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Miles to go... and many promises to keep

Publication Date : 18-05-2014


On Friday, as India digested the Bharatiya Janata Party's landslide victory in parliamentary polls, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor sent a short message of congratulations to Narendra Modi.

Within two hours he had a response from the BJP's prime minister-designate. Congratulating Tharoor in turn for his re-election - a rare victory for the Congress Party he had pulverised - Modi expressed the hope that they would be able to work together for the good of India.

Indians are hoping that the conciliatory exchange with a Congress politician he had once attacked for having a "500 million rupee girlfriend" will set the tone for the next five years during which Modi, 63, is mandated to govern the vast nation of more than 1.2 billion. For not only has he won unquestioned power - the biggest mandate for an Indian leader in 30 years - the election campaign has been the most heated in recent memory and many have been seared by the barbed rhetoric he unleashed.

While his attacks have centred on the Congress-run government and the Nehru-Gandhi family that dominated it, India's 165 million Muslims, the biggest minority in this mostly Hindu nation, have regarded Modi with unease.

That is because early in his term as Gujarat state chief, he failed to prevent widespread rioting that left more Muslims than Hindus killed.

Last September, as the nation prepared for polls, populous Uttar Pradesh state saw the worst rioting in a decade, displacing thousands of Muslims from their homes.

Other leaders - notably the late Rajiv Gandhi early in his days as prime minister - have presided over terrible communal riots, but Modi's refusal to apologise for the tragedy have left many Muslims with a sense of foreboding of what is to come.

Over the past year, the Hindu nationalist body RSS, one of whose members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for preaching Hindu-Muslim unity, has been vigorously involved in working for the BJP campaign. And it has not helped that there is not a single Muslim name in the list of successful BJP candidates entering Parliament.

"I know that Gujarat's Muslims have largely reconciled to Modi because of his development record there," said a Muslim businessman in the upscale New Delhi neighbourhood of Friends Colony. "But many of us worry how we will react if similar situations were to arise in future. I am moving a part of my business to Dubai so I am assured of an alternate base should things go wrong for us."

To Modi's credit, he has sent signals to soothe such fears.

With the election over, he has removed the BJP's lotus symbol that was forever attached to his shirt. In his first speeches since the victory, he has stressed that he would be a PM for all people: "A government has no favourites and no one is an alien," he said on Friday.

BJP sympathisers point out that while a single paragraph in the manifesto on building a temple to the God Ram within limits placed by the Constitution got headlines, much less was said about promises to uphold India's cultural diversity and promote Urdu, the language favoured by most northern Indian Muslims.

"Mr Modi has shown a willingness to move towards the centre, to put divisiveness behind him, and to reach out to all comers," said the respected editor and commentator T.N. Ninan. "Just as Indira Gandhi's unconstitutional Emergency actions were relegated to history books after she won the 1980 elections, so Mr Modi must now be given room to demonstrate that he is indeed capable of being the prime minister that India needs."

India's politics, dominated for decades by the socialist-oriented Congress, has always tended to be left of centre. Modi, on the other hand, comes with a reputation of being close to big money. Inclusiveness, therefore, has to be on many fronts.

"BJP leaders are aware that they have to govern for communal harmony and political and economic inclusion," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former party strategist who is credited with moving BJP stalwart L.K. Advani, who led the move to build a Ram temple on the site of an ancient mosque, to a more centrist position. "It is true too that the RSS has in recent years strengthened its grip on BJP, but Modi has the strength to resist them."

Beyond lie other challenges for Modi. To begin with, he has to restore the authority of the office of prime minister, so diminished in Dr Manmohan Singh's last years.

The economy needs special tending - inflation is high, growth has slowed to a wheeze in the past two years and the country simply does not have the jobs to cater to the 10 million joining the workforce every year. State chief ministers hold enormous power, particularly over land use, and they could stymie him, particularly in non-BJP areas.

The promises he has made are many and he will be called to deliver on each of them, particularly since he is not tied down with the weight of coalition politics.

Modi's style in Gujarat has been to push things through, using the power of his personality to overcome opposition. Even with his massive mandate, that "single-window approach" will now have to give way to a more collegial and consultative style. His BJP peers think he has the smarts, and determination, to deliver. "Modi comes with a solid track record," said BJP vice-president Balbir Punj. "He has demonstrated that it is possible to deliver within the system."


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