- Posted May 18, 2014 by
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First Person: Your essays
Winds of Change
Take the BJP. The party is going through a generation change and a well-disguised ideological transformation. Modi may be many things people may like or dislike, but he has sidelined a generation of BJP leaders who were there through the lean days of the Eighties and tended the party through the Nineties. This generation won and then threw away power in 2004. It failed to renew the party in 2009. Now its time is up.
Politics is not a kind business. The rejection of the older generation, albeit clothed in words of respect, will be ruthless. The Congress had this moment of transition in 1969 when Indira Gandhi split the party to throw out the older leaders who thought they could rule from behind the throne. That gruesome episode changed the Congress into a personal and, then in 1984, a dynastic party.
The Congress is now paying the price for that transition as it finds itself saddled with a clueless heir apparent. It can neither get rid of the dynasty, nor can it dare to suggest to Rahul Gandhi that he should take a course in public speaking or work harder than he has done so far. The party faces the prospect of spending five years in opposition with a leader who has an aversion to attending or speaking in Parliament.
Rahul was elected to Parliament and, luckily for him, the Congress won power in 2004. He has had the luxury of being able to come and go as he pleases since the UPA had the numbers. In opposition, the required discipline will be hard. No escaping abroad for two days as he has just recently done. Being in the opposition will test Rahul and show if he has the political stamina to lead his party for five years in the wilderness. One can only hope that he will not listen to the small army of sycophants who will tell him that it was not his fault that the Congress lost. He has to introspect if he wants to be a serious politician.
Narendra Modi has a different problem of managing the transition. He is a complete contrast to Rahul. He has had to do all the hard work himself to get to the top. He used to be the young man everyone patronised and took for granted, the man quietly standing in a corner while the bigwigs met. He observed, made his own list of friends and detractors. He acknowledges L K Advani as a mentor, but Modi is the ultimate self-made leader. Unlike Ekalavya, he would not give his thumb to his guru but he wanted to defeat Arjuna.
For someone like him, the hard task is to acknowledge that he has reached the top. Now he has to help people, listen to them and harness their energy. He will have to include his potential rivals within his Cabinet to show that he is secure in his success. Independent India’s first Cabinet had, besides Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Abul Kalam Azad, with Rajendra Prasad as President. Over time, Nehru became dominant. A Cabinet of near equals has been unusual since then. In US politics, this is often the ideal way of forming a Cabinet. President Barack Obama emulated Abraham Lincoln’s model, which he learnt about from Doris Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals.
It is within possibility that Modi may transform the nature of Indian politics, for the better and not for the worse as liberals fear. He remains marked by the 2002 riots which happened within months of his taking over as Chief Minister of Gujarat. He has tried to shed this image and work on governance. Along the way, he has refashioned the BJP’s vote-winning formula away from its heavy reliance on upper-caste Hindu votes to include OBCs and Dalits. Muslims are yet uncertain whether it is the Modi of 2002, as the Congress insists, or the Modi of governance and ‘One India’ whom they see.
Modi has to leave his hard climb with all the bitter memories behind. He is at the top and can be the statesman India needs and expects. He needs to keep the hardcore of the Parivar firmly in check and forget the time he felt like Ekalavya. He can be Karna of Mahabharata fame., the noblest Kaunteya of them all. After all, Karna was defeated due to unfair tactics used by the ‘good’ guys. Electoral politics enjoin the use of fair methods. Karna can yet win.
Modi represents an Asian nationalism sparked by China’s rise, West’s duplicity. At the tail end of a question-answer session following a lecture in Detroit, an East Asian member of the audience asked me if I could enlighten him on what India’s foreign policy was likely to be in a Narendra Modi government. Pressed for time, and not prepared for the question, I offered a telegraphic reply. Modi, I told him, would be the Shinzo Abe of India. Many heads nodded in the audience, as if my reply was crystal clear.
Modi is not an Abe in terms of his inheritance. Abe’s biography reads more like that of Rahul Gandhi. The grandson of a former prime minister, Abe is related to the Japanese emperor. He is the “insider” among Tokyo’s power elite. Modi is the “outsider” in the Delhi darbar. But, Modi would seek to define his foreign policy in more nationalist terms, as Abe has tried to, partly as a way of reviving the national mood in a dispirited country.
