Modi At A Critical Juncture

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Unlike the “done deal” for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) speculated by most psephologists, opinions wavered midway through the multi-phase April-June polls. Complexity began to surface in the wake of hard-hitting campaigns loaded with charges of misdeeds by the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the opposition, Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). Unlike in 2014 and 2019, BJP this time did not obtain a clear majority on its own. Its reduced strength is, however, bigger than that of the INDIA. Next to its strength of 240 seats in a house of 543 members is the Congress whose enhanced seat strength this time is 99.

On the eve of the polls, the contest appeared to have been tighter. The 28-consituituent INDIA appeared to have recovered some of the grounds conceded to Modi’s party five years before. Modi termed the group “casteist, communal and corrupt”. Modi pledged his party to lift India to the group of developed nations by the year 2047, marking the centenary of the country’s Independence.  In 2019, the BJP-led NDA won 353 seats as against Congress’s 52, which was less than ten per cent of the total number of members of the popular chamber of parliament. It was the worst performance of the Congress that has ruled the country for 54 years since its independence in 1947. 

Educated unemployment/underemployment, corruption, identity politics, law and order and undercurrents of militant dissidence confront the union government.  Of 63 per cent working-age people, only100 million, or 10 per cent, have formal jobs. The argument of “India is a vast country with dense diversity” will sound hollow to people who have heard of the excuse for too long to be patient. 

Bigger test

Modi has led the BJP-steered NDA to an electoral majority for the third straight time. It is a record only independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru achieved more than 60 years ago. Now, a bigger test awaits Modi for a berth in the club of statesmen. For several decades, South Asia has not produced any great statesman. The ultimate test of the winning side is in the quality of governance in its various facets, including public participation, equal opportunity, rule of law and service delivery with transparent accountability. A politician might emerge in a day, a leader via a single election but a statesman is born after rigorous public scrutiny and endorsement of the cross-section of society. 

This is verified by history, recorded logically and honestly without losing academic integrity. As the leader of the most-populous country, Modi has an opportunity to leave a laudable legacy. He could set sight on also beyond the world’s largest region that accounts for every fifth person on Planet Earth. The point is whether the three-time premier can transform himself into a new, historically towering figure who serves not just a particular creed or sector but all of India’s 1.41 billion population. He does not have to compromise the country’s core interests. Vital interests are approved more by history than mere claim.  

Indeed, Modi faces a crucial test, whereby a visibly changing world order tosses up new tasks and promises of a smooth transition and an effectively rewarding role in a multipolar world. Instant recognition of statesmanship could be a product of popular infatuation, momentary admiration rather than an enduring attribute consolidated by successive generations and the critical taskmaster that history is known for. History is a sacred public narrative, open to be corrected and refined. Images and contributions of some “world leaders” are looked with critical eyes by succeeding generations. 

Some World War II leaders among the victor nations are now being seen as less than the supersize images portrayed by their countryfolks and cousins whose narratives were lapped up without the meticulous care that history in its unalloyed character is expected to submit. Modi’s prospects for greater heights will bear him the role of a credible voice among developing nations amidst chronic paucity of recognisable leaders with vision and consistently fair stand. Filling the gap will earn him international attention for consultations. He has a significant opportunity for a pride of place in history, without toxic propaganda but intellectually critical appreciation on the pages of diplomatic history. 

Whether he wants to be noted as an Indian politician with a long innings in power or a 21st century statesman to not only his people but also to at least the South Asian region should be known by the policy pursued and the actions directed. Modi should set top priority to translate into action his 2019 neighbourhood-first policy that begs for firm footing. Winning the neighbours’ hearts and cooperation would aid India’s dream of becoming a widely acceptable international player keen of becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Such approach could also address India’s domestic vulnerabilities that otherwise risk mischiefs hatched by unfriendly forces.  

Strength & risk

As India’s External Affairs Minister, on the eve of the general elections, S. Jaishankar regretted that previous governments had put foreign interests ahead of India’s. “I cannot, in the name of an open economy, open up my national security to work with a country which is laying claim to my territory… We are nationalistic.” Jaishankar cannot be faulted for the statement in itself. But his outlook should apply to all nations within and beyond South Asia—big or small, rich or poor, militarily strong or not. The right hand should synchronise with the left hand’s movement. Principled stand, supported by consistency in action, is among the prerequisites of any great leader. 

When hosting Modi in 2023, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape, 52, reached for the visiting guest’s feet. Modi, 73, prevented him midway from actually doing so. Marape demonstrated warmth and friendship without losing, but actually gaining, in stature. It was a sign of quality leadership, appropriate for a particular occasion. India’s population and territorial size as well as resources are huge and by far the largest in South Asia. 

Modi could foster the country’s larger and long-term interests by neighbourhood policies that boost his public standing and earn him international recognition as a positively great leader. Modi must be knowing that multiple or long uninterrupted innings in power is not rare. But history certifies statesmen emerging even with brief innings in office. 

(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)

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