Modi 2.0: From conquest to consolidation
PM Modi’s first term was about expanding political power. This term is about instituting governance.Updated: Aug 05, 2019, 07:54 IST
About 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks unleashed history’s first wave of globalisation. Led by Alexander the Great, they established supremacy over a vast territory across three continents. By chance, rather than design, this project had two stages.
The first saw Alexander conquering nation after nation, from north Africa to central Asia. He was a relentless, ceaseless battle commander, not resting and rarely, if ever, coming back to a place he had left. The second stage came after Alexander’s sudden death. It gave rise to smaller but still sizeable empires that consolidated Alexander’s gains. It was left to Ptolemy in Egypt, the Seleucid Empire in Bactria-West Asia, and the Mauryas in the Indian subcontinent – in a sense also a successor state to Alexander – to busy themselves in humdrum governance, lasting institutions and start-up civilisations.
The “Alexander dilemma” throws up a tantalising question. It tests generals; even businesspersons. At which stage do you switch from accumulation to using your surplus to create a new identity for that which has been accumulated, be it territory or capital?
It is tempting to see contemporary politics through a similar prism. It tells us why the BJP-led government that took office on May 30, 2019, is not simply a continuation of its predecessor, but is, and has, to be qualitatively different. Already a nuanced shift has revealed itself in the party-government dynamic. In 2014-19, what India saw, assessed and rewarded was a government of the party. In the coming five years, the key to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s continued success will be to convert itself into the party of government.
This is not to suggest that there was lack of attention to governance in the preceding five years, or that the party will be ignored in the current term — that is not at all the case. Nevertheless the first phase of a political project inaugurated in 2014 is now over and the second phase is upon us. This phase will require Narendra Modi to be Ptolemy or Chandragupta Maurya, as it were, to his own Alexander. There is acknowledgment of this at the very top of the government, the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Internally and externally, the metric for 2024 will be different from the metric of 2019.
The five years after 2014 were devoted to political domination. They repositioned the BJP as the primary all-India party, with a blockbuster election machine. At times, however, the government paid a price. Day-to-day administration was interrupted by frequent elections. The prime minister had to balance the sobriety and outreach of governance with aggressive campaigning in state after state.
This made it difficult to effect even tactical compromises with parties that had critical votes in the Rajya Sabha, but were rivals in state elections. Crucial Bills suffered. Haryana and Maharashtra, within six months of coming to office; Bihar, a year later; Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, roughly mid-term; Bengal, Assam and Tripura as new frontiers — through many victories and some defeats, it was non-stop permanent revolution.
This process required immediate deployment of political capital that the Union government had earned, as well as significant investment of prime ministerial resources. While the first Modi government achieved a lot — from housing for the poor to energy access, from Swachh Bharat to Ayushman Bharat — it would have achieved more if the party had not simultaneously been in a stage of rapid and unprecedented expansion. This is not a complaint; it is simply a statement of fact.
Why could 2019-24 be different? The emphasis this time is not just on a BJP approach to winning elections, but on fostering an institutional culture of governance that has a distinctive and sustainable BJP/Modi stamp, and is a departure from previous such cultures. This is how a new, multi-term regime and consensus can be crafted. A careful reading of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s three public lectures in Delhi in September 2018 would find him making the same point. Such an ambition builds on, and yet goes beyond, the government’s welfare programmes and economic projects.
Two sets of conditions would help the re-elected Modi government. First, the electoral calendar. Presuming the BJP retains its grip from the recent Lok Sabha contest, then, with the exception of Bengal (2021), there is no major intervening state election where the party is a challenger that seriously seeks to oust a regional incumbent. Odisha and potentially Telangana fit this definition — but both see polling at the end of the five-year cycle.
This calendar will give the government political room. It is worth noting here that the BJP is taking in Rajya Sabha MPs even from states such as Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, where no immediate election is due. Rather than caste and constituency accretion, its stress is on adding numbers in the Upper House in the interests of legislation and governance.
Second, the infrastructure push that Modi I began will mature early in Modi II, broadly by 2021-22. In areas as far apart as rural roads, national highways and ports, toilets, housing and power, these will accomplish one-time or once-in-a-generation investments that will propel a socially-deeper economic demand in their own right. They will also give the government fiscal room.
How will the government use such political and fiscal room? That lends itself to a complex answer and incorporates items that were on the agenda in 2014 as well — such as civil service redesign and judicial reform. In other areas, the government can borrow from the party. The party has been nimble and flexible in admitting new faces, taking a pragmatic call based on utility. If the party can work with even some it may consider disagreeable, in what timeline will the government have the confidence to work with individuals of expertise and integrity, but also a quantum of political disagreement?
An absolute essential is for the government to develop clarity in economic management — including on issues of trade and taxation, as well as an economic world view independent of bureaucracy — that matches the clarity the party has brought to political management. The time is now.