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Eyes on Modi’s India

May 22, 2014


THE whole world is watching, literally with bated breath and for obvious reasons, as to how India will fare under Narendra Modi’s stewardship.

The students of politics want to find out how the Modi sarkar will adjust itself to the democratic, secular assumptions of the state. India’s neighbours may wish to know of the way New Delhi will now look at the regional agenda. Pakistan should be looking out for any repercussions on bilateral relations. And the international bloc-makers must be interested in fixing India in a position in the resurgent Asia that is favourable to them.

For many Indians the main issue will be the new government’s approach to the Gandhi-Nehru legacy of non-violence and pluralism. There could be an endless debate on the rout of secular forces, although the reasons may not be far to seek. The secularists lost perhaps for not being secular enough. They did recite the secular mantras but their response to religious revivalism betrayed a mix of fear and opportunism. They displayed neither the will nor the skills needed to prevent the youth from taking the communalist path.

During the first few months in power, Modi will be tested for prioritising the promises made by him and the people’s expectations aroused by his rhetoric. If he is as much of a realist as his image-makers suggest, he will give priority to economic development and keep the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh zealots in check. This will not be easy because the kind of victory the RSS has scored cannot but breed arrogance.

The party hardliners will almost surely be driven by a fever to repaint India in their favourite colour. It may not be possible to stop them from altering the tone and tenor of the political discourse. They may resume their bid to use the education system and rewrite textbooks for the promotion of their worldview. Firm hands will be needed in New Delhi to ward off consequent threats to minorities.

In the long run, the secular forces in India will face harder challenges than they have encountered in the past. Secularism is not as deep-rooted in the Indian majority’s psyche as consciousness of and pride in its religious identity. The Hindu revanchist ideas that developed during the early phase of the British colonial rule appear to have become stronger. In the present flush of victory, the supporters of Hindutva are unlikely to worry about the sacrifices their creed will demand from the Indian people. The secularists will do well to find other non-ideological issues to challenge the regime.

It should not be long before both the rulers and the ruled in India realise the adverse result of the left’s collapse. They will find authority freed of the kind of sobering counsel a pluralist democracy cannot do without. Overconfidence in the wisdom of a small cabal could create risks New Delhi will need to tackle dispassionately.

The new regime’s policies will not fail to offer the left parties chances of regaining the confidence of the masses, especially the marginalised. The regional parties, however thoroughly defeated they may appear today, too should find openings for their revival, something unavoidable in the BJP’s love of highly centralised rule.

A serious threat from the extreme right-wing of the BJP may appear around the middle of the government’s term if its economic performance does not match public expectations or if the benefits of economic growth are not evenly spread across the land. The temptation to invoke religiosity to cover flaws in planning or deficiencies in the distribution system will be hard to resist. This will aggravate the difficulties of secular democrats.

How the Modi government will view its relations with Pakistan is important for the people of both countries. Islamabad started making friendly gestures to Modi quite early in his campaign and the trend is likely to continue because of two factors.

First, Pakistani officials may be right, up to a point, in believing that once in power Modi will learn to curb some of his extremist inclinations. Second, it is commonly believed that a BJP government in India and an army-backed Punjabi prime minister in Pakistan are best equipped to resolve the festering feuds that have dragged both countries down.

There is little doubt that if the new governments of India and Pakistan earnestly develop a framework for economic cooperation, they will lay the foundations of a bulwark against the monster of religious bigotry that is threatening the whole subcontinent. But Pakistan must be ready to offer India satisfaction on its complaints regarding cross-border terrorism, for Modi will be a tougher customer than Manmohan Singh.

Besides, the tendency to make bilateral normalisation subject to settlement of outstanding differences, including and especially Kashmir, will have to be suppressed. It will be necessary to proceed in state-to-state affairs on the principle of mutual interest and reciprocity.

Many in Pakistan are unhappy that the Indian Muslims have not been able to retain their share of the political cake. But the Pakistani Muslims have made such a mess of their politics that they are hardly in a position to offer any counsel to their co-religionists across the border.

The Indian Muslims have been groping for means to survive in politics without sacrificing their cultural identity and moving from one right-wing patron to another. Now they have apparently chosen to make peace with the saffron brigade. It’s their choice. No harm so long as they retain a certain capacity to learn from their marriages of convenience.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2014