Narendra Modi, The Outsider, Is Different From Previous PMs

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Narendra Modi, The Outsider, Is Different From Previous PMs

Cover of Meghnad Desai's book, Politicshock

Modi is an outsider in two senses. He belongs to a low caste, that of an OBC. Even after seventy years, upper-caste members across political parties capture a disproportionate amount of the top positions. Modi was greeted with incredulity and an arrogant dismissal when he was chosen to lead the BJP in the 2014 elections. He lacks the sophistication which the Congress leadership habitually projects. They are educated in the best schools and foreign universities. Modi, on the other hand, had received his degree through a correspondence course. There is a constant doubt expressed by many politicians about the authenticity of his degree, somewhat like the saga about Obama's birth certificate in USA.

When he won the 2014 elections, Modi was also an outsider to Delhi and its political culture. Somewhat like the Beltway in USA, there is a certain code of conduct for a politician in Delhi. There are deals to be made with the opposition. Modi was innocent of this and also reluctant to make deals; in this, he is very unlike Trump. The BJP lacked a majority in the Rajya Sabha, which has members elected by state assemblies proportionate to their strength. As he wins more state elections, the numbers will move in his favour. But he has had a lot of problems getting legislation through both houses.

But unlike Donald Trump, he was not unused to political decision making. He had been chief minister of Gujarat for twelve years and had won thrice. His executive experience has been crucial to his performance as prime minister. State chief ministers can afford to be presidential. Typically, with a majority in the assembly, they normally dominate their cabinet. Modi was able to repeat that behaviour at the Centre. This was because everyone in his party conceded that they had won a majority thanks to the prodigious effort he had made during the election campaign.

Victory in UP more or less guarantees that Modi will win in 2019 too. If there are flies in the ointment, they are due to local actions by vigilante groups who want to enforce an anti-Muslim agenda. The cause they claim to defend is the cow, holy to Hindus. They attack anyone transporting cattle. Cattle trade and especially the meat industry-slaughterhouses and butcher shops-are predominantly Muslim activities. Thus, when cattle is being transported by Muslims, the vigilante groups attack, often killing the person transporting. Law and order is a State Subject, not a federal one. Local police are often themselves not impartial. Modi has criticized these cow protection vigilante groups, but that has not stemmed the problem. No matter how far away from Delhi it happens, Modi gets the blame. Modi's detractors are still in denial. They find it hard to believe (rather like the detractors of Donald Trump) that their true and tried model does not work any more.

For the first time since Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, India's position in global affairs is high. Modi has travelled the world ceaselessly to establish the image of India as a dynamic economy as well as a success being the world's largest democracy. He has championed an opening to Asia much more vigorously than previous governments have done. The leaders of Japan and China have visited India, and Modi has reciprocated. He secured friendship with Obama and is expected to get along with Donald Trump.

Modi surprised his detractors and even his supporters when he invited the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, at the swearing-in ceremony of his government. As he was thought to be anti-Muslim, people had expected him to be virulently anti-Pakistan. His gesture showed that Modi, like Trump, is his own man. He does not fit people's preconceptions. 

Modi's main battleground has been at home, in Parliament. Having a majority in the lower house is not enough except for money bills which, as per the British tradition, are the monopoly of the lower house. Not having a majority in the upper house has been a factor slowing down the government. It is not only that passage of bills takes longer. The Indian Parliament is not a well-behaved, decorous assembly. Members shout, leave their seats and rush to the well of the chamber. The speaker in the lower house and the vice president presiding over the upper house have little control over the members. More often, no business gets transacted because of some protest about some recent news. In these circumstances, the Modi team has had to learn to tread carefully and build consensus. The new government failed to repeal and replace the Land Acquisition Act of the previous government which makes it very difficult to acquire land for industrial or infrastructure projects. That episode early in its term taught it to proceed with caution in getting its legislation passed.

But just in March 2017, the government was able to pass the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act. This legislation has been under discussion under Congress as well as the BJP for fifteen years. Its passage revolutionizes the Indian economy by establishing a single market with a uniform indirect tax structure. Until now, numerous local taxes and restrictions had slowed down the movement of goods across the states, which also makes it expensive in the process. Now the unification of the tax structure will add considerably to the ease of doing business and bring costs down.

Modi has also reinforced his leadership quality by being a good communicator round the year, and not just during election times. He has an active Twitter account. Citizens are encouraged to go directly to his website. He has a monthly radio talk show Mann ki Baat (What Is on My Mind). He travels around the country and takes a lead role in every election campaign. People see him and hear him all the time. That is a lot different from previous prime ministers.

Excerpted from Politicshock by Meghnad Desai with permission from Rupa Publications India. Order your copy here.

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