POLITICS—AND, INDEED, governance—we have long been accustomed to being told, is “the art of the possible”. The subtext of this sage advice for moderation in public life is to avoid haste and usher change in society “bit by bit, so that nobody will notice it”—as the parody version of the British socialist song ‘Red Flag’ put it. In a sense, this also corresponds to the romantic notion of an ‘unchanging India’ where there is a seamless transition from one generation to another. Revolutionary impetuosity, we have long realised, has always come a cropper in India. In the evocative imagery of civil servant and historian Vincent Smith, ripples on the surface have left the depths unmoved.
At the same time, there is an alternative vision that corresponds to the reformist impulses of those Indians who spent much of the late-19th century and early-20th century debating and agonising over the reasons why India had lost its national sovereignty for a thousand years or so. It centred primarily on the shortcomings in the national character and what could be done to overcome passivity and inculcate the values of robust nationhood in a country overwhelmed by both servitude and grinding poverty. Swami Vivekananda’s “Awake” message, Lokmanya Tilak’s defiant assertion of Swaraj as a birthright and Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of activism as a quest for the truth were instrumental in securing the restoration of national sovereignty to India. But moving to the next stage and rediscovering what Jawaharlal Nehru, in his midnight-hour speech on August 14th-15th, 1947, described as the “soul of a nation long suppressed” has proved more problematic. Since 1947, India has grappled for direction and an answer to the question: “What sort of India do we want?” It was a query that neither lent itself to easy solutions, nor addressed the more complex issue of national character.
The answers to complex and seemingly intractable problems don’t lie in catchy slogans—though these can often help. In May 1968, when much of Western Europe and parts of the US were engulfed in student protests—against war, against boredom and against purposeless consumerism—a strange poster made an appearance at the Sorbonne in Paris: “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” I think it summed up the dilemma confronting Narendra Modi when he first assumed public office two decades ago.
Whether a view of Modi as an instrument of far-reaching change crossed the minds of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and, more important, Lal Krishna Advani, that fateful morning in September 2001 when they selected him as the chief minister of Gujarat, is not known. It seems very unlikely. Confronted by a rising tide of disaffection over the management of the post-earthquake reconstruction and a string of by-election reverses, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looked for an alternative to Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel. In Modi, they imagined a leader of boundless energy with deft organisational skills and with a capacity to inspire the party faithful. Earlier, Modi’s no-nonsense approach as the Sangathan Mantri had riled the top leadership of the Gujarat BJP and they had successfully manoeuvred his ouster from the state. Now, the national leadership felt they needed him to salvage a difficult situation. “I have been asked to win a T-20 match,” he remarked to me as he got on the flight to Ahmedabad.
For BJP, the elevation of Modi from an apparatchik to the chief political executive of an important state that had become a BJP stronghold since 1991 was a gamble. They understood that Modi had boundless energy and enthusiasm but their perspectives were limited to political management. They were also aware that Modi—unlike many Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharaks who rigidly adhered to a pre-determined framework—was fiercely independent, even somewhat rebellious. “His problem,” a very senior RSS functionary once told me, “is that he is temperamentally argumentative. Every instruction is invariably responded with a Why.” Yet, it was this ability to think out of the box that saved Gujarat for BJP and enabled Modi to emerge from the furore over the post-Godhra riots of 2002 as a hero.
The resounding political success of BJP and Modi in the 2002 Assembly election, however, created an associated problem. Due to the highly surcharged atmosphere that prevailed in the state after the riots and the relentless assault on the chief minister by a phalanx of secularists, the image of Modi became that of a pugnacious Hindu warrior—a modern-day Shivaji. The perception wasn’t unfounded but it was partial and seriously underplayed his abilities as an architect of effective governance.
Modi was never impressed with doctrinaire approaches. Just as India’s trading communities have combined their grasp of available opportunities with cultural sensitivities, Modi has combined vision with a commitment to reformism, rather than a revolutionary break. Rather than rush ahead with a copy of Milton Friedman or Hayek in hand, Modi has steadfastly focused on what is expedient
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The imbalance owed entirely to his shrill critics—particularly those in the media—who were unable to fathom that Modi’s recurring successes in Gujarat and his growing all-India appeal between 2002 and 2014 owed to his Hindu assertiveness being combined with his spectacularly impressive record as an administrator and reformer in Gujarat.
Gujarat was always a business-friendly state and Modi’s thrust in Gujarat always factored in the temperament of the people. Many of these approaches would subsequently be modified when he assumed charge as prime minister of India in 2014. At the same time, the element of continuity was marked.
Let me explore some of the principles that have driven Modi over these past two decades.
First, there is the vision thing. In the four years of political exile from Gujarat before 2001, Modi travelled incessantly, both within India and overseas. The takeaway from his overseas visits—to the US, to countries in Europe and to Australia—was a determination to ensure that India broke out of its Third World status and joined the ranks of the advanced democracies. Unlike many in the RSS-BJP parivar who were wedded to an idea of Indian exceptionalism—which sometimes translated into a celebration of the ‘unchanging India’ and a Gandhian suspicion of modern technology—Modi embraced enhanced living standards and technology quite enthusiastically. Perhaps inspired by the example of the Gujarati diaspora that combined adaptability in the outside world with rootedness at home, Modi rejected the fear that engagement with the world would see an automatic dilution of India’s indigenous culture. This perspective may even have been enhanced during subsequent visits to Japan and interaction with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who combined his fierce nationalism with his country’s traditional openness to the wider world. Modi, a committed disciple of Swami Vivekananda, evolved his own Global Hindutva that was neither exclusionary nor hegemonic.
