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Politician versus PM
Publication Date : 01-06-2014
If Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony was any indication of what one can expect from the new Prime Minister and his Cabinet, there is reason for optimism. This is because Prime Minister Modi is manifestly different from the politician who ran a slanderous election campaign mostly devoid of constructive deliberation on politics and policy.
The man who showed no remorse for the events of 2002, and exercised little restraint in stoking the majoritarian impulses of the electorate seems to have metamorphosed into a statesman-like figure. The vitriolic speeches have made way for grand diplomatic gestures and messages of world peace and development. Besides, the articulation of an idea of India that is developed and inclusive is at some variance with the balky defence of Hindu nationalism not so long ago.
The Prime Minister fired his first salvo by reaching out to leaders of the SAARC nations. Thus the politician who repeatedly indulged in anti-Pakistan rhetoric in the course of the election campaign invited Nawaz Sharif to India even before the formal assumption of power.
Allies such as the Shiv Sena, which advocated an aggressive 'tit-for-tat' policy against Pakistan, beat a quiet retreat in the face of a move hailed as a diplomatic coup of sorts. Prime Minister Modi followed up his grand gesture with bilateral talks with his Pakistani counterpart, which concluded with acceptance of an invitation to visit Pakistan.
In one clever swipe, Modi reversed the downswing in Indo-Pak ties, triggered by violation of ceasefire and the beheading of Indian soldiers. He also brought an end to speculations that belligerence with neighbours would constitute the core of his foreign policy doctrine.
The composition of the Cabinet mostly reflects political acumen of the positive kind. Mr Modi's preference for trusted lieutenants over senior party leaders was somewhat balanced by the allocation of a prestigious portfolio to Sushma Swaraj, while excluding close aides such as Amit Shah. Not many would have anticipated such a balancing act, given Modi's propensity to sideline his detractors within his own party.
Secondly, the induction of seven women to key positions was by no means a foregone conclusion when only 37 women contested the Lok Sabha elections on BJP tickets. Arguably, the Council of Ministers does not represent the entire range of castes, communities and regions, but there is also some merit in the argument that mere tokenism does not equal representation.
What is worth watching out for is whether the new government walks the talk of inclusiveness by taking up the cause of women, minorities and tribal populations.
Modi's appointment of Smriti Irani as Minister for Human Resource Development is a welcome move that does not smack of a hardline ideological agenda. The controversy arising out of Irani's educational qualifications has in fact sidetracked this important issue that deserves attention. Her formal education notwithstanding, she represents the youthful, modern and progressive face of the BJP.
Modi's pick ought to have sent out a positive signal as far as the overall direction of education policy is concerned. The reign of Murli Manohar Joshi as HRD minister had seen the massive drive to 'Indianise' not only history but also the sciences.
The professor of physics was hardly guided by his training in the sciences as he went about restructuring science education in the country via the institution of large grants for advanced courses in astrology, meditation and vedic studies.
Given that Modi's critics are concerned about the renewal of such plans and programmes, they ought to welcome a move that does not by itself signal the intent to saffronise the education system.
The positive developments were somewhat marred by the invocation of Article 370 within the government's first few days in office. Regardless, of the merits of open debate on the subject, Mr Modi could very well have ensured that an issue as sensitive as Article 370 did not set the tone of the agenda he plans to pursue in the near future.
Modi surely realises the importance of building a consensus on his key plans and programmes, and now that many of his critics have endorsed his opening moves, he would not want to distract from his core agenda of ensuring growth, development, peace and security.
Moreover, the war of words involving RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav undermined the Modi government's claim to independence from the BJP's ideological mentors. The rebuff to J&K's elected leader Omar Abdullah further undermined the government's commitment to federal principles, which Mr Modi has advocated on other occasions.
The larger picture that emerges at the end of Mr Modi's first week in office is one that bears the stamp of his authority. The PM also appears to have shed his campaign persona, injecting a new flavour into his politics that holds the promise of building consensus within and across borders. Appearances can of course be deceptive, but one hopes that is true of Modi the politician, not Modi the Prime Minister.
(The writer is a London-based political scientist)