THE AUDACITY OF HOPE
After the soaring mandate, and expectations from Modi to hit the ground running, the government’s responsibility to usher in a new dispensation of reforms and governance has never been greater
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
The forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan is an expanse of red clay, normally used for the ceremonial welcome of visiting dignitaries. On May 26, around 6 pm, when Omita Paul, Secretary to the President of India, stood up to seek his permission to begin the oath-taking of the ministers from the recently-elected National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the air amongst the 4,000-strong audience was rent with the same slogans and excitement that had propelled the BJP candidate, Narendra Modi to a stunning electoral victory.
Couched in this historic moment was not just the promise of hope, but also deep forebodings about the future, aggravated by a divisive election campaign that exposed the fault lines in our society as well as body politic. How to interpret the mandate would depend not just on Modi, but also those who displayed their triumphalism at
Nattily dressed in an off-white ensemble of kurta, churidar -pajama and a Nehru jacket, Modi seemed uncertain about the kind of expression he should have while taking oath. Appearing tough and resolute as he looked up from the sheet of paper from which he was reading out his oath, he must have realized that this audience was vastly different from those who attended his 400-odd rallies, in his determined march to this very forecourt. There were not just the outgoing UPA leadership, but also heads of state of seven SAARC countries who had pleasantly accepted his invitation. There were also the big boys of Indian industry, who had endorsed him with their hands, feet and ample purses, to see the back of the UPA government that had brought them grief, misery, embarrassment and CBI cases. Also present were the dharma gurus who came with their fancy hairdos and religious paraphernalia. As also the top apparatchik from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who had worked tirelessly to help Modi and the BJP realize this impossible dream.
As darkness descended, the grandeur on Raisina Hill stood out in all its creative illumination. As the swearing- in of the rest of the council of ministers ended, and Modi occupied the dais to greet the SAARC leaders, it was apparent this was his moment, in both light and shade. Unmindful of the occasion, as some people shouted “Bharat mata ki jai!” and “Har har Modi!”, it was easy to comprehend why the war cry of his spectacular campaign was resonating in the stiff, protocol-regulated environment. For those who may have been overwhelmed by the occasion, the noisy brigade spoke volumes about Modi’s RSS and nationalist moorings and how he would govern the country.
There is little denying the role the RSS has played in getting their favourite protégé elected to this job. It worked itself to a standstill, cognizant of the threats to its existence if the BJP did not come to power on its own. The joyful countenance of Indresh Kumar, a senior RSS leader once interrogated by the CBI for his alleged involvement in Hindutva terror cases, made clear what Modi’s elevation meant to him personally and in the organization. Modi may have soldiered on from one rally to the other, but it was the RSS volunteers – buoyed by a friendly media – that turned the support for the PM candidate into a tidal wave. Booth management was not simply one of the tasks they had undertaken; the RSS pracharaks used all their networks to pull out voters in states where the BJP was in power. Even in states where they did not have enough presence, they pulled in sizeable votes. The BJP may have managed to get a 31 per cent vote share, but their strike rate in BJP-ruled states was murderous. The Congress couldn’t get a single seat in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh or Goa. In most states, the BJP managed to get in excess of 50 per cent votes, while the Congress came a distant second. Compared to its performance in the assembly elections, the Congress had slipped ignominiously. So rapid was its decline that in about 240 seats, the winner piled on, on average, 1.75 lakh more votes. Although 69 per cent of the people of India did not vote for Modi and the BJP, the party managed to win seats literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Even in states where they did not win many seats, the vote share had increased considerably.
Besides the hugely successful pitch of development, the BJP benefited from the consolidation of the Hindu vote against what was dressed up as policies of secular parties to appease the minorities. This consolidation not only took place in Western Uttar Pradesh, where communal riots played a major role, but in other parts of the country too. There was a feverish mood in the majority community that wanted to punish the Congress for being allegedly pro-Muslim. There are about 200+ parliamentary seats that have more than 10 per cent Muslim votes, which are crucial in deciding the outcome. This time around, the BJP got a majority of these seats. So intense was the polarization that no Muslim could win a seat from UP. Their representation in Parliament has come down to just 21 seats – the lowest since 1952. In the last Parliament, there were 30 Muslims in
Modi’s persona and the RSS’s campaign not just destroyed the Congress, but also neutered the resistance of the caste-based parties in UP and Bihar. The Samajwadi Party leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was nursing ambitions to become prime minister in a Third Front government, looked weak and diminished after the rout. It was indeed a strange sight to see him being led by hand by BJP General Secretary Amit Shah during the Rashtrapati Bhavan oath ceremony. Shah, the architect of BJP’s victory in UP, was guiding Yadav to an empty seat.
There were others, too, who were grievously hit by the Modi wave. The Janata Dal (U)’s Nitish Kumar, for instance, who parted ways with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on the BJP’s announcement of Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate. So heavy was his loss that Kumar resigned as the Chief Minister of the state and appointed a Most Backward (Mahadalit) as the CM. There were others in his party, like former NDA chairman Sharad Yadav, who would have liked to join Modi on the dais in front of the imposing eastern façade of Rashtrapati Bhavan. That was not to be. Others from the state filled up positions that would have normally gone to a representative of Bihar.
As the council of ministers got up to occupy the dais for a group photograph with President Pranab Mukherjee, the audience was getting restive due to the heat and the slow pace at which the swearing-in ceremony had taken place. Expected to end in 70 minutes, it carried on for much longer. One shudders to think what heads of state, like Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif or Hamid Karzai or the Maldivian President, attired in formals, must have gone through in the sweltering heat.
