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What sort of prime minister will Modi be?

If Narendra Modi’s ego is as large as his detractors claim, then he will want to be remembered as a great prime minister, better even than Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To do that he will have to focus on growth and development. Namita Bhandare writes.

columns Updated: May 09, 2014 22:53 IST
Namita Bhandare

At the end of this interminably long election of fear and loathing, three questions:

First, if Narendra Modi does indeed become prime minister, as opinion polls indicate, what sort of prime minister will he be?

I don’t entirely share the sense of looming Armageddon that many others seem to fear. In letters by intellectuals and edit articles in newspapers, there is a refrain of the ‘immorality’ of Modi as PM. And while I don’t dispute the terrible failure of his administration in 2002, I can only hope that if Modi becomes PM, he will want history to remember him as more than the ‘butcher of Gujarat’. His underlying campaign theme has been development. And if his ego is as large as his detractors claim, then he will want to be remembered as a great prime minister, better even than Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To do that he will have to focus on growth and development.

Despite the discomfiting and continuing reliance on religion and even caste during his campaign — his Faizabad speech held against a backdrop of Lord Ram images, his statement, “those who celebrate Durga Ashtami can stay, the rest will be sent back to Bangladesh”, even his decision to contest from Varanasi — Modi’s priority is not likely to be the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. After May 16, he will in all probability discover that with great power comes not only great responsibility but also great restraint. His biggest challenge will be delivering on the enormous expectation that rides on him. Can he create jobs? Can his government deliver on roads and electricity? What about education? To achieve this he needs to deliver on governance not Hindutva.

Second, assume for a minute that the worst fears of those who oppose Modi come true. Assume that Modi pushes ahead with creating an environment of fear and insecurity among minorities. Assume that he fails to empower women, pushes for a universally amenable media, subverts institutions and stamps over them with authoritarianism. Assume the worst that can happen and then ask: How will India’s people and institutions respond? Will civil liberties groups withstand that ‘worst’? Do we have the will or backbone to stand up?

The answer is not very reassuring. Already, there’s been an unpleasant confrontation with the Election Commission played out in public. Already media realignments have taken shape — and this during the UPA’s watch — where editors have been shuffled out causing no real consternation. Already there are signs of crawling when not yet asked to bend, in LK Advani’s famous description of media capitulation during the Emergency.

The majority of India’s voting population was not even born when Indira Gandhi’s government was overthrown in 1977 — not by the elite or media or intellectuals but by this country’s rural populace protesting against forcible vasectomies. India’s elite, with few honourable exceptions, acquiesced. Given that we have no great record of fighting for civil liberties, I suspect the fear stems not so much from what Modi might do, but more from what we might not.

Finally, can there ever be reconciliation between the opposing camps of bhakts and baiters? Modi supporters see him as unfairly vilified and counter charges of 2002 with 1984. Modi detractors see him as a divisive figure who has refused to express the slightest regret for 2002. There is no middle ground between the two views. In the context of working out post-poll parliamentary numbers, Modi told Times Now’s Arnab Goswami: “To run the country, I need everyone’s cooperation….it means taking everyone together.”

Unless Modi reaches out to every last citizen, India will be doomed to a contest between competing binaries, trading charges instead of focusing on inclusive growth, equality and dignity. Should Modi head the new government, will he have the magnanimity to reach out to those who distrust him and demonstrate that their fears might be misplaced?

In the coming months, the answers to these questions will become abundantly clear.

Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal