Prime Minister Narendra Modi has turned the element of surprise into a fine art. Maybe it is because he is, self-admittedly, an ‘outsider’ in the political establishment of Delhi or maybe because his route into democratic politics followed a very different set of impulses, he has become adept at breaking the mould and setting his own rules.
The reason why the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech from Red Fort attracted disproportionate attention had, of course, a lot to do with the change brought about by the electorate in May. But equally, if not more, it had everything to do with the personality of the man who addressed India as its “pradhan sewak”.
That Modi did not disappoint is an understatement. For many Indians, who had invested emotionally in the change Modi promised to bring about in both governance and political thinking, the Prime Minister was on test. For three months, even as the impatient rushed to premature judgement, Modi had burnt the midnight oil familiarizing himself with the totality of the Government of India. It was a daunting project that many of his predecessors abandoned after a few days. They had preferred to learn on the job. But then, apart from Rajiv Gandhi who was blessed with an unequivocal mandate in 1984, no other Prime Minister in the past three decades had been catapulted by an electorate that wanted change-both decisive and immediate.
If Modi chose three months to prepare for the next 57 months-some would say ten years, it is because he has learnt a few things as Chief Minister in Gujarat.
First, that embarking on an uncharted course is always a lonely journey. True, there are ministerial colleagues, political associates and officers who extend a big helping hand. However, it is the captain of the team-whose captaincy has been endorsed by India’s voters-that always unveils the larger vision of change. A flippant captain like Rajiv Gandhi can easily lose the plot and end up disappointing the voters and a non-playing captain such as Manmohan Singh can drag the country into institutionalized waywardness.
Second, Modi must be painfully aware that the ‘system’ is inherently anti-change. There is a certain grandeur to ministerial office in Delhi-and more so, for a Prime Minister-that puts inordinate pressure on an individual to uphold status quo and continuity. The principle of we-know-best, is so deeply etched into babudom that it takes both intellectual courage and ruthless clarity of purpose for a politician to undertake something different.
Modi knows that the corridors of power are full of individuals who are waiting anxiously for the politician to commit a mistake so that they can both rescue him and cure him of the desire to be audacious. If Modi has proceeded with extra caution for the past three months, even retaining many officials who should ideally have been booted out for their unprofessional conduct during the final years of the UPA, it is not because he is overwhelmed by the project he has undertaken. It is because he has to be sure he is doing the right thing.
I am not privy to the details surrounding the welcome decision to bury the Planning Commission and replace it with a body fit for purpose. However, I am sure that the proposal was not enthusiastically endorsed by a bureaucracy that views Yojana Bhavan as another instrument of control. In the coming days, as the successor body takes shape, there will be a concerted attempt to make the changes as cosmetic as possible and obfuscate the larger vision driving the change. Articles will proliferate in the media arguing that a ‘developing’ country such as India cannot do without a body of enlightened souls moulding the course of development. The idea won’t be to reverse the decision but to intimidate the Prime Minister into abandoning his desire to effect fundamental changes in other fields.
In his Red Fort speech, Modi narrated his intense disappointment at the frequency and tone of inter-departmental squabbles and turf wars in the Government. He was, of course, berating the bureaucracy for not looking beyond their noses but I am sure he was alluding to some of his Cabinet colleagues who have become mere custodians of their departments and, consequently, impediments to change.
Where the political-bureaucratic elite may have misread Modi is in thinking that he is driven by broadly the same impulses as most other politicians. In their criticism of the August 15 speech, some anti-Modi commentators have berated the Prime Minister for delving into ethical concerns-particularly on questions of gender and sexual abuse. One critic even suggested Modi was speaking like a RSS pracharak delivering a boudhik.
The analogy isn’t misplaced. Where Modi differs from many others in the political arena is that he does actually view politics as part of the nation-building renaissance that someone such as Swami Vivekananda spoke about in the last decade of the 19th century. Actually, the more I observe Modi, the more I am convinced that he is propelled by Vivekananda’s blend of spiritualism and nationalism acting in concert. Don’t be misled by the special attention the Prime Minister devotes to his public appearance-his sartorial tastes are often more discussed than his politics. In reality, Modi combines an attachment to making India a global power with an unlikely detachment from the trappings of office. This is what makes him deliver the blunt message to Indian parents to keep their sons in check and his strong pro-women bias.
Conventional politics, it would seem, can’t explain Modi.