by Swapan Dasgupta
It is bad form to ask individuals which side they voted for. However , the answer to the question — What do you expect from the Modi government? — may give a clue to their political preference . If the answer is accompanied by the term “change” (either modest or radical), you can be near-certain that their vote was for Modi. On the other hand, if the answer is a little more long-winded and includes the advice to Modi to pursue the path or legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it is often conclusive proof that their vote was for the losing side.
This may well be an anecdotal over-simplification that needlessly posits Vajpayee as a polar opposite of Modi. But the broad validity of this test is undeniable in an atmosphere where everyone claims to be relieved and reassured by the categorical mandate.
Those who supported Modi with flamboyant enthusiasm did so in anticipation of a decisive rupture from the way India has been governed. They expect the Prime Minister to grasp the awesome significance of a single-party majority, the first since 1984. Those who look back, somewhat expediently, to the legacy of a genial Vajpayee who played the “coalition dharma” game with deftness are in fact hoping that Modi the outsider is slowly co-opted by the system and merely focuses his energies on making government a little more efficient. In a country such as India, they believe, change must be gradual and full of adjustments and compromises so that the power structure is broadly undisturbed. The last thing they want is for the system to be disturbed by a bunch of newcomers with a sense of mission.
It is still too early to be completely certain which way Modi will tilt. The PM has quite clearly set some ethical norms that he expects his ministers and functionaries to abide by. Along with his distaste for cronyism and dynastic entitlement , he is also in the process of creating systems that will monitor the performance of the whole government. This is a marked contrast from the hands-off Vajpayee who left a bit too much in the hands of his very efficient but antiradical principal secretary Brajesh Mishra.
There was another feature of Vajpayee that endeared him to both the Press Club and the Gymkhana Club: his ability to manipulate coalition partners to tame the BJP. Undoubtedly some BJP hotheads needed tempering but Vajpayee’s political management went one step further. Between 1998 and 2004, there was an of veiled between those who perceived themselves to be Vajpayee loyalists and those who were derided as chaddiwalas. This contradiction was ruthlessly exploited by both the babus and the self-seekers that are attracted to the corridors of power. The result was a discernible emotional disconnect between the government and its political support systems. This partially contributed to the NDA’s unexpected defeat in 2004.
This is a facet of the Vajpayee legacy that Modi needs to guard against. In the 2014 election, there were three streams that contributed to the BJP’s amazing victory: traditional voters who will vote BJP whatever the odds, the RSS network that provided the organizational back bone to the grassroots campaign and the parallel efforts of a volunteer corps that were attracted by the idea of Modi — and this meant different things to different sections and regions. It was the synergy of the three that produced the awesome results.
Modi is fortunate that he has assumed power with such an array of political assets. There is a generosity in the determination of his backers that he must be given a free hand to translate their political impulses into reality. The 10-point list of priorities announced last Thursday sets a broad framework for governance. But apart from ensuring that the entire government marches in step, Modi has to ensure that the mood of optimism must also be an adjunct of the country’s journey to rapid growth and modernity This implies that hard politics and targeted governance can’t be detached.
The lofty expectations from the new government imply that the Vajpayee legacy can, at best form a part of his regime’s foundation. In the case of Modi, the more things change the more must not remain the same.
Sunday Times of India, June 1, 2014