India, unlike any other country in human history, has chosen to simultaneously undertake its social, political and economic transitions.
To achieve this, Modi will have to be a Rajrishi.
The Indian electorate has handed Modi, with his strengths and frailties, the historical mandate of taking on the overwhelming challenges facing the country. India, unlike any other country in human history, has chosen to simultaneously undertake its social, political and economic transitions. In other countries, these transitions have followed each other in a sequential manner, thereby reducing the complexity of the phenomenon and permitting greater degrees of freedom to policy makers. In recent history, China completed its social transition out of feudalism, with the installation of the Communist government under Mao in 1949. It has held in abeyance its political transition to a liberal democracy, until its economic transition has been completed. Most East Asian economies, including Singapore, Korea and Taiwan, have also denied their citizens individual freedoms, while completing their economic transitions.
It is worth pointing out, if only to highlight the complexity of the historical experiment that India is attempting, that even in Western democracies of the UK and the US, individual rights were denied to large segments of the population during the period in which industrialisation progressed and capitalism took root…India has had neither the luxury of “totalitarian regimes” nor the benefits of colonial exploitation to propel its own transitions. It is the only country trying to build a globally competitive economy, while at the same time affording to its people liberal democratic rights and overcoming the deep-rooted and widespread caste and other social evils.
The three simultaneous transitions (economic, political and social) impact each other and make the challenge even bigger and more complex. All three transitions proceed at their own different pace. This exacerbates regional inequality and exaggerates India’s diversity. This perhaps explains the remark about India, attributed to Joan Robinson, that whatever one says about India and its opposite can both be true at the same time. But it also makes democracy an imperative and not a choice. There is no group or class large enough to exercise hegemonic rule over the entire country. Not even the Hindutva forces, because Hinduism itself exists in myriad forms in the country. Can Modi recognise, appreciate and handle this diversity? On this will depend India’s future.
The most important lesson to be learnt is that given India’s complex simultaneous triple transition, Modi will have to find his own way forward, starting from first principles. India cannot succeed by following some weatherbeaten development model or economic theology. Neither the Washington nor the Beijing consensus can be adopted wholesale in India. There will inevitably have to be an Indian model that is derived from the ground realities upwards. The model will have to combine the innovative with the pragmatic but also some “out-of-the box” approaches without taking undue risks. We want to argue that given his track record, Modi has the capabilities to take on these extraordinary and urgent challenges faced by India.
Given the minute and continuous scrutiny that he attracts and the polarisation that he engenders, Modi’s strengths as also his frailties will always be blown out of proportion by the media. Therefore, it may be necessary for him to inculcate the characteristics of a Rajrishi—a Hindu philosophical concept, by which is meant a person who combines the qualities (and the dharma) of both a monarch and a saint. Over centuries, this has become an Indian and not merely a Hindu concept. To win broad-based people’s support and be seen as being above partisan interests, Modi will have to demonstrate his willingness and capacity to adopt the attributes of a Rajrishi. That will allow him to be perceived as being detached from the material returns that come with the powerful office of the prime minister and also permit him to rise above the sullying nature of political routine.
RSS’ own motto of “nation before party before self” resonates with the concept of Rajrishi—a king who is unwaveringly devoted to the pursuit of national interest and holds it above all other personal, family or partisan interests. Moreover, being a Rishi, he is also self-denying and detached from both power and material gains, which he is ready to sacrifice in the larger national cause. With his RSS and Ramakrishna Mission influences; non-marital status; mendicant experience over two years at a relatively young age; and lack of material connections with his immediate or extended family, Modi apparently possesses these attributes.
The Indian electorate, in voting so heavily for him, seemed to have implicitly recognised these qualities in him, which also make him a formidable political leader. It is important for Modi to be seen as being consumed by his passion for pushing India forward and not succumbing to partisan interests despite electoral pressures.
