By Eshwar Sundaresan
The shouting match is over. All the winners are now free to exhibit their hoarse voices as a sign of victory!
Now, the whispering phase of elections – the striking of deals with post-poll allies – begins. The BJP have their task cut out here. Three potential allies – AIADMK, TMC and BSP, incidentally led by three firebrand women – seem to be burning their bridges with the saffron party. At this juncture when one would expect them to be ambiguous, they are being unequivocally critical of Narendra Modi.
On top of this, it remains to be seen if the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) actually performs as well as the predictions made by opinion polls.
But let’s put that aside for the moment. Let us assume that the NDA will form the next government and Narendra Modi will be India’s next PM. The possibility fills a great number of Indians with hope and an even greater number with fear. Both sides might feel vindicated by their choice of emotion, and ironically, both sides might be basing their emotions on the same qualities of Modi – his decisiveness, his strength of conviction and his ability to withstand all kinds of pressure. These are qualities common to visionaries and dictators. These are also qualities that have been absent from the top of the Indian political leadership for ages.
Take for instance, the incumbent PM. He has been a man of few words, negligible proactiveness and complete lack of political will. He was a reluctant leader, belittled by millions of vociferous non-followers.
In contrast, Modi is a vociferous leader with millions of reluctant followers. If Singh was about being too little, Modi can often be too much. Too much chutzpah, too much rhetoric and too much loudness. One has much to fear in this too-much-ness. Let’s get to specific areas of concern:
Relationship with Pakistan
Just the other day, Modi told Arnab Goswami on prime time that talk is impossible over the din of gunfire. In other words, Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to end cross-border terrorism in order for dialogue to take place.
Hawkish positions such as this can impact the fragile peace in Kashmir and all across the border. Huge concern.
Extrapolating this approach, one wonders how Modi would handle challenging dynamics with China, the US et al.
The saving grace might be Modi’s pragmatism – perhaps he is merely posturing as of now.
The Naxalite Question
In 2006, Manmohan Singh referred to Naxalism as the “single largest threat” to India’s internal security. Having said that, he did what he does best – he did nothing to change reality! Naxalism still remains the single largest internal threat facing the country. But it is also the byproduct of an inequitable society. Naxalites have survived since 1967 because they offer voice and power to the most disenfranchised people in around 160 districts of India. That’s almost a third of the nation. In return, these people offer them whatever survival support they can.
In the past, government “development” projects have usually resulted in the invasion of virgin territories by greedy mining barons. Since Modi is even more pro corporate than the average Indian politician (see below), will his approach to development be any different? One also worries that he will he try to do to Naxalites what Rajapakse managed to do to the LTTE? This is, of course, far more difficult as a mission, but Dantewara has taught us that creating a civil war situation in affected areas is quite easy.
Whether Modi decides to pump dollars or bullets or both into the affected geographies, there is cause for concern.
The corporate connection
When India Inc unanimously lavishes praise on a politician, alarm bells better be ringing for the middle class. Notwithstanding the SC statement that Gujarat offers the best land acquisition model amongst all Indian states, one must be concerned about the alacrity with which corporate requests are met in that state. Does Modi’s empathy for businesspeople stem from his own entrepreneurial roots? Whether one sells tea or airplanes, the bottom line becomes the focal point. Is that what one glimpses when Modi talks about GDP figures? In the pursuit of numbers and glory, human beings are sometimes waylaid. That’s what happened in the Sardar Sarovar project, of which Gujarat is a participating state. As predicted, the project inundated millions of hectares of tribal land. Tens of thousands of tribals were evacuated. Many are yet to be compensated and/or rehabilitated.
So when Modi talks about humane and inclusive development, I will look for a pinch of salt. I will also look for signs of megalomania. Big statue, big dam, big project and big dreams often leave little room for small aspirations.
A friend and mentor of Modi from his RSS days says that Modi only appears to compromise. He never really compromises. Will this approach be feasible while dealing with coalition partners? After all, coalition partners are allowed to have fewer responsibilities and larger egos. Appeasing them with tokenism is a bad idea. So either Modi or some other BJP functionary needs to broker peace continuously on this front, failing which we may see a repeat of an exorbitant and time-consuming election. Can India afford that?
I’ve saved the most obvious issue for the last. Reams have been written and spoken about Modi’s equation with the minorities (read: Muslims). Today, he may claim that the word “Hindu” is used in the BJP manifesto as an equivalent for “way of life”. It does not denote a religion at all. Which makes his vision inclusive, apparently. Enough said.
He now needs to act as befits the executive head of one of the most pluralistic societies in the world. If he can’t do that, one hopes that systemic safeguards will kick in before too much damage is done.
These are the primary fears associated with the ascent of Modi. One hopes that the demands of realpolitik will force Modi to soften his stance on the above issues. Perhaps the high office will chisel him for the better.
Because truth be told, those Modi fans have a point. It is about time we got a leader of substance. Only time will tell whether Modi fits this need.