By Charitha Ratwatte –
Modi speaks on India’s 67th Independence Day
Politicians, especially populist ones, campaign in poetry and govern with prose. Most times it with a repressive and harsh prose that they govern. This has not happened yet in India, but in the build-up to the traditional address to the nation from the ramparts of Delhi’s 17th century Mughal era Red Fort, the feeling was that the inspiring poetry of the Modi tsunami, which swept the cow belt in Bharat and showed a strong performance in other areas to enable the BJP to have an absolute majority in India’s lower house of Parliament, was fast turning into dull prose.
In the election campaign, the Modi rhetoric was all about sweeping market reforms to revive India’s economy and put to the country to work. But in the first phase of his prime minister ship, Modi has dismayed many admirers, seemingly reverting to the hapless, crisis and mistake-ridden agenda of the former Congress government he routed.
To some business leaders and economists who were Modi’s cheer leaders, who dared to dream about a new economic revolution smashing the remnants of the ‘License Raj’ which was the driver of the much-derided Hindu rate of growth of 4%, the dreams were running out of steam and Modi was not listening to them, their views seemed to count for little among the new power brokers in Luyten’s New Delhi.
Bibek Debroy is a prominent economist who co-wrote a book laying out the reform agenda for a new government; Modi himself was present at the launch in June 2014. He said: “As of now the momentum is lost. They might still recover it, but we have lost the momentum.”
Debroy told an interviewer that so far there had been no signs of the promised change at Indian institutions sapped by graft and over regulation, institutions which many Indians had grown to revile with good reason. In the poetry of the election campaign rhetoric, Modi and his campaigners seemed much more tuned in to the to the ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ regime which Modi so brilliantly articulated – lambasting the Congress left of centre government for years of waste, corruption and policy paralysis and the inability and ineffectiveness which would not permit the unshackling of key sectors of the economy from statist paralysis.
Bureaucratic babus in control
The feeling was – among New Delhi’s fashionable business tycoons’ chattering class cocktail circuit and the ‘head in the cloud’ academia’s University Faculty Clubs – that the 63-year-old BJP strongman, with his right wing RSS roots, had stumbled in the politico bureaucratic quicksand of New Delhi.
This was the Modi who in May this year won India’s biggest-ever election mandate in three decades, dangling the prospect of new roads, factories, power lines, high speed trains and a 100 new cities. There was little evidence of these gigantic schemes, which will require an overhaul of India’s outdated land acquisition laws, faster environmental clearances and end to red tape.
Modi, in his first budget had refrained from cutting a vast misdirected food aid program that costs 1% of GDP and tackling costly mis-targeted welfare programs. Internationally Modi’s government lost credibility by blocking at the WTO a global trade reform pact, claiming that there must be movement on a parallel agreement on stockpiling food grain that India needs, to run what is the world’s largest program to distribute subsidised food.
Surjit Bhalla, an Indian economist, says that a leader with such a strong mandate ‘should be making policy with conviction, not emulating tactics of a defunct government’. Some of Modi’s top-ranking supporters including Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who hailed Modi’s rise to power as a turning point for India, who told reporters in April that he expected a spot on an external council advising the new prime minister, has yet to find a role in Modi’s team.
Bhagwati was constrained to admit that there had been mixed reactions to Modi’s first three months. Another Columbia economist and Bhagwati protégé Aravind Panagariya has said that he had nothing to add to an article he wrote last month criticising Moil for continuing wasteful subsidies and sticking to fiscal deficit target that Panagariya believes with throttle growth. The consensus was that India’s powerful bureaucratic babus had taken control of the process!
Raghuram Rajan’s views
Raghuram Rajan, the Governor of India’s Central Bank – the Reserve Bank of India – had hailed Modi’s victory as the ‘biggest single positive development for the economy’ and has gone on to say: “I understand there is some disappointment amongst investors about the pace of change, but their expectations were unrealistic – you’re not going to change the face of the economy overnight.”
Rajan took over as Governor in September 2013 during a moment of profound financial crisis. He had returned to his homeland India in 2012 with an academic superstar reputation, forged first at the University of Chicago and then at the International Monetary Fund, where he was Chief Economist for three years. In 2005, Rajan gave a memorable speech at an event which was in honour of Alan Greenspan, when he was about to leave the post of Chairman of the US Central Bank, the federal reserve. Rajan surprised the audience by instead of praising the outgoing Chairman Greenspan, being critical of the financial establishment, predicting many elements of the subsequent global financial crisis which swallowed up the world‘s economies.
Rajan has an impressive personality, a fitness fanatic; he has a tall, lean physique. In his early days at the reserve Bank, his good looks attracted as much admiration as his hawkish inflationary stance. One columnist, referring to Raj and the Sensex, India’s main Mumbai stock index, said: ‘The guy put sex back into the limp Sensex”! In fact there was a stock market rally after Rajan’s appointment; even more sober commentators dubbed it a ‘Rajan Rally’.