Amit Shah, his alter ego, would know by now that provincial election outcomes will be largely determined by the quality of local leadership and not by Modi’s personal charisma. He may therefore like to give Modi the space needed to emerge as a statesman and to not be held hostage to partisan causes, including that of strident Hindutva. That will vastly improve the chances of success in the 2019 elections.
Where he has shown a degree of fallibility is in his sartorial panache and weakness for high-value branded products. This resulted in the biggest mistake so far of wearing the bespoke suit with his name woven into the fabric for his well-publicised meeting with Obama. The opposition seized upon that chink in his otherwise formidable armour with undisguised glee. With that one slip, Modi immediately succumbed to becoming another card-carrying member of the Indian political elite, which regularly and with zero qualms, uses high political and bureaucratic office for self-aggrandisement. Nobody can or should deny Modi the right to be elegantly dressed. But it will be better if he recognised the method in Mahatma Gandhi’s eccentric action of discarding his elaborate turban and kurta and adopting the simple dhoti, before starting on his political career in India. The great majority of the Indian electorate appreciates leaders who are in sync with and empathise with their own living conditions.
Another attribute of a Rajrishi is his modesty and humility. These were visible while Modi was in Gandhinagar, where he revelled in being accessible to the common people. But now Modi seems to be overconscious of his qualities, which he displays and propagates with aplomb. Could it be that Lutyens Delhi, with its long history of being the seat of imperial power, has subverted Modi’s people-oriented style of functioning? Modi surely realises that one of the attributes that drew the electorate to him was his modest stature as an outsider to Lutyens Delhi, who was taking on the established political dynasties. He was greatly helped by Mani Shankar Aiyer’s arrogance in offering him to set up a tea stall in Delhi. Modi will do well to regain some of that modesty, which saw him reach out, during the initial months after taking office, to opposition leaders including Sonia Gandhi, Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa.
This modesty of the first few months in Delhi has since been replaced by belligerent talk of holding joint sessions of the Parliament and of achieving majority in the Rajya Sabha to steamroll the opposition. The grand vision of riding roughshod over the political opposition a la Gujarat and for Modi to rule India as a Chakravarty Raja (monarch without any opposition), having annihilated all opposition, is a chimera. It will not work in present day India. Surely, Delhi and even more so the Bihar election results should have changed that mindset in the BJP leadership.
They must realise that India in 2016 is far too diverse and eccentric to be ruled unconditionally by a central authority. Even an absolute majority within Parliament does not guarantee an unopposed one party rule. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi commanded similar majorities, but discovered to their cost that individuals outside Parliament could mount an even more effectual opposition. Successful governance requires that on key issues, broad social consensus be created among the general populace and public opinion be changed in favour of a particular position. Therefore, building coalitions within and outside Parliament is a necessary part of effective governance. This calls for a degree of modesty and humility, which are essential conditions for coalition building and for creating a political consensus in a country as diverse as India.
Modi will have to choose between Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri on the one hand and the Nehru-Gandhi family, excluding Pandit Nehru himself who, though firmly a member of the elite, had impeccable democratic credentials, on the other. The former two identified with the common Indian, maintained an understated and almost humble stance vis a vis opponents and yet remained firm in their resolve when the national cause was at stake. The latter prided themselves as the elite and at best had condescension for the common Indian and often let personal egos score over the national cause. For someone who comes from the sacrificing traditions of Nanaji Deshmukh and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the choice should be clear.
India is much larger and more complex than the sum of its parts, which implies that Modi has to accept that India is not a mere summation of 29 Gujarats. It is much bigger and far more complex. This has several direct implications for his governance style. First, he (and Amit Shah) will have to re-think the extremely centralised and intrusive style of governance that characterised Gandhinagar. Modi cannot hope to manage India by modelling the prime minister’s office (PMO) in Delhi on the lines of the omniscient and omnipresent CMO in Gandhinagar. This will boomerang if it has not done so already by way of demoralising the rest of his cabinet colleagues and senior bureaucracy, the so- called establishment. As a perceptive former senior bureaucrat who has worked closely with Modi in Gandhinagar said, “He should be creating half a dozen other Modis rather than centralising all decision-making in the PMO”.