Second, Modi was never impressed with doctrinaire approaches. Just as India’s trading communities, not least peripatetic Gujaratis, have combined their grasp of available opportunities with cultural sensitivities—an awareness of the limits of existing possibilities—Modi has combined vision with a commitment to reformism, rather than a revolutionary break. Rather than rush ahead with a copy of Milton Friedman or Hayek in hand, Modi has steadfastly focused on what is expedient.
One of the lessons the entire BJP drew from the unexpected defeat of the Vajpayee Government in 2004 was that drum-beating privatisation went against popular inclinations. Yes, there were elements of India’s over-extended public sector that should, ideally, be monetised and invested in more worthwhile ventures. However, the premium was put on improved efficiency. Between 2002 and 2014, the Gujarat government outdid most other Indian states in attracting new investments and creating a manufacturing base. Yet, what is remarkable—and something that Modi never failed to point out—is that the improvements were effected using the very same civil servants that were inherited from Congress’ socialist dispensation. What Modi provided them additionally was motivation, training and respect.
This approach was replicated in his dealings with the all-India bureaucracy. Modi did attach special importance to efficiency—especially in the dealings with ministries where the minister, while politically of consequence, lacked domain knowledge—but an additional criterion was integrity.
The third feature of Modi’s approach that shows a continuity from his Gujarat days is the reliance on technology. Personally adept in the use of technology for daily needs, Modi has been quick to seize the importance of technology to increase the efficiency of government and curb the discretionary powers of babus, a crucial step against corruption. The template was provided by the Gujarat government’s decision to make the entire transfer and posting of teachers—previously a major racket—online, thereby ensuring transparency and freeing it from corruption.
In 2014, the future of the Aadhaar scheme—initiated by the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government—was in some doubt. It is to Modi’s credit that he grasped the larger potential of the ambitious programme, overruled all political objections and enlarged its usage to cover different government initiatives. This was to come in handy during the Covid-19 vaccination programme.
Similarly, disregarding doctrinaire demand for the complete denationalisation of banks, the Modi Government adopted two approaches. First, there was a sustained drive, including new laws, which served as a deterrent against the misuse of bank credit by persons with political connections. Second, the reach of the banking system was dramatically extended with the introduction of zero-balance Jan Dhan accounts. The logic of this became apparent first during demonetisation and subsequently with the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) to beneficiaries of government welfare schemes both at the Centre and in the states. The extent to which DBT, based on technology, has curbed the leakage of welfare funds is incalculable. It has created the architecture of modern welfarism in India.
Fourth, Modi realised quite early on during his tenure as chief minister that big government programmes, especially those aimed at transforming society, could only work with popular participation, perhaps using the resources of political parties. The Swachh Bharat Mission targeting households and communities that didn’t have pucca toilets has been a resounding success. While outside defecation, especially by women, hasn’t been totally resolved, it can be said with certainty that there is widespread awareness of the scheme—as well as the scheme to convert makeshift houses into those with brick walls and roofs—and pressure on the local administration from below to deliver. While there have been reports of panchayat functionaries demanding kickbacks for sanctioning the grant—West Bengal, for example, has reported an organised racket involving the participation of those in power at the state level—it would be fair to say that a large part of the Indian countryside has been transformed. If the ongoing Jal Jeevan Mission lives up to its potential, the Modi era will see Indian villages blessed with electricity (a commitment already fulfilled), drinking water in households, pucca toilets and brick houses. The definition of ‘unchanging India’ could well be dramatically altered.
Whether a view of Modi as an instrument of far-reaching change crossed the minds of Vajpayee and Advani when they selected him as chief minister is not known. In Modi, they imagined a leader of boundless energy with deft organisational skills and with a capacity to inspire the party faithful
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Finally, Modi has always realised the paramount importance of linking governance with the political base. The inability to prevent the detachment of party from government was one of the factors behind the disappointing performance of BJP in 2004. What Modi has done is to complement good governance with concrete action on issues that are dear to BJP and its ideological family. It would not be inaccurate to say that hardly any BJP worker or supporter expected a rapid solution to the longstanding Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. For that matter, it had become conventional wisdom that the ‘temporary’ Article 370 had more or less acquired permanent status and that the ‘special status’ of Jammu and Kashmir would always endure. Last, since 1940, there had been no reforms in Muslim personal laws and the impression that organisations such as the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board exercised a permanent veto on progressive legislation had been implanted on the political consciousness of India.
BJP had led vigorous campaigns for the construction of the Ram temple, the abrogation of Article 370 and demanded a Uniform Civil Code. The three formed an important part of what the party perceived as its core ideological agenda and its distinctiveness. Yet, while all three routinely featured on BJP’s election manifestos, there was an unspoken admission that no progress was possible on these issues.
Earlier, the compulsions of running a coalition government were cited as the reason for tardy or no progress. From 2014, this was no longer true. It was now a question of priorities and political will. The Ayodhya dispute of course depended on the Supreme Court where the stand of the Government constituted an important input. However, in taking the plunge on Article 370 and beginning the process of updating Muslim personal laws, the Modi Government showed steely determination and a commitment to the faithful. This may explain why, throughout his 20 years in public office, Modi has had the cushioning of the enthusiastic political backing of his party.
Modi has been realistic but he has also managed what seemed impossible. He has redefined Indian politics.