Before returning home, while in the US, Rajan gave a number of speeches attacking India’ s corruption problems and warning of the risks of Russian style ‘oligarchy’ emerging. Referring to India’s recent scandals in telecoms and mining, Raja asked: “Why do we tolerate the venal politician?” The answer, Rajan says, lies in India’s threadbare public services. Because the state is weak, voters demand the local politician help them secure jobs or gain government benefits. For this the politicians need funding, which they get by soliciting bribes. So it’s a sort of unholy nexus, so to speak.
Poor public services and politicians fill the gap. Politicians get the resources from the businessmen; politicians get re-elected by the electorate for whom he is filling the gap. And the electorate turns a blind eye to the deals done with the businessmen. Rajan is of the view that India needs reforms to change this situation. He seems confident that change will happen if not immediately, sometime down the road.
Independence Day speech
When Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, stood on the rampart of the Mughal-era Red Fort in Old Delhi, in his customary white kurtha pajama, in a flowing red-hued turban typical of the Rajasthan Princely Houses, and hauled up the Indian Tri Color above the Lahore Gate on India’s 67th anniversary of independence on 15 August 2014, he changed all this pessimism in short order.
His speech, compared to the hitherto run of the Independence Day speeches, was brilliant. There were no grandly named grand development schemes announced, as has been the tradition hitherto. The significance of the speech lay in the vision outlined and the subliminal message delivered powerfully, that Modi is in charge. He spoke as a hands-on leader who understands the problems of the land and is determined to tackle them and is capable of doing it.
Modi described himself as Bharat’s Pradhan Sevak – India’s first servant, and not as Pradhan Manthri – first minister. A far cry from run of the mill South Asian elected populist leaders, who soon after assuming power, set about installing themselves and their families as virtual royalty, with unending perks and privileges! Modi promised to make India a strong manufacturing economy, empower its poor with access to finance through a bank account for everybody and give states a bigger role in making policies and decisions for the Indian economy.
The Pradhan Sevak, who is a superb speaker, spoke ex tempore, no written speech, no teleprompter, no bulletproof screen, no notes to refer to, for more than one hour; he did not falter even once, with a rhetoric which was stunningly articulate. Repeatedly the audience broke out in applause, in mid speech; clearly he was connecting with a seasoned audience of invitees who for years have struggled to stay awake on the Independence anniversary in front of the Ramparts of the Red Fort, listening to dull speeches read out in a wooden manner!
The big surprise Modi announced was the abolition of the Nehru-vian Dinosaur – the Indian Planning Commission – and its replacement with a new institution which would foster ‘cooperative federalism’ facilitate public private partnerships and help to better navigate the ever-changing economic landscape. The Planning Commission, a hangover from the statist days of National Plans, was crying out for change.
Critics say the only two reasons the information technology revolution took off in Bangalore and Hyderabad was that, the Planning Commission was located in Delhi many miles away and no one in the Planning Commission had a clue about information technology! Infosys, Wipro and Tata Information Systems could get on with their creative work undisturbed by the planning babus who were completely out of their depth and far away!
Call for an end to rape epidemic
The Pradhan Sevak called for an end to the shameful epidemic of rape happening across India. Modi said: “When we hear about these rapes, our heads hang in shame.” He called upon parents to take responsibility for their son’s actions. Every girl who is raped is so raped by someone’s son. Parents have to teach their sons the difference between right and wrong, the Pradhan Sevak reiterated.
He talked about societal and family responsibility in ending rapes, advising parents to bring up better sons and not to just question their daughters. An exemplary exhortation in male chauvinist India! He also lamented the skewed sex ratio and appealed to doctors to end abortion of female foetuses and advised mothers not to hanker after sons. The Pradhan Sevak spoke proudly of the 29 medals Indian women athletes had won at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
Modi confessed that he is bothered by the all-pervasive filth around him and demanded that India must end the disgraceful practice of open defecation and build more toilets, especially in schools, so that more girls could attend school regularly.
The media was ecstatic after the speech. All the misgivings on Modi being engulfed and trapped in a bureaucratic quick sand, losing his way in a Hindutva-driven maze, were killed in one stroke. The poetry was back in Delhi’s governance.
To quote: “The Modi magic continues. Delivering his first Independence Day speech extempore yesterday without taking cover behind a bullet-proof screen at the historical Red Fort packed to capacity with children and grownups alike, Prime Minister Narendra Modi as usual, mesmerised his audience. Those who expected sabre-rattling and warnings to India’s enemies were disappointed. He sensibly addressed some burning issues his country was faced with, especially poverty, high incidence of rape, discrimination against women, problems of governance, lack of sanitary facilities, etc.”
The fact is that Modi is a good speaker and articulates well his passionate commitment to India’s progress. The realistic issue, which brilliant rhetoric should not cloud, is the problem with the vision about the nature of the society that Modi seeks to take India to those great heights and Modi’s own condition as a Sevak and a leader in the Rashthriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation committed to redefining Indian nationhood as Hindutva.