Second, he cannot also hope to be in de facto control of all important ministries through the PMO. This will sooner rather than later result in a paralysis of decision making as “all files will float upwards to the PMO”. Unlike in Gujarat, where he was in charge of all important ministries, Modi will have to delegate and inspire his entire cabinet for focusing laser-like on the development agenda and achieving the desired outcomes. One major reason for him to take on multiple responsibilities can simply be sheer lack of talent in his party and bureaucracy. There is already a widespread perception that his “bench strength” is too weak to cope with demands that he makes and the timely and effective delivery that he expects. Given the urgency, waiting for talent to find its way into the government may not be a viable option. Instead, Modi and his cabinet colleagues should pro-actively identify appropriate talent, both within and outside the government, and in the corporate world and civil society, to buttress his government’s capacity for timely policy formulation and rapid execution. He may also have to lower the bar for loyalty to be able to attract the much-needed talent in his administration.
Third, Modi will have to restrain his ambitions for a global role until he has addressed the formidable and more urgent domestic agenda. His hyperactive external relations programme, which has seen him visit 25 countries in 2015 and a total of 37 since he took office, seems to suggest otherwise. This is surely premature. He has himself said on more than one occasion that the best foreign policy for India at this stage is to strengthen the domestic economy and rid India of its poverty and backwardness. Now that he has completed the first phase of his foreign policy agenda, which was to stake India’s claim to a place on the high table of global governance, it may perhaps be more pertinent for him to put the remaining foreign policy and global ambitions on the backburner until the next term. This will also afford Sushma Swaraj greater operational space and autonomy and contribute to improving inner-party relations within the BJP.
Finally, Modi will also have to re-think his touching reliance on the existing or former bureaucrats. The “steel framework” of Indian bureaucracy has served India very well over the years. Most critically, it provided the much needed order and continuity after independence. It represented a highly select talent pool that supported the elected representatives over the decades and helped democracy take firm roots in the country. Things are now different.
The Indian economy and its interactions with global economy have become increasingly complex. The talent pool is also not as strikingly superior to either that in the corporate sector or in other sections of the civil society. The steel frame has also rusted to some extent with seasoned bureaucrats admitting to more widespread corruption among the senior civil servants. This is supported by regular media reporting of bureaucrats being apprehended by the CBI for possessing assets far in excess to their known sources of income.
Therefore, the talent pool represented by the IAS and other civil services needs to be supplemented. To effectively address the challenges India faces currently would require increasing inputs from external domain specialists, backed by in-depth research and empirical evidence.
Persistence with the IAS as the exclusive source for policy making and implementation runs the risk of further strengthening the chasm between the “rulers and the ruled”. This should be anathema in a working democracy. On the other hand, a “revolving door” policy that allows regular and unfettered entry of talent from the corporate world, academia and civil society in to the Government and vice versa can be a strong modality for creating a trust-based relationship between the government and other key stakeholders in the country. This will result in the formation of a true “India Inc” that can effectively compete globally and increase India’s share in world markets.
To avoid regulatory capture by vested interests, it may be useful to follow the Japanese practice of setting up tripartite committees in specific ministries.
These committees would have representatives from the civil services, academia and industry and be supported by a full-fledged secretariat to follow up on decisions taken at the meetings of the tripartite committees.
Cognisant of his weaknesses and given his formidable strengths and commitment to Shreshta Bharat, Modi could initiate a historical transformation in India. Though difficult, this is certainly not inconceivable and must surely be his own ambition. This could bring him at par with Asian leaders like Deng Hsiao Ping and Lee Kuan Yew. To be successful in this heroic and difficult task, he will have to adopt a forward-looking policy framework, to supplement the large number of incremental measures already in the pipeline.
His order of priority must be to successfully complete the social and political transitions as these provide the necessary conditions for pushing forward with the economic transition. Thus, pushing forward with all the three transitions together will ensure that he fulfils the voters’ high expectations of him and successfully stake a claim in 2019.