Modi represents a brand of Asian nationalism kindled by China’s rise and the West’s part-confused, part-duplicitous response. Asian nations preparing themselves for the new power balances of the 21st century have to chart their own course, dealing with a rising China and a West preoccupied with its economic woes.
It is noteworthy that the three countries that Modi has visited as chief minister have been China, Japan and Singapore. The Asian focus of Modi’s foreign policy has been shaped both by the West’s, especially the United States’, treatment of him and, more importantly, the longstanding admiration of Asian nationalism within the wider Sangh Parivar. It is not often remembered in contemporary discourse that during the 1970s and ’80s, the intellectual leadership of the Jana Sangh greatly admired Japan. As Asia’s first industrial nation, which was also the first Asian power to defeat a European one in over 300 years, Japan was a great source of inspiration for Indian leaders including Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru.
But it is not just history, technology and investible capital that makes Japan a country to draw inspiration from. Modi seems to recognise the value of Abe’s combination of investing in domestic economic capability and external strategic capacity for nation building. Modi’s domestic policy focus, drawing from Gujarat’s experience, has been on building India’s economic capability. His political rhetoric focuses on the need to revitalise a moribund economy, which is exactly how Abe came to power in a depressed and depressing Japan.
Not surprisingly, Modi’s first major foreign policy statement in the run up to the general elections of 2014 has also focused on China’s new assertiveness. However, as journalist Ashok Malik has observed, Modi would understand that India has to, for some time to come, maintain a balanced relationship with China, pushing back in response to its assertiveness but cooperating with it to ensure the continuity of Asia’s rise. In essence, Modi’s policy towards China is unlikely to be very different from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s, as Malik has also noted, though it will be articulated more emphatically than many in the Congress party and government were willing to.
While talking tough, Modi should be expected to do business with China. On his visit to Beijing in 2011, when China received him with the courtesy due to a head of government at a time when Western governments were refusing to even give him a visa, Modi invited Chinese companies to invest in India. He has often urged Indian business leaders to learn from China. He should be expected to pursue a balanced policy of defending India’s national interests at a bilateral level while working with China at the regional and global level.
It is also unlikely that Modi’s approach to the US would be any different from that of Singh. Recall the fact that during the entire debate on the India-US civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement, Modi adopted a more supportive posture than the BJP’s national leadership was willing to. BJP leader L.K. Advani’s trenchant opposition was defined by his desperation to dislodge the Manmohan Singh government and become prime minister. Those close to Modi within the BJP, like Arun Jaitley, adopted a more conciliatory stance on the nuclear deal. Just as the Congress was divided on the subject, so was the BJP.
While Modi should be expected to remain engaged with the US, it is up to the Obama administration to wake up and craft a more consistent and convincing India policy. The recent impasse in the bilateral relationship is a result of policy confusion both in New Delhi and Washington DC. Modi’s election may clear the air in Delhi, but it may further muddy the waters in Washington, unless President Barack Obama pays personal attention and seeks to revive the relationship.
Modi should, however, be expected to be forthright in his outreach to Japan. Not only did the Japanese also receive him as if he were a head of government when he visited Tokyo, but they have also put their money where their mouth is and are investing in Gujarat in a big way.
Modi, like three of his predecessors — Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh — should also be expected to give priority to India’s economic imperatives in crafting his foreign policy. His election campaign has focused on the need to step up economic growth, holding Gujarat as an example for India. His “5 T” focus on “talent, tourism, technology, tradition and trade” would suggest that mutually beneficial relations with countries that can contribute to these Ts, especially trade, technology and tourism, should be a priority. These elements should also define his neighbourhood policy, as well as stance towards other emerging economies.
In keeping with his nationalist posture, Modi should be expected to strengthen the relationship between defence and diplomacy. This would privilege the relationship with Israel and other major defence suppliers. It should also revive India’s engagement with Indian Ocean maritime diplomacy. Taken together, all these elements would suggest that the role model for Modi may well be Japan’s Shinzo Abe, whose singular focus has been on restoring to Japan its lost dynamism. And that shall be the change from staid politics of today.