The general elections this year were the first of their kind in Indian history. To that extent, India has changed radically. For the first time, there was a credible opponent to the Gandhi/Nehru family and the Gandhi/Nehru doctrinal tradition. Future Prime Minister Narendra Modi was adept at using modern tools of communication and outdid the Gandhis in charisma. Doctrinally, poverty alleviation through government intervention was contrasted with government intervention for the creation of opportunities for self-advancement. Modi brought to bear all the tools of an American campaign and all Indian political leaders will have to emulate this approach in the future.
Modi the man
Narendra Modi is a modern man, adroit campaigner, brilliant orator, great communicator, comfortable with symbols, able to absorb detail, skillful with the power of TV, and coiner of slogans and acronyms. It is hard to believe that the Indian media failed to recognise these qualities when he was chief minister in Gujarat. No wonder, the other political parties were shell-shocked. So perhaps was his own party, which could not have anticipated the success that Modi’s campaign would have or the way he would transform India’s image in the first six months itself. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is no more than a vehicle for Modi; the BJP needs Modi more than Modi needs the BJP.
Modi is a transformational figure, a state-centred politician newly arrived in Delhi. The rise of effective local leaders like Modi making national policy portends well for India; New Delhi will get a feel of what is necessary to make India work. In the US, a majority of presidents have served as governors. All of China’s leaders have served as local or provincial party officials.
Whether it is Modi’s dress sense, his drumming, fasting, working 16 hours a day, or visiting Siachen, he radiates energy. He may be 64 but he acts 44. He is therefore closer to the median age of the Indian voter, and he gives Indians self-respect.
Modi and elsewhere
‘Modi abroad’ was never an issue in the elections. He was an unknown quantity in foreign capitals—as indeed are all Indian chief ministers. But Modi has showed himself to be a strong performer in foreign fields. For our economically important partners, India is regarded as stable and willing to take the steps that make it open for business. The Sensex stock market index in Mumbai, though volatile, broke records with a bull-run after Modi came to power, This is a sign of confidence. Abroad, Modi comes across as straight-talking and muscular, in modes which India has not been seen before. Despite gloomy forebodings from certain quarters, there is no evidence that secularism or the freedom of the media or the separation of powers is in any danger.
Every party has its lunatic fringe, and the BJP is afflicted by a particularly large segment of it, from self-appointed spokesmen who seem obsessed by bikini apparel to others who would ban Valentine’s Day, or set limits to an undefined ‘pub culture’ or café culture. The BJP leadership will always have a problem in keeping its hot-heads on message, and their stupidity provides readymade material for pointless discussions in the media.
But Narendra Modi wins high marks for projecting India in a vigorous and positive light in Bhutan, Nepal, Japan, the US, Myanmar, Australia, and Fiji. His attention to Indian neighbours is most welcome. He is a person acutely conscious of ‘deliverables’ and time-bound follow-up action. This is a great departure from the past, where Indian commitments have rarely been implemented with vigour. No other Indian politician could match the prime minister’s ability to conduct himself abroad. He has achieved name-recognition abroad. Apart from inter-governmental ties, Modi’s economic programmes for India, and especially his ‘Make in India’ campaign, are seen as highly dependent on convincing foreign businesses to invest in India.
Modi and Saarc
Modi is currently in Kathmandu for the second time in a few months to attend the 18th Saarc Summit. This is an organisation that is regarded as flagging, mainly due to the lack of cordiality between the two most populous members—India and Pakistan. If anyone can infuse life into Saarc, it will be Narendra Modi and his activities in Kathmandu will be watched with keen interest. In particular, hopes for a renewed and updated ‘Gujral Doctrine’, which implies non-reciprocal concessions by India to its neighbours, will rest on the possibility of Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif breaking the ice of Indo-Pakistan relations and moving forward to a constructive dialogue.
It is noteworthy that Modi found time to meet the prime ministers of Nepal and Bangladesh during his hectic schedule in New York during September’s United Nations General Assembly; the former not long after the two prime ministers had met in Kathmandu. This is an indication of the priority Modi attaches to neighbours. No doubt, he would wish to visit Bangladesh as soon as possible, once he has overcome the difficulties placed by the West Bengal government in implementing the Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta River-sharing Treaty.
Thanks to Modi, the strong thrust that his government has given to domestic affairs has been carried over into the country’s international profile. This does not mean that the disturbed and complicated relations in India’s neighbourhood have been put to rest or miraculously solved, but the heightened external activity is appreciated. Modi has also shown sensitivity to domestic issues by cancelling his pilgrimages to Janakpur, Lumbini, and Muktinath before the Saarc Summit.
Closer regional cooperation will provide a launch-pad for India and all its neighbours to adjust to, and benefit from, the major developments that are taking place in Asia in order to restore its position in world affairs. This is a journey of adventure that India and its Saarc neighbours must make together. It is true that the world is looking at India anew, for leadership and initiative that will be beneficial to the South Asian region and the world.