The new PM is markedly different from his predecessors in his choices and communication. ET examines what makes him stand out.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to personify that old aphorism about the personal being political. Every personal choice of his is actually a public statement.
There’s nothing about him that can be deemed purely personal.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also a bachelor-pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). But when he became prime minister, he chose friend and former diplomat Brajesh Mishra as his national security advisor (NSA) and principal secretary. Mishra, it will be recalled, was the son of a former Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. Also, Vajpayee lived with a family that he adopted and his son-in-law more or less managed his office informally at 7, Race Course Road.
But Modi’s choices are dictated by politics, precedence and policy. His NSA and principal secretary come from the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a think tank perceived to be close to the RSS. AK Doval, the former Intelligence Bureau chief, worked closely with Modi’s one-time mentor and BJP patriarch, LK Advani, when the latter was home minister. It would seem then that shared commitment to ideology, not personal bonding, brought Modi and Doval together. Similarly, Nripendra Mishra, Modi’s principal secretary, was working with Doval at VIF.
After 100 days in Delhi, nobody — his cabinet colleagues, his extended political parivar, his babus — can claim any amount of familiarity with the new prime minister. At his Independence Day address, the prime minister called himself an outsider. This assertion of identity — of being an outsider — is a marked departure from the past.
On the other hand, Modi has taken control of the levers of power. There are no daughters, sons or sons-in-law who could become extra-constitutional authorities. There are no schoolmates, back-slapping college pals, special interests, assorted hangers on — in fact, no one who can bind him to an agenda.
Modi the person is as free in this respect as a modern-day prime minister can ever hope to be and perhaps frighteningly so. He has kept his family away from 7 RCR and even his ideological family is not to be seen anywhere around him. A set of bureaucrats has travelled with him from Ahmedabad to Delhi. But again, they are not friends or family. They may not even be his partners in his political project, but instruments to get his ideas implemented. Modi the person is remarkably alone at the top of his government.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley carries the burden of an additional ministry and a lot of weight in the Cabinet. But till Modi goes on vacation to the Kumarakom backwaters in Kerala or the mountain retreats of Himachal — as Vajpayee so famously did — nobody really knows who stands where in his scheme of things.
Politics is all about what people think about you, not about who you really are.
And no contemporary politician has mastered the art of perception management as well as Narendra Modi.
The Hindutva brigade hailed Modi as the Hindu Hriday Samrat at the weakest point in his career, when he was accused of malgovernance during the Gujarat riots of 2002. At the time, prime minister Vajpayee even felt the need to remind him of his rajdharma, or duty as a ruler.
Despite the tension within the party and his many detractors in the Gujarat BJP, he was able to extract the most out of this situation and maximise his image as the biggest Hindutva hero after LK Advani, whose 1990 rath yatra had done much to polarise the country. He became the darling of the RSS cadres and, subsequently, the electorate.
He began engaging with voters, connecting with them across the country. In his case, the masses are not some sort of abstraction. His attempt even now is to talk to each individual in the crowd that he addresses and everyone in the drawing room watching him on TV.
This mode of communication has a great advantage — it’s strictly one-way traffic. There are no intermediaries, such as pesky journalists asking uncomfortable questions, or others checking facts or countering arguments. There is only Modi and his fanatic follower. If someone is not completely converted yet, his attempt is to convince that person in the crowd or in the drawing room.
That is why he is always in campaign mode. Modi the salesman and Modi the statesman are the same public person. There cannot be one script for Varanasi, another for Vadodara and a third for Red Fort on Independence Day.
He bows down to touch the steps of Parliament House with his forehead to tell his followers what that moment and the monument mean to him. His voice catches during his address at the Parliamentary party meeting to reassure the disciplined RSS cadres that he’s not bigger than the organisation.
And he turns up in the colours of the flag–saffron-green headgear and white kurta–at Red Fort to make a political statement: he is celebrating like any North Indian commoner would on a festive occasion.
The Opposition and rivals within the party may dislike the way he delivers his promises. It may sound coarse to their refined ears. But the message is not meant for the sophisticated.
No ‘liberal’ leader could have pulled off anything close to what Modi did in his August 15 address. He admonished parents for not being able to control their sons when speaking about India’s appalling record on sexual violence against women.
He said Indians needed to be more particular about cleanliness. He was holding a mirror to the ugly, dirty Indian.
He succeeds in doing so because he has already converted most of his audience, he knows their language, their deficiencies and most importantly he insists that he is one of them — a tea seller.
The biggest complaint against the late Rajiv Gandhi was his hurry as prime minister to ring in the 21st century. But no politician was ever in such a mad rush as Modi, who hit the ground running on May 26 — when he was sworn in — with a weighty agenda.
His biggest priority is systemic change and structural reorientation of the government.
Dismantling of the Planning Commission, merging smaller ministries, cutting the flab, pragmatic programmes for effective governance and immediate poverty alleviation are all part of this agenda.