The political party which Modi leads, the BJP, is an offshoot of the family or organisations spawned by the RSS, which swears by cultural nationalism. Hindutva and cultural nationalism may be attractive topics for learned seminars in air-conditioned rooms scented by the aroma of bouquet blends of coffee, but when an attempt is made to act upon these concepts in a multi religious, multi ethnic, multi caste, multi linguistic multitude that is today’s India, they can easily convert into hatred and vilification of the non Hindus and other diverse cultures, leading to bloodshed and violence of the variety that India has, sadly, been subjected to time and again during its 67 years of independence and even before, during the time of the British Raj.
The British using a clever policy of divide and rule, British civil servants supported by a civil Police Service with British Officers, British Judges, strengthened by British Indian Army regiments, stationed in areas ethnically and racially different from the locals, e.g. Muslim regiments in the United Provinces, Jat Hindu regiments in East Bengal, Rajputs in the Madras Presidency, Gorkhas in Bombay, Sikhs in Assam, reinforced by British Army’s, English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish regiments in selected areas, imposed an imperial domination, which managed to hold the racial and religious tensions under control. But independence took away this veneer of clam imposed by domination and the horrors of Partition was followed by regular Muslim/Hindu rioting, even up to the present day as witnessed by the recent events in Muzaffanagar in Uttar Pradesh.
As Pradhan Sevak of Bharath or even as Pradhan Manthri of India, Modi’s instinct would be move to the political centre, to retain power for as long as he can. But unfortunately, the political strategy which brought him in a landslide to power, the poetry of the election campaign, necessarily involves division and polarisation of the type that murdered people in Muzaffanagar and keeps the people of Uttar Pradesh on edge even today.
The RSS feels emboldened to act, now that their man is in power at Delhi. Today talk of Hindustan belonging only to Hindus; of sending to Muslims to Bangladesh and Pakistan, etc., abounds among the extreme Hindutva lunatic class. Modi’s chief aide when he was Chief Minister in Gujarat, Amit Shah is now Chairman of the BJP. He has a track record of a ruthless enforcer who takes the fabled encounter killings and other of misdemeanours of the Indian Police Force, in his stride.
The sweeping victory Shah engineered for the BJP, in Uttar Pradesh, with Modi’s election rout beyond doubt in numbers of MPs, has put a halo around Shah’s head, temporarily. Commentators assert that Modi and Shah seek to win the forthcoming State Assembly elections with another landslide by hook or by crook.
Complex and troubling question
The million crore rupee question is – will Modi move to the political centre, dragging the BJP with him, as his 67th Independence Day speech articulates, or will the BJP remain wedded to the RSS agenda of clubbing India’s diverse minorities into second class citizens, whose personal security will be beholden to the sufferance of an aggressive Hindutva majority rather than on constitutionally protected human and fundamental rights, enforced by the Police Service, the Executive arm of the government and the Judiciary?
The answer to this complex and troubling question will not be found in the Independence Day rhetoric, although Modi did in fact call for national unity and shunning of violence. But he also deployed some complex semantics to make sure that the ambiguity of his moves is kept alive. The listener has a privilege of interpreting it the way he comprehends, according to his prejudices. It is poetry, nay music, to the Hindutva bigot’s ears!
On Independence Day, Modi referred to the Colonial Raj, the Quit India movement fought against as a “Sultanate”! An unfortunate unintended Islamic negative connotation – or purposeful? These are the unanswerable speculative questions! Analysts noted that Modi ended the speech, not with the traditional ‘Jai Hind,’ but ‘Vande Mataram’ – an urging to salute mother India, whose historical resonance is antithetical to the benign respect and affection a literal translation of the phase would indicate.
India’s Muslims has been uncomfortable with Vande Mataram because of the overtly Hindutva conceptualisation of the nation by author Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s rebellious Sanyasins in Anandamath, a Bengali novel published in 1882, set in the background of the Sanyasins’ Rebellion of the 18th century, from which the song Vande Mataram has been culled. The RSS has utilised Vande Mataram as a battle cry against those who dare to see India as anything but a Hindu state.
The speech of Bharat’s self termed Pradhan Sevak on India’s 67th Independence Anniversary, on the ramparts of the Mughal (who were Muslims – albeit of a liberal bent in the mould of Akbar the Great) Red Fort, asserted a strong national leadership, bordering Imperial or Executive Presidential, held out the promise of good governance and a vision of prosperity; this was the poetry.
The prose was the undertone of cultural nationalism that keeps India’s minorities on edge and gladdens the hearts of those dedicated Babri Masjid at Ayodhya demolishing, RSS cadres who worked so hard to make Modi India’s Prime Minister. Any which way the forward march of Bharat takes place will have profound consequences for India and the South Asian region.