureaucracy, applying the principles of functional autonomy, accountability and motivation. It is likely that he will operate with the same template taking care to appoint the right people in the right job and backing them politically. More than the bureaucrat with integrity it is a political class accustomed to doling out patronage and freebies that is likely to be unsettled by Modi’s style. But since the votes were secured in his name, Modi now has the political authority to redefine the rules of politics.
Where the Modi government could encounter the resistance of babudom is in the implementation of his promise of “minimum government and maximum government.” The Congress has left behind a legacy of over-regulation and discretionary powers that are in urgent need of dilution. Manmohan Singh promised administrative reforms when he took over but forgot about it thereafter. If Modi has to let the entrepreneurial spirit prevail and create opportunities for the Young India that voted for him with such enthusiasm, he has to make government less bothersome to the citizen. This is what his mandate has decreed and from which he cannot afford to renege.
Finally, although Modi is confronted with dizzying expectations, his ability to effect real change on the ground will depend disproportionately on the willingness of state governments to play ball. Replacing Centre-State resentment of each other with federal harmony and partnership will demand discarding the Congress’ one-size-fits-all approach with guaranteed, non-discretionary grants to the states and affirming the right of states to control their own architecture of development. The presence of strong regional parties in Parliament, far from being a hindrance, can actually speed up the greater empowerment of the Finance Commission and the eventual irrelevance of the Planning Commission.
If Modi fails to deliver, the argument of non-cooperation by the state government will not wash with voters. Modi won because he inspired belief in a strong and vibrant India led by a gutsy leader. To realise that goal, he has to become the patron saint of regional development, a leader above politics. Last week, the BJP won on the strength of a national vote. It has to ensure that regardless of which party runs state governments, Modi will become a cross-party consensus. This is impossible without the new Prime Minister taking ownership of a federal makeover.
Hindustan Times, May 20, 2014
Saturday, May 17, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
Under normal circumstances, the declaration of results at the end of a long and bitterly contested election is followed by an onrush of platitudes affirming the “maturity of the voters”, the reinforcement of “democratic values” and the opening of a “new chapter” of parliamentary politics. It is not that such ritualistic self-praise was completely absent last Friday morning as the Electronic Voting Machines began revealing the preferences of India’s many millions of voters. However, the usual quota of anodyne remarks and self-satisfied we-told-you-so comments were replaced by two developments that happened in rapid succession. First, by 9.30 am—barely 90 minutes after counting began—it was sufficiently clear that Narendra Modi was going to be India’s next Prime Minister. The NDA, it was evident, was coasting to a majority. Secondly, around 11am or thereabouts, another far more dramatic trend became visible: the BJP was on its way to crossing the magic 272 mark on its own.
That Indian voters had got over their infatuation with fractious coalition politics and were ready to repose full faith in one side should have been greeted with whoops of delight. After all, there is nothing like an unambiguous verdict to facilitate decision-making and political accountability. Unfortunately, the quantum of excitement that this development should have produced was felt more in the outside world than among the assembled punditry in the TV studios. Where the cameras and bright lights were positioned, the mood was one of nervous tension. In one channel the mood, it was reported, was distinctly funereal. Democracy, it somehow seemed, was good only if the outcome was along predictable lines. On May 16, Narendra Modi played the role of party pooper. He spoiled what was planned as a long day and possibly long night of speculation and posturing.
That Modi was, well, a politician cut from a very different cloth was always known. That he played by his own set of rules that often appeared incomprehensible or even outlandish was also known. His relationship with the fourth pillar of democracy had also been awkward: he was the man who was hated, feared and yet never out of gaze. For years on end, viewers and readers had grown accustomed to Breaking News scrolls that began with the mandatory “In a big blow to Modi…” When he won the 2002 election and came to Delhi, self-righteous reporters boycotted his lunch and boasted about their walkout for months thereafter. Lofty editors with a sense of social superiority used to routinely dub him “mass murderer” with the same condescending sneer that Mani Shankar Aiyar reserved for his infamous “chaiwala” expression. Yes, Modi was every cub reporter’s punching bag, the man who was not merely the outsider but even an outlander.
The prospect of such a man becoming the presiding political deity of Lutyens’ Delhi and living in the same bungalow that once housed Rajiv Gandhi filled the beautiful people with the same disgust that Indira Gandhi felt on realising that the palatial residence of her iconic father would now be occupied by Lal Bahadur Shastri. In 1964, the Nehru-Gandhi family ensured that Teen Murti House was unilaterally declared a monument to the late Jawaharlal. In the more egalitarian 2014, plotting a backdoor coup was out of the question. So the entire Congress Lok Sabha contingent from Uttar Pradesh—basically the mother-son duo—admitted to their party’s ignominious defeat but refused to utter the dreaded chaiwala’s name in their perfunctory congratulation to the “new government”.
