Modi, starting on a good note
There are three distinctive features of Narendra Modi’s cabinet. First, it is compact – a 45-member team compared to Manmohan Singh’s 77. Secondly, the composition has confirmed the paucity of the BJP’s talent pool. The fact that Arun Jaitley has been saddled with the two heavyweight portfolios of finance and defence cannot be explained otherwise.
Thirdly, the make-up of the cabinet is another proof that Modi follows his own path without caring for any consideration – regional, perceptual or the sensitivities of allies. The last aspect was evident from the incarceration of MDMK’s Vaiko for protesting against the invitation to the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to the swearing-in ceremony. At one stroke, the new PM has made it clear to friends and foes that external affairs and defence are totally under the centre’s jurisdiction and that the preferences of the allies may be listened to but not necessarily followed.
It now remains to be seen whether Modi similarly ignores Mamata Banerjee’s objections to the Teesta river waters treaty unlike Manmohan Singh who bowed to her demands. True, Modi has the luxury of heading a single-party government and does not have to look over his shoulders for approval from anyone else, as Manmohan Singh did vis-à-vis Sonia Gandhi. But, it isn’t a question of parliamentary majority alone, but of temperament. Evidently, Modi is far more assertive than this predecessor.
What this attitudinal difference means is that even the BJP’s paterfamilias, the RSS, had little say in the government’s selection of personnel and policies unlike in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s time when his choice of Jaswant Singh as finance minister was overruled by the Nagpur patriarchs in 1998. Nor will any of the allies will able to act in the way Bal Thackeray did when he withdrew the Shiv Sena minister, Suresh Prabhu, from Vajpayee’s cabinet.
All that even the BJP’s own chief ministers like Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh have been able to do is ensure the inclusion of one representative each from their states when they discovered that there were none. But, the somewhat lopsided composition with UP and Bihar getting more than their fair share of ministerial berths suggests that Modi does not believe in equitable distribution. The inclusion of an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots, Sanjeev Baliyan, in the cabinet is also an indication that Modi is not bothered about negative perceptions.
Similarly, it will be a mistake to interpret the large presence at the ceremony of saffron-robed sadhus and sadhvis, including the redoubtable Sadhvi Rithambara, who called for a major communal conflagration – khoon kharaba – in the 1990s, as a return to the politics of the past, for the corporate bigwigs – Mukesh Ambani, Gautam Adani – were also present. They are aware, as is Modi, that development and governance are at odds with communal tension.
There may be occasional tremors caused by the statement of the minister of state in the PMO, Jitendra Singh, that a reconsideration of the Article 370 has begun; or of Uddhav Thackeray that India should press the nuclear button if Pakistan does not end cross-border terrorism; or of Ashok Singhal that Modi has to restore Hindutva’s lost glory by beginning the construction of the Ram temple.
But, the new government can be said to have started off well, largely because of its invitation to the SAARC countries and the apparently successful talks with Nawaz Sharif. The initiative has demonstrated that Modi has a larger vision than of the saffron brotherhood. The coming days will show whether the RSS and the VHP will accept their reduced importance, especially when the former is known to have played a major role during the election campaign.
It goes without saying that the Nagpur bosses will expect a return for their exertions, not least because their efforts have yielded a fruit far beyond their expectations. It isn’t only that the BJP has won a handsome victory, but that the Congress has been so comprehensively decimated that its recovery appears nearly impossible under the mother-and-son duo. The only way the Congress can recover is if there is a deterioration in the communal atmosphere. But, no one can be more aware of this possibility than Modi, for it was the communal outbreak of 2002 which led to the BJP’s defeat in 2004, as Vajpayee said. It is also Modi who can keep the RSS at bay. His dominant personality, successful track record in Gujarat and his latest electoral crown make him unlike any other prime minister in recent years. For a comparison, one has to go back to Indira Gandhi.
Modi has also been exceptionally lucky, a fortuitous trait which Napoleon favoured in a General above all other attributes. But for the extraordinary display of ineptness by the Congress, the BJP would not have attained its present level of success. The RSS will have to remember that Modi remains the only hope of the saffronities continuing in office, for there is no one near him in political importance in the BJP and outside. IPA