For Modi, it's a beginning in line with the mandate
It was essential to give a young nation a youthful cabinet, and this was done, at least in relative terms. After promises of minimum government, Modi had to keep things tight.columns Updated: Jun 01, 2014 12:52 IST
When public adoration crowns a king, it wills him the power to transform lives, create riches and win wars. So the crown is a heavy one, and the king could be forgiven if he wished for a magic wand instead of his sceptre.
So it must have been with Narendra Modi, our new prime minister, whose actions I have watched with interest over the past two weeks. The public crowned him with a huge mandate; 10 days later he crowned himself more formally in the presence not just of the nation’s great and good, but rulers from neighbouring lands.
To them, a message was sent: The most powerful country in the region has a new overlord, and he wishes you to come and see him take power. They came, and, amid fanfare, the Modi ship of state was launched. The next day, he seized the opportunity to win headlines by telling our troublesome neighbour to the west to rein in terror, and to bring to book its perpetrators.
I remember reflecting: Here at last is an Indian leader with the gift for the big gesture, the ability to grab half-chances and turn them to advantage. It marked his stewardship of Gujarat, and his campaign, and it will mark his reign at the top of the Indian government.
After some hectic parleys with allies and Modi’s ideological patrons, his ministers were named. For a party with a limited roster of talent, it was an impressive job that appeased key figures in the wider family, blooded younger leaders and found the best men — or encouragingly often, women — for the job.
His choices for home, finance and external affairs were reassuring; human resources went to a dynamic tyro who scared Rahul Gandhi in Amethi; and commerce to an articulate spokeswoman with a background in the subject. Defence will be entrusted to a minister of some weight in the coming weeks.
It was essential to give a young nation a youthful cabinet, and this was done, at least in relative terms. After promises of minimum government, Modi had to keep things tight. This too, was achieved, with some departments clumped together. The allies and the RSS were shown their place.
But the real message lies in what was unsaid. Until close to their naming, ministers were clueless about their roles. This is going to be a supertight ship, whose course is determined only by the commander.
If any confirmation were needed, I got it when I saw the phrase “all important policy decisions” next to “Narendra Modi” in the list of ministers and their portfolios.
In his first week in power, Modi started early and worked until late, went on a walkabout in his ministry and issued diktats to keep his ministers in line. His administration rustled up an ordinance in no time to ensure that he got the man he wanted as principal secretary. His choice of national security adviser, a superefficient hawk, was widely praised.
His ministers, for the most part, have marched to his brisk beat. So you heard talk of Air India being privatised, foreign investment in defence, cleaning up the Ganga and, contentiously, Article 370. Allies who demurred, hoping for better jobs, fell in line quickly. The energy so missing in the earlier dispensation, which spent its last few months in limbo, is clearly in evidence.
This is an excellent beginning in a quest to match massive expectations, even if it is only a beginning.
The announcements will keep coming, and markets will bid up prices. Then if action isn’t forthcoming, they will move down, though for a right-wing government with a clear mandate, a longish honeymoon may be allowed. In his desire to keep investors happy, Modi will have to guard against haste.
He has listed 10 priorities, and nobody can argue with spending money on education, health, water, energy and roads. Time-bound policy implementation will please voters wearied by a dreary sense of drift.
Building peace with Pakistan should be a key task. But it would be a pity to emulate our neighbours in making the relationship the be-all and end-all of our foreign policy. There are bigger fish to fry, even for a vegetarian PM.
Modi’s warmth towards Japan and Israel is well known. China has finally got a trade-minded Indian PM to deal with. Modi may make the United States wait for his visa application: Relations are likely to be driven similarly by commerce and no great warmth.
Modi’s demeanour discourages hangers-on, but he should still recall the fate of a government with an even bigger mandate that took office 30 years ago. Rajiv Gandhi started with a similar bang and ended with a whimper, led into a deluded sense of infallibility by a coterie of advisers and friends.
So it was good that Modi rapidly snuffed out moves by some states to include his life story in their text books. I hope he moves with similar alacrity if enthusiastic followers try to portray the Taj Mahal as a Hindu temple or ancient India as the font of all the world’s wisdom.