As flash bulbs popped, it was clear that Modi was the real boss of his council of ministers. Gone was the diffidence associated with the PM’s chair when a reticent Manmohan Singh used to occupy it. Although the impress of the RSS has been visible in the choice of the ministers, there are many who owe their loyalty to Modi himself. Ministers like Smriti Irani, for example, who unsuccessfully contested against Rahul Gandhi but was not only made a cabinet minister, but given the heavyweight portfolio of Human Resources Development – a ministry that has normally been the preserve of the most enlightened and powerful in the cabinet. Those who have shouldered this ministry in the past include PV Narasimha Rao, Murli Manohar Joshi, Madhav Rao Scindia and Kapil Sibal. After Irani assumed charge, uncomfortable questions about her inadequate qualification and false declaration were raised by the Congress. Irani may not have had higher education, but she comes across as confident, articulate and smart. Nevertheless, her appointment has provoked a debate on the importance of educational qualifications for being a minister. What’s interesting is that HRD is important for the BJP and RSS as it has serious implications on the way history is taught in schools. The last time the NDA was in power, textbooks carried a more Hindu-centric reading of history.
Besides Irani, Nirmala Seetharaman, Prakash Javadekar and Dharmendra Pradhan were given meaty portfolios by the new PM.
While senior leaders pushing their 80s, like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, have been excluded from the cabinet, a few able leaders have been inducted to send out a message that this cabinet can do some heavy lifting. Although having leaders like party president Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari does give the impression of being a “cabinet of rivals”, if Ram Jethmalani’s remarks are anything to go by. Madhu Kishwar, a vociferous Modi supporter, had termed them as part of “Club-160”, those who wanted BJP’s tally to be limited to 160 seats so that in the absence of an across-party consensus on Modi for PM, they could step forward with their candidature.
But Modi’s campaign not only took apart the clumsy logic of Club-160, it also conveyed to its scriptwriters that he was truly the lord of all that he surveyed atop the dusty enclosure of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
During the oath-taking, Rajnath Singh followed Modi, making it clear he would be the Number 2 in the cabinet. But a lot is being expected from Arun Jaitley, who has been given a mega portfolio of Finance, Corporate Affairs and Defence. He is now in the unenviable position of having to present a budget that incorporates policies that trigger job-oriented growth as well as meet the expectations of the business lobby that had backed the BJP. Jaitley knows what they want, but can he afford to give? With NPAs (non-performing assets) of the banks rising, he can ill afford to give credit lines to cash-strapped companies or even allow rapid reduction in the policy rates of the RBI that could fuel inflation. Or would he cut down the expenditure on the social policies of the erstwhile regime, to move funds towards the infrastructure sector? These are some of the daunting challenges Jaitley would have to respond to, as much of the debate on the elections and the economy revolved around what the NDA government would do to the social spending of the earlier government. Any reduction in schemes like MGNREGA would be resented not just by the Congress, but also by BJP chief ministers that benefited from better implementation of these schemes. Gopinath Munde, the Rural Development Minister, has said NREGA would be used in asset creation and that its fund utilization would be improved. Evidently, Munde is drawing a red line around NREGA, in an attempt to thwart fancy ideas emanating from a Columbia University professor from impacting the considerable weight of his ministry.
On the other hand, the Number 2 in the Cabinet, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, will have to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility to maintain social stability and a relook at the cases pertaining to Hindutva terror. One wonders how that will be done as the National Investigating Agency (NIA) has already filed chargesheets in many terror cases.
The ministers sworn in will inherit Modi’s new process of thinking: better governance with minimum government. To give meaning to this thinking, the PM has tried to create organic super ministries. In plainspeak, this means clubbing together similar portfolios, as for instance, bundling together Roads, Railways, Shipping etc, under the Transport Ministry. A deconstruction based on how he has been running Gujarat, Modi’s style of functioning will likely be with the help of a powerful PMO and a clutch of super secretaries. As the government begins to move, political figures could feel devalued, but that is how the new PM is known to work.
Besides Irani, Modi has given two important ministries to women – both strong individuals in their own right. Sushma Swaraj was given the Ministry of External Affairs in spite of her open reservations about the manner in which the party was bulldozed to accept Modi’s candidature. Giving the reins of one of the most important portfolios, Minority Affairs, to Dr Najma Heptullah is being seen as a masterstroke in reaching out to the 17-20 per cent of the population that is uneasy with Modi coming to power. The Muslims hope that Heptullah’s presence would help them be equal participants in this business of nation building.
While 45 ministers stood at the dais to take up new responsibilities, there were many notable exceptions: Arun Shourie and, for that matter, Subramanian Swamy. Both had played an important role in putting the Congress on the defensive and building a strong case for Modi as PM. Swamy, in particular, used every instrument at his disposal to tear down the veneer of respectability that the Gandhi family had acquired. On Twitter, he relentlessly chased the Congress family and its supporters. There were expectations that he would be accommodated in some capacity, but his absence indicated that the PM has other ideas. Ram Jethmalani, who was also not present at the oath ceremony, hinted that many of those who swear by Modi were not there. He claimed that the PM was wise in following Chanakya niti by keeping his “enemies close to himself”. What does this really mean? Perhaps couched in that notion is a hint of how this “cabinet of rivals” will play out.