The erstwhile first family set the tone. By the late afternoon, as the enormity of the change effected by the hoi-polloi began to sink in, the derisiveness began in right earnest. From “you will have to speak in Gujarati now” and “let’s write the final uncensored article” to “enjoy the last drink”, snobbish black humour took over. By the evening, huddled groups were shedding copious tears over what they visualised as the lifeless body of secularism.
Ok, I may be exaggerating the state of disorientation at not merely Modi’s victory but the complete decimation of the Congress. But not entirely. Around midnight, I went to the BBC studios for a recording of a programme on India’s elections for Newsnight. Over the long-distance link I heard the lament of artist Sir Anish Kapoor over the results. He despaired over the fact that India was now going to be led by a “mass murderer”. “This is not the India I grew up in”, he said.
He’s damn right. This was not the entitled world of the Doon School alumnus. Somewhere along the way democracy has finally kicked in. The age of deference is well and truly over. And it has been replaced by an India bursting with raw energy, demanding the standards of life Sir Anish takes for granted and proclaiming ‘dil mange more’.
India has been changing with the same intensity as the flag-waving T20 game. Economists have often invoked the potential of India’s demographic dividend but they have always shied away from addressing its socio-political ramifications. Modi is no trained sociologist but he understood what Young India meant far better than the dynasts who dominate the top echelons of the Congress hierarchy. To the entitled world he appeared brash, crude and outlandish and hardly prime ministerial. To the youngsters in the dusty small towns bursting with aimless energy, he was an icon who spoke their language and articulated their anger. On Friday, he did what the punditry thought was unimaginable: he encashed the demographic dividend politically.
Sunday Pioneer, May 18, 2014
Friday, May 16, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
On Friday, India didn’t merely elect a government with a resounding mandate, it categorically entrusted the responsibility for running the show to Narendra Modi. The extent to which the credit for the victory belongs to the BJP-led alliance and to the man who campaigned relentlessly for a Congress-free India will be the subject of debate in the coming days. To the average voter, however, this is no subject for hair-splitting. The vote was essentially for Modi, for his combative style of leadership and for the dream of a better future he proffered.
The opinion polls and the exit polls are quite clear on this score. The booster dose that carried the BJP beyond the 272 mark and which gave the NDA more than 330 seats was essentially a result of the massive support its candidates received from India’s youthful voters, those under the age of 35. It was this section that gave the Modi campaign its T-20 energy, allowed it to spread throughout India and break the seemingly impregnable bastions of caste and community. The credit for Modi’s spectacular victory belonged to those who demanded a better future for themselves, their families and their country. It was a vote both for self and nation.
The sheer boldness of the mandate may well be lost on a political class that still thinks in very conventional terms about what is possible and what is not on. Modi doesn’t. Having for long successfully defied the collective wisdom of the commentariat and the entrenched Establishment he would know that this was not a mandate for consensus but for audacity. After a long spell of experimenting with the staid and the conventional (that also included dollops of venality), India has preferred a ‘dil mange more’ impetuosity.
It is imperative to grasp the full meaning of Friday’s momentous mandate because the next few weeks will witness a concerted attempt to blunt the sharp edges of the voter restlessness. There will be a bid to suggest that the excitement of the past three months should be firmly buried and replaced by a business-as-usual spirit. There will be the usual jockeying for posts and ministerships by those who were left out in the past decade. And there will be gratuitous advice showered on the new Prime Minister to shed his combativeness and be socialised into a new role.
Some of these suggestions are no doubt well-meaning but Modi must resist the temptations of yielding to the merchants of caution. The vote is for a radical rupture with the fundamental assumptions of governance that, in today’s India, has come to mean institutionalised inefficiency and lack of transparency. Just as he redefined the rules of campaigning during the course of his 450 plus public meetings since September 2013, Modi must be true to his instincts and his partiality for a national resurgence.
Such a lofty project will no doubt need relentless application but equally it will need a revitalised political culture. Hitherto, governments have proceeded top-down to manage change. Modi will need to harness the wave of adulation for him for a larger mission to revitalise a creaky system and make it fit for purpose. This could offend the status-quoists. But he needn’t fear. If India wanted to merely plod along, it wouldn’t have elected a man like him.
Times of India, May 17, 2014