Beyond the departure from Nehruvian consensus, there are certain concrete issues and areas of concern.
The ‘neighbourhood first’ foreign policy to regain the country’s lost primacy in South Asia is one of them. There was a time when the Indian establishment aspired to play a big role in international affairs, using the platform of the Non Alignment Movement or by creating the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Modi is attempting to revive this. He visited Bhutan, then Nepal. In between he attended the BRICS meeting that saw the launch of the BRICS Bank. These attempts to underscore the new government’s independent foreign policy as against Manmohan Singh government’s perceived ‘US first’ initiatives seem to have made a difference already.
Economy and defence, particularly defence production, will be largely left to Jaitley, the second-most important person in the Cabinet. Still, the Independence Day message was clear. The PM believes in turning India into an international manufacturing hub and a big exporter.
Then there are the ideological hobby horses such as cleaning the Ganga and manifesto pledges such as high-speed trains and new smart cities. These are largely efforts to make a mark in governance at the earliest.
But the overriding idea behind all these priorities and programmes is nationalism.
Be it foreign policy or economic initiatives, Modi’s acolytes in the BJP insist that he is following a nationalistic trajectory. They explain that his policies will have a special space for domestic industry and capital.
Call it protectionism or Swadeshi economics, RSS insiders feel that the new government will invite foreign direct investment in greenfield projects such as defence manufacturing but will not let domestic capital be pushed out of entrenched sectors such as retail. When it comes to concerns such as communal tension though, this policy runs the risk of going down the slippery path of cultural nationalism.
This could be seen in Modi’s decision to avoid iftaar parties during Ramzan. These markers of a composite culture, though made meaningless by opportunistic politicians, can get diffused in an atmosphere of euphoric Hindutva nationalism.
All important leaders of a ruling party in a parliamentary democracy are supposed to be in the government.
A Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh kind of arrangement rarely works and sparked accusations of backseat driving. Even Narasimha Rao, who strictly speaking did not have the mandate to rule in 1991, grabbed the opportunity to remain party president after the Congress Working Committee endorsed him.
In an organisation like the BJP, which gives no scope for one person to hold both posts, the second best option for the prime minister is to get his nominee chosen as party chief. That is what Vajpayee did during the last NDA government, when he got lightweights like Bangaru Laxman, Jana Krishnamurthy and Venkaiah Naidu to head the party.
Modi took direct control of the entire BJP organisation by getting his old minister of state for home to head the BJP. No doubt Amit Shah did an extraordinary job in Uttar Pradesh for the BJP, but he was just one of many general secretaries without much experience at the Centre.
He represents Modi in the organisation and will continue to draw power from his proximity and loyalty to the PM.
The real organisational opposition to Modi can only come from the RSS now, as was case in the last NDA government.
The first note of discord came from RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat soon after Shah was hailed as the man of the match at the BJP national council. Organisationally, this amounted to appropriating all the credit and giving none to RSS cadres that had worked non-stop for many years to bring the BJP back to power. Bhagwat insisted that it was not a single individual or a political outfit that catapulted Modi to power but the people’s urge for change.
Bhagwat’s speech was reminiscent of the Vajpayee era, when Sangh veterans used to keep the prime minister and the government in check. In fact, the Sangh had forced Vajpayee to accept Advani as his deputy prime minister.
The Sangh took upon itself the role of the moral compass. When party president Bangaru Laxamn got caught on camera taking money from an undercover journalist, RSS termed him a “failed swayamsevak”.
When Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law faced charges of impropriety, RSS called him an “extra-constitutional authority”.
Will the Bhagwat-Modi relationship be different from that between Vajpayee and then RSS chief KS Sudarshan? Possibly.
Sudarshan was by far Vajpayee’s junior in the RSS but Bhagwat and Modi were both born in September 1950 and were together in the RSS for a long time.
Bhagwat is expected to have a greater influence over Modi and his policies.
Parliament is not about one speaker and a crowd of listeners. It is a forum for debate, a place where ideas clash and equals engage with each other to forge a consensus. There is a lot of camaraderie in these exchanges, structured or otherwise. Interventions, interjections and scholarly expositions, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, are not rare.
Modi didn’t go to Parliament like Vajpyaee, Advani, Indira Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi, as an ordinary member. He went like a conqueror who bowed down to the magnificence of the monument as part of the theatrics of his victory march. The acceptance speech at the parliamentary party meet was also a solo performance.
The motion of thanks to the presidential address was his first real address to parliamentarians.
But there haven’t been any regular exchanges yet. It is through generous interventions during Question Hour or in debates that a PM shows his attention to detail and accommodates the Opposition.
Once Modi gets used to parliamentary exchanges, he could be a different performer.
Not someone who speaks only to a crowd of fanatic followers but a leader who can engage with equals.