When Narendra Modi takes over India’s toughest job on Monday, he will be a free man. Unlike the seven prime ministers since 1989 – VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, and Manmohan Singh – Modi will not need to look over his shoulder and depend on allies.
He has no compulsion of ‘coalition dharma’; he has a mandate that gives him more power than most other executive heads have enjoyed in India for decades; he has an agenda – articulated in the BJP manifesto as well as his campaign speeches — which he can implement; and he has a free hand in picking his team – in the cabinet, in his office and among bureaucrats in key ministries. The Indian electorate has given him precisely what he asked for – 272 plus and a decimated opposition.
But it is precisely this spectacular win, driven by an umbrella social coalition and diverse stakeholders, that creates his biggest political and governance challenges.
Take his two primary sources of support — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and big corporate India. The RSS-BJP’s traditional base of small shopkeepers is hostile to FDI in retail; the growth proponents see it as essential to the revival of the economy.
The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, during the Vajpayee years, made its aversion to the growing role of the private sector and of foreign multinationals clear; Modi is wedded to the vision of a globally integrated economy with foreign investments.
Or look at the more direct political challenges. The Modi vote is driven by pan-Hindu consolidation in North India, though this is not necessarily a ‘communal vote’ since different segments voted for different reasons. The Sangh will expect returns for its organisational support in mobilising this constituency — be it Ram Mandir, or dropping the cases related to ‘Hindutva’ militant attacks.
But if he does that, will the more moderate Hindu constituency which voted for him accept it? The RSS will push its own loyalists in key government appointments, but will that happen at the cost of the standards Modi has set for institutional roles? The Sangh world view would mean rewriting textbooks, but will the more cosmopolitan middle and upper middle class metropolitan base of Modi want their children to learn what RSS dictates?
Modi has appealed to big capital, eager to see project clearances at break-neck speed, as well as to a substantial segment of the rural poor, at least in North and west India, who will be resistant to reckless land acquisition. Be it infrastructure growth versus environment, fiscal prudence and social welfare expenditure, there are real policy dilemmas which Modi will have to resolve.
Or take foreign policy. The campaign was marked by strong rhetoric against Pakistan, but Modi has already displayed his political dexterity and diplomatic skills in inviting Nawaz Sharif, among other leaders, to his swearing in. But will he be able to stay the course? What happens after the first terror attack?
If Modi responds with restraint, recognising the multiple power centres that operate in Pakistan, there is bound to disappointment among the supporters who voted for him because of his poll rhetoric. But if he does something rash, could it undermine national interest and escalate risks?
While it is too early to speculate if he will succeed in reconciling these contradictions, his governance style and political management offers clues on how he will approach issues.
A top BJP leader told HT, “Modi is well aware that India is not Gujarat. But he also does not see any reason to drop components of the Gujarat political and governance model that have worked so well for him. It is, in fact, a mandate for that.”
This, according to the leader, will translate into an extremely strong PMO “like the Indira Gandhi years”. “Modi will rely on a small group of key bureaucrats, and keep a close eye on all key departments. He understands policy. There will be no A Raja syndrome where every minister is a sovereign republic in himself.” This will give Modi unprecedented authority in taking decisions. “He is his own man and will not let support bases dictate terms.”
When asked if this would lead to excessive concentration of power, the leader responded, “Modi is well aware of criticisms about his style, and you will see he will make an extra effort to allay apprehensions.”
Giving examples, the source said that since Modi was criticised as someone who did not care for the rules of the game, he publicly displayed his respect for the Constitution and Parliament; because he was perceived to be someone who disrespected the old guard, he touched LK Advani’s feet; he was seen as a hawk, but he invited SAARC leaders. “He will surprise everyone and be accommodative, but without compromising on his authority. The buck stops with him.”
And perhaps that statement sums up Modi’s opportunity and threat. It is his moment, but with such power comes enormous responsibility. There are questions about how Modi will specifically address foreign policy and security issues; how he will address economy.
But the big issue is how he will manage the political constituencies of support that have brought him to this position. He has a large support base, with the exception of India’s most sizeable minority group – Muslims. Reconciling the interests of his base, and reaching out to those who did not vote for him, will be critical.
Modi’s governance style will also be a refreshing change for many in Delhi, who are too used to the old ways where political leaders did not keep bureaucrats to account. The governance structure needs efficiency and decision making.
But it will also bring in its set of challenges – there will be costs of bypassing established processes, and institutions; and of treating ministers not as colleagues but as individuals who are beholden to him for their positions, which is a possibility given the nature of the mandate. But it would be only fair to give India’s new PM a chance, and space to implement the mandate the citizens have given him.