Prime Edition

Modi must secure his place in history

The Prime Minister must decisively push for higher growth.

Arun Bhatnagar  New Delhi | 19th Sep 2015

The Prime Minister plays a traditional Mongolian instrument on his 8-day tour of Central Asia, in July. PTI

n the concluding months of UPA II, the Indian people were getting increasingly tired of the Congress-led government, which was clearly on its way out, what with the unending scams, an ineffective leadership and the uninspiring personality of the Prime Minister. Around that point of time, Narendra Modi emerged on the national scene as the only politician capable of delivering a better and brighter future.

Fifteen months on, the Prime Minister needs to convincingly demonstrate a capacity and determination to deliver on the many promises and commitments made by him.

If there was one field in which PM Modi was personally making a mark, it was that of foreign affairs. Given the undeniable fact of China's rise and a stronger Pakistan-China axis, he seemed to have understood the need for his direct involvement in building partnerships. Significantly, therefore, his first bilateral visits outside the subcontinent were to Japan, the United States and Australia.

Since Modi took office, the country's foreign policy has, essentially, been conducted from the Prime Minister's Office. The mandarins of South Block cannot be expected to be happy about this. The argument that the botched NSA meeting with Pakistan was set up "in haste and without adequate preparation" has found resonance in the foreign service establishment and among retired diplomats.

For both India and Pakistan, a resumption of the process of dialogue is likely to depend on a less-than-gentle nudge from Washington D.C.

Modi's foreign policy initiatives would gather greater momentum, if they are accompanied by positively impacting moves on the domestic front. Apart from some disillusionment with issues like black money, curbing the rampant corruption and the "sham" relief packages, the manner of handling of the OROP demand, has left much to be desired in terms of efficiency and sensitivity. The question of accountability for the inordinate delay, including the role of senior bureaucrats, past and present, of the Ministry of Defence, should not be overlooked.

In January 2014, when the election campaign was at its peak, the then BJP president, Rajnath Singh, during a visit to Netaji Subhas Bose's birthplace, Cuttack, had stridently urged that the UPA government make public the records related to this hero of the freedom struggle. Some months later, in an RTI reply, the PMO accepted that there were 41 files related to Bose (of which two had been declassified) and refused to disclose them taking a position similar to that of the previous Congress-led government. The Prime Minister himself had held out assurances on this behalf when a grand-nephew of Netaji called on him in Berlin earlier this year. Some members of the Bose family are now angry and have described the government's tribute to Netaji on 18 August 2015 (the "alleged" anniversary of the air crash) as "an attempt to distort history".

Modi as Prime Minister obviously realises that his report card does not as yet shine as much as the one he presented as Gujarat Chief Minister before the Lok Sabha elections. While he may, at this juncture, seek RSS help and cooperation in battling corruption in the higher echelons of the government, the remedy lies much more in his exercising his own authority with a degree of severity, especially with the top bureaucracy, dominated, principally, by the IAS and the IPS. What is needed, for example, is taking a firm line on the Vyapam and DMAT scams in Madhya Pradesh, which has been ruled by the BJP for more than a decade. Such issues are unlikely to fade away.

At the same time, there is the lengthening shadow of a "possible" economic slowdown.

Recently, at a conference on "Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness" in New Delhi, the Prime Minister indicated that "...the most adversely affected by climate change are the poor and downtrodden. When a natural disaster strikes, they are hit the hardest. I believe the discourse must shift the focus from climate change to climate justice..." In this context, he could not be unaware of the absence of compassion among well-to-do Indians and the middle class, generally, towards the millions who have no advantages of birth to shield them from hunger, disease, oppression, deprivation and violence. Appalling socio-economic inequalities and the glaring disparities, so evident in rural and urban India alike, have shown not the slightest sign of diminishing.

The problems of poverty and malnutrition are not even widely discussed. It is the crying need of the poor and underprivileged to be heard and for their misery to be somewhat alleviated. This should now top the Prime Minister's agenda.

Assuming that one outcome of the lately held RSS-BJP "coordination" meeting was an acknowledgement of the imperative to initiate corrective measures (coining of slogans may no longer carry the day) and that PM Modi will soon be in "action-mode", there will, inevitably, arise the question of "talent deficit" that exists in the BJP and in the civil service, as a whole. Some ministers are not proving equal to the challenge and there are vast areas of governance and administration that remain unaddressed in NDA II. So much so that many are starting to ponder as to whether there is much difference in style and content between UPA II and NDA II.

There can be no denying that the expectations of the RSS from Narendra Modi are far greater than from the A.B. Vajpayee-led coalition. The then Prime Minister thought it fit to virtually outsource Government of India to his key aide, the all-powerful Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary-cum-National Security Adviser, who had little exposure to the realities of administration in India. So potent would appear to have been his influence that he once chose to accuse the Sangh functionaries of adopting a "frog in the well" attitude; when differences persisted, he was, apparently, instrumental in seeing off the RSS supremo, K.S. Sudarshan, from New Delhi, no doubt with Vajpayee's encouraging nod.

In June 2012, Mishra told a news channel: "First of all, we must be clear that BJP is not going to get majority on its own. Impossible. And, therefore, he (Modi) cannot be put forward as a successor. They will have to find somebody else..." Mishra also said that Modi continued as Chief Minister of Gujarat after the post-Godhra riots because the BJP wanted him to and Vajpayee did not overrule the party opinion. Brajesh Mishra did not live to witness Modi's installation as Prime Minister in May 2014.

In recalling the performance of previous governments at the Centre, Modi often approvingly dwells upon the Vajpayee regime. That said, Modi would do well to also derive guidance from the example of another predecessor, the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose sterling stewardship and contributions during 1991-96 truly laid the groundwork for an economic revival, albeit only grudgingly recognised by the Congress.

As of now, the RSS' "pat on the back" notwithstanding, Modi will also require the endorsement of the Bihar electorate in the coming weeks. In the remaining years of his tenure, if he is able to decisively push for higher growth, with equity, if he is seen to be an "agent of change" (not of continuity) and if he can check the spread of communal disharmony, he could yet secure his place in history.

Arun Bhatnagar is a retired member of the IAS

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