Opinion: Modi's Two Bold Proclamations In the Very First Hour

Published: May 27, 2014 20:03 IST
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(Swapan Dasgupta is a Delhi-based political commentator with avowedly right-wing inclinations)

While the international or, more accurately, SAARC underpinnings of last Monday evening's swearing-in ceremony of the Narendra Modi Government may have been an unlikely distraction, it is healthy to bring the discussion back to the starting and finishing point of the 2014 general election. Indians voted as they did owing to their profound desire to usher change in domestic politics and foreign policy, however meaningful to the small band of 'strategic experts', is no real substitute for more homely concerns.

Indeed, it is on this count that the new Prime Minister's selection of his team of ministers did not match up to exhilaration that accompanied his thumping win on May 16.

There were two principal reasons why some quarters were underwhelmed after the long line of ministers followed Modi in taking their oath of office. For the uber reformers, the Cabinet was disappointing on two counts. First, the promised rationalisation of government proved a half-measure. The grand, all-embracing Ministry of Energy that would incorporate the different departments didn't materialise. Neither did an omnibus Ministry of Transport materialise that would subsume the separate ministries of surface transport, civil aviation, shipping and railways.

The indications of change were there but not carried out in full measure.

The second disappointment was centred on the choice of ministers. While there were some new faces, the bulk of the senior Cabinet ministers comprised the old hands of the BJP. Whatever, screamed the sceptics, happened to the technocrats?

In their haste to pronounce that the more things change the more they remain the same, the critics overlooked two important shifts governing Team Modi.

First, there was the cut-off age of 75, above which a MP would not be appointed a minister. Maybe this was a way of tackling the old guard that refuses to retire voluntarily and maybe the cut-off date was needlessly generous. To my mind what is important is that a giant step has been taken to spare Indian a political gerontocracy. The principle that politics too should have a retirement age has been introduced.

Secondly, and this constitutes a more remarkable change, Modi has introduced the principle of dynasty-free politics in the BJP (but not the alliance parties). This ensured that individual MPs who either 'inherited' seats or whose parents were already active in the political sphere were excluded from consideration. This may have been harsh on some talented individuals but it is important to see the principle as a momentous and, indeed, radical political statement that contrasts sharply with the earlier regime's penchant for inheritors. In the coming days, many political parties, but particularly the Congress, will have to determine their attitude to this far-reaching principle.  

For any regime, two bold proclamations on the very first hour of its inception should have been enough. However, so dizzying is the demand for a decisive break with the past that even these are thought to be insufficient.

Yes, there have been too many of the BJP's senior leaders who have found a Cabinet berth. But this was necessary if only to ensure that the Cabinet carries political clout. Imagine the response from the commentariat if Modi had ensured the exclusion of every former BJP President from the Cabinet? Wouldn't the same lot be charging the Prime Minister with running a one-man show? See the carping noises that have been made at Smriti Irani being given an important portfolio with full Cabinet rank.

The Modi Government has come into office bubbling with new ideas and different ways of governing India. But India didn't vote for a revolution. The new must be blended with existing systems and changes effected after ensuring there is no disruption and chaos. And the new ministers must be given time to first assess the system they seek to change.

Modi is a disrupter but he isn't a disruptionist.  

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