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Modi is lilkely to defy the assumptions of his advocates and critics

The decision to reach out to the Saarc heads of government, including Nawaz Sharif and Sheikh Hasina was the first sign that Modi the PM is set to be very different from Modi the Campaigner, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: May 23, 2014 22:21 IST

That the BJP is more antagonistic in opposition than when in power is evident from a cursory appraisal of the NDA tenure under AB Vajpayee.

Whether it was innovating with Pakistan, meeting with Kashmiri separatists or promising ‘Insaniyat’ as the vehicle for conflict resolution, hawks turned doves swiftly when confronted with the complex challenges of governance.

Yet, Narendra Modi’s first decision — to catapult his swearing- in ceremony into a mega South Asia moment — was one that no one would have forecast. Perhaps because his campaign style was, in many parts, adversarial and acerbic, he was cast as more Margaret Thatcher than Vajpayee in his own political script.

The expectation was that the machismo of the electioneering was preparing ground for a foreign policy that would be more muscular than malleable. But the decision to reach out to the Saarc heads of government, including Nawaz Sharif and Sheikh Hasina was the first sign that Modi the PM is set to be very different from Modi the Campaigner.

Not just does the singular gesture leave the vitriol of election rhetoric behind; its large element of surprise has pre-empted wariness or hostility in countries like Pakistan, leaving its leadership at least momentarily flummoxed for the appropriate response.

The BJP may be at pains to underline that the intractable India-Pakistan equation cannot be converted into the main story by the media.

It’s about neighbourhood goodwill, they say, not one country alone. Yes, true. But surely, they are just as aware that after Bangladesh, the Pakistan relationship is not just the trickiest, it’s also the one most impacted by domestic politics. Conversely, it’s the one equation – were it to erupt in a conflagration — with the most capacity to dent Modi’s ambitious plans for economic revival. Conflict militates against economic growth; Modi knows this well.

With an out-of-the-box beginning in reaching out to Pakistan within the context of a larger South Asia outreach, Modi has succeeded in defying stereotype and confounding critics.

His quick and determined transition from opponent to administrator has taken place even before the new government is sworn in. The scale of the mandate affords him an easy bypassing of carping allies; more importantly it also liberates him from his own rhetoric in the past.

In campaign mode, Modi mocked the UPA for serving “chicken biryani” to Pakistani dignitaries while Indian soldiers were being killed at the Line of Control.

He pounced on Nawaz Sharif for purportedly comparing the Indian PM to a ‘dehati aurat’ (a controversy ironically manufactured by some hawkish Pakistan journalists, in which this columnist had a bit role for saying that the attributed comment was not made in my presence).

And he warned that illegal migrants from Bangladesh would be sent packing. But going by his statements post his astonishing victory and through the last week, the language, the idiom, the emphasis has already shifted gears into a distinctly more measured and nuanced articulation.

The first signs of the shift from Challenger to Leader were evident when Modi knelt at the entrance to Parliament. Marking the culmination of an election campaign that vociferously debated the politicisation of secularism this very telling moment employed all the symbols of prayer, except that the place of worship had nothing to do with any religion.

In positioning himself as a supplicant committed to the sanctity of the temple of democracy, Modi was perhaps underlining his own argument against the conventional political construct of secularism. The image seemed to drive home his point that in a pluralistic, yet multicultural India, where religion and culture are intertwined and inseparable, the sacred will always have value over the sanitised anti-religious prism of the Left-leaning intelligentsia. The surrender at the altar of Parliament was unobjectionable.

The substance of the message will be tested by, among other things, how included and relevant a new Modi administration can make India’s minorities, in particular its Muslims feel.

It is disturbing that Muslim representation is at its lowest ever in 50 years and the Modi government will have to craft a language that helps build bridges with the community. Rubbishing cynical vote-bank politics as the leader of Opposition party was one thing; as PM, Modi will have no leeway for not communicating with Muslims who may feel vulnerable about their possible political irrelevance.

But as optics go, the sight of the PM-designate falling to the ground outside Parliament was a symbolically powerful commitment to the Constitution and one that marked the emergence of a Modi willing to be seen as mellower.

A few moments later, he even fought back tears as he thanked his party and stressed that the victory could not be seen as his alone. It was a marked change from the campaign’s alpha-male narrative of the politician with the “56-inch chest” and the visible emotionalism was a welcome first. The mandate may have been for the hard-nosed alternative that the BJP offered him as, but showing a little heart, especially after winning, could only help.

How Modi will find the balance between the tough-guy talk of the campaign — most certainly his victory is at least partly about the popular craving for a more assertive leadership style — and the pragmatism that the realpolitik of running a country demands, will be one of his main challenges.

Even before his cabinet is formally sworn in, the first test has come in the form of an assault on India’s consulate in Herat, Afghanistan. Two days before a ceremony that was designed to signal India’s place in the wider South Asian neighbourhood, the timing of the attack raises many questions.

The difference of course between his predecessor and him — apart from the obvious ones — is that there will certainly no longer be any cruel jokes about a PM who is neither seen nor heard.

But as he rests on the comfortable cushion of his numerical majority, freeing the space to innovate and improvise while simultaneously moving away from the aggression of his own campaign, Modi must encourage his many supporters to do the same.

While speaking to his party colleagues in Parliament, Modi was especially careful to avoid triumphalism. Now his army of followers must embrace the same template.

Looking ahead, one can safely expect a PM who is likely to defy the assumptions of both his advocates and critics. I suspect, we will all be surprised — more than once.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.)