Monday, May 19, 2014

The Boss, Not First Among Equals

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is bad form to torment the beleaguered. Last Saturday, however, Narendra Modi’s more committed supporters delighted over the understated fury of India’s secularist guardians at the elaborate welcome accorded to the Prime Minister-designate by the Hindu establishment of Varanasi. What the dejected upholders of the ancien regime found galling was not the puja at the Vishwanath temple and the Ganga aarti but the huge media coverage of the occasion. To them, the symbolism was ominous—an impression reinforced by those who interpreted last week’s unequivocal mandate as the restoration of Hindu pride after centuries of self-effacement.

Both sides appear to be overstating their version of the change they anticipate. While sectarian faultlines were clearly visible in some parts of India, notably in western Uttar Pradesh and Assam, during the campaign, this election was not centred on a Hindu cultural renaissance. While the disaggregated data from the opinion and exit polls do suggest a large measure of ‘Hindu consolidation’, cutting across caste, language and class, it would erroneous to conclude that this was a religious Hindu vote. On the contrary, the slogan that gave the BJP its decisive edge was achcha din aane wale hain which was about the future, not the past. Indeed, by trying to make secularism and the so-called ‘idea of India’ the theme song of the election, it was Modi’s ‘secular’ opponents who tried to inject identity politics into the arena. That they failed miserably tells a story.

It is necessary to emphasis what this mandate was not about in order to dispel fears, particularly among the global fraternity of well-connected liberals, that India 2014 is witnessing a re-run of Germany 1933. Modi may not have secured the support of Muslim voters but that owed to entirely to a received version of what he stood for rather than what he said in his 450 odd speeches and how the campaign was run. In effect, there were two very divergent perceptions of what this election was about but the final choice was only nominally influenced by inter-community tensions on the ground.

This isn’t to suggest that Prime Minister Modi will be a sterner version of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Apart from the differences in temperament and personality, the nature of the mandate secured by Modi and Vajpayee are dramatically different. Under Modi, the BJP has secured a clear majority on its own. This implies that although he will head a NDA Government, he cannot fall back on either ‘coalition dharma’ or ‘coalition compulsions’ to explain either under-performance or retreat into expediency. The electorate has given Modi a stark choice: perform or perish. The ambivalent nature of Vajpayee’s mandate, ironically, allowed him the luxury of a more easy going approach.

The sheer weight of expectation and the enormous hunger for self-betterment makes it virtually impossible for Modi to engage in either consensus-building or get derailed by extraneous agendas. Ironically, this suits Modi admirably. Before the verdict, the concern was expressed that a Chief Minister who led a one-party government and distinguished himself by his no-nonsense decisiveness would find it difficult to manage a multi-party coalition where compromises are the order of the day. Nominally, Modi will head a coalition but it is amply clear that India has reposed its faith in ‘President’ Modi. The Gujarat leader isn’t a first among equals; he is clearly the boss.

Modi’s willingness to follow the mandate would imply that many of the old rules of governance will have to be made fit for purpose. This doesn’t imply that the over-cautious and somewhat obstructionist bureaucracy will be marginalised and replaced by impetuous technocrats who will bring a more purposeful work ethic into government. In Gujarat, Modi worked wonders with the existing bureaucracy, applying the principles of functional autonomy, accountability and motivation. It is likely that he will operate with the same template taking care to appoint the right people in the right job and backing them politically. More than the bureaucrat with integrity it is a political class accustomed to doling out patronage and freebies that is likely to be unsettled by Modi’s style. But since the votes were secured in his name, Modi now has the political authority to redefine the rules of politics.

Where the Modi government could encounter the resistance of babudom is in the implementation of his promise of “minimum government and maximum government.” The Congress has left behind a legacy of over-regulation and discretionary powers that are in urgent need of dilution. Manmohan Singh promised administrative reforms when he took over but forgot about it thereafter. If Modi has to let the entrepreneurial spirit prevail and create opportunities for the Young India that voted for him with such enthusiasm, he has to make government less bothersome to the citizen. This is what his mandate has decreed and from which he cannot afford to renege.

Finally, although Modi is confronted with dizzying expectations, his ability to effect real change on the ground will depend disproportionately on the willingness of state governments to play ball. Replacing Centre-State resentment of each other with federal harmony and partnership will demand discarding the Congress’ one-size-fits-all approach with guaranteed, non-discretionary grants to the states and affirming the right of states to control their own architecture of development. The presence of strong regional parties in Parliament, far from being a hindrance, can actually speed up the greater empowerment of the Finance Commission and the eventual irrelevance of the Planning Commission.

If Modi fails to deliver, the argument of non-cooperation by the state government will not wash with voters. Modi won because he inspired belief in a strong and vibrant India led by a gutsy leader. To realise that goal, he has to become the patron saint of regional development, a leader above politics. Last week, the BJP won on the strength of a national vote. It has to ensure that regardless of which party runs state governments, Modi will become a cross-party consensus. This is impossible without the new Prime Minister taking ownership of a federal makeover.  

Hindustan Times, May 20, 2014  

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