It has been such a long journey and one in which adversity was trumped by an indomitable spirit and dazzling political acumen. As Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s 15th prime minister, most people cannot but have marvelled at his achievement: The elevation of a poor boy selling tea on a railway platform to the custodian of India’s highest executive office against the backdrop of the splendour of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The magnificent setting matches the manner in which the Mr Modi rode to power, a show of shock and awe that jolted India out of its lethargy and into what can only be hoped is an energetic new beginning. It cannot also have escaped him as he took oath that he joins a legion of leaders like the patrician Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first PM, the elegant and imperious Indira Gandhi, the gentle and efficient Lal Bahadur Shastri, the erudite and visionary AB Vajpayee, the determined and quiet Narasimha Rao and the scholarly Manmohan Singh to name a few.
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But the pageantry of the swearing-in ceremony is not likely to find much resonance in the Modi government, which promises to be business-like and transformative. In an open-air ceremony, Mr Modi took oath amid PMs and representatives of neighbouring countries, envoys from all the countries represented in India and a glittering galaxy of India’s best and brightest. Mr Modi pulled off a diplomatic coup of sorts in inviting Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif. While nothing much may come of this visit, it does set a good precedent for India-Pakistan relations.
All eyes were, of course, on who he would get into his Cabinet. And at the moment, it would seem that he has made up his mind on merit, and not so much on political compulsions. This explains why the pre-poll allies have not got much of a break in the Cabinet as was expected, the Shiv Sena, the TDP and the Akali Dal being exceptions. The fact that he has given weightage to women in his Cabinet will not go unnoticed, though some of the persons who find representation are considered loyalists and have little experience in government. The fact that Mr Modi has put his own stamp on the Cabinet under his regime is inescapable. He has made it clear that Rajnath Singh is the number two in his Cabinet. As home minister, Mr Singh is expected to work closely with Mr Modi. He has accommodated the seniors in his party like Arun Jaitley to whom he has at the moment given two portfolios: Finance and defence. Sushma Swaraj has got the foreign affairs berth, an acknowledgement of her capabilities. It has been a comeback to power for Uma Bharti and Najma Heptullah after a bit of time in the wilderness. What seems clear is that Mr Modi has tried to break with the past in putting together a relatively small ministry and also not giving much importance to dynasty. In giving a crucial portfolio like HRD to Smriti Irani, Mr Modi has rewarded loyalty and chosen a hardworking minister for the job. Mr Modi has got Nitin Gadkari into the ministry, where his expertise in transport is expected to be of great importance in the push for infrastructure.
The fact that some CMs chose to stay away does spoil the show a bit for. But this is the nature of our federal polity. There is no doubt that J Jayalalithaa is a bit miffed over the attendance of Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa at the swearing-in ceremony. But Mr Modi has to show, and he has, that as PM with a majority, he must rise above regional and parochial concerns when taking over the reins of power in India. It does not augur well for the CMs of the states where the BJP has not done well to have not attended the ceremony. This is an occasion where petty political quibbles should have been put aside. Mr Modi has a huge task ahead of him. The first will be to look at the economy and here he has the immense talent of Mr Jaitley to assist him. His willingness to use the know-how of technocrats will also be a positive move. Mr Modi is not one to shy away from taking bold decisions and inviting all the Saarc leaders shows that he is, perhaps, not willing to hold the South Asian region hostage to the bilateral problems that have bedeviled the association. This again must be seen as a step forward.
For those who read much into Mr Modi’s sartorial preferences, he chose a very muted cream kurta and a caramel coloured waistcoat. Maybe, this was to signal that after a very colourful campaign, he was looking to begin on a somber note. As he steps into India’s most crucial office, Mr Modi is off to a start that few before him have got. Given his track record, we have little to suggest that he will not hit the ground running. For an India which has been on the ropes for far too long, a new government with new energy is just what the doctor ordered.