Making right moves

It is just about a fortnight since the Narendra Modi government has sworn in, but the first few steps the prime minister has taken and the statements he has made gives the impression that he must have been preparing mentally for this role much before he actually got it:

He has been courteous and conciliatory towards the Opposition while sending out a strong signal to his ministerial colleagues that he intends to lead from the front -- as the ‘boss’ of the government.

If the President’s address to the joint session of parliament set out the agenda of the new government – some old, but some refreshingly new ideas – the prime minister’s reply to the debate in both the Houses revealed a new dimension of Modi which many suspected did not exist.

Though he was making his first speech in parliament – a hallowed building he claimed never to have entered before his election as the leader of NDA  – Modi sounded like a seasoned parliamentarian.

He made no dramatic announcements; his assertion that the government worked only for the “poor” appeared a bit trite given the cynicism all around, but his humble, conciliatory approach was refreshingly different.

He sought cooperation from the Opposition, telling them that ‘without your support, my mandate is incomplete’; he told the states that ‘we don’t believe in Big Brother attitude; we believe in cooperative federalism; he reached out to the dalits, tribals, women and the minorities, saying, ‘I believe if one organ of the body remains weak, the whole can’t be called healthy...’

Modi is acutely aware that the Muslims as a community are still wary of him and he has to travel the extra mile to earn their trust, if not that of his detractors.

He spoke specifically of ‘focused activity to change the lives of Muslims and they cannot be left behind in development.’ Disillusioned with the Congress’ double talk over the last few decades, a majority of Muslims have already abandoned the party and it needs to be watched what ‘focused activity’ the Modi government will come up with to alleviate their condition and win their support.

Greater representation for women in parliament and the legislatures is another vital issue that the prime minister should focus on as he has the required majority to do it.

The Congress’ efforts in this direction were thwarted mainly by the SP and the JD(U) and since both these parties have been decimated in the last election, and Jayalalitha’s AIADMK and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress have gained substantially, the passage of the women’s reservation bill may not face too many hurdles.

Modi may be inclined to take up the bill at the earliest as is evident from the fact that he chose a woman, Anandiben as his successor in Gujarat and included as many as seven women in the Union ministry, giving the important portfolio of the external affairs to Sushma Swara,j though she had openly dissented against his projection as prime ministerial candidate.

Show magnanimity

The prime minister needs to show the same conciliatory approach to the opposition. The Congress may not have won 10 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha – supposedly mandatory to be recognised as the principal opposition – but his government should show the magnanimity of recognising Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress group leader, as the Leader of the Opposition.

Such a gesture is important not only in the interest of democracy, but Modi’s plea to the opposition that ‘we need your support and guidance,’ will sound more genuine than being dismissed as a mere rhetoric.

Besides appointing a compact cabinet, he has also issued a series of instructions to his colleagues on disclosing the assets and liabilities of themselves and their family members, not appointing any kith and kin in government posts and severing any commercial interests they may have. The Congress too had framed such rules but they remained mostly on paper. Modi’s test will be to see them implemented in letter and spirit.

If, on the domestic front he has made all the right moves so far, Modi clearly knew that as prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, he has a bigger canvas to perform on.

He hit the world stage on Day One by inviting the leaders of neighbouring Saarc countries for the inaugural ceremony, showcasing India’s achievement as the largest functioning and thriving democracy. Whoever conceived the idea, it was a masterstroke.

India needs to repair the frayed relations with its neighbours urgently and regain their confidence, if it were to halt the nefarious designs of China.

The ad hoc foreign policy approach of the Manmohan Singh government over the last ten years meant that some of our neighbours turned to China to the detriment of our own interests.

Whether it was Sri Lanka, Myanmar or the Maldives, India’s hostility or policy paralysis towards them has been deftly exploited by the Chinese who work on long-term strategies with a clear vision on their role in the world affairs.

By inviting Saarc leaders to New Delhi for his government’s swearing-in, and choosing Bhutan as his first port of call as prime minister, Modi has sent out a strong message that he accords high importance to them and would like to make them partners in growth and development in the region. |

The symbolism was so powerful that despite many misgivings back home, even Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharief took the ‘risk’ of travelling to India for an ice-breaking meeting with India’s new prime minister on his first day in office. 

Modi’s maturity as a leader is also evident from the fact he has signalled his willingness to engage with the US administration at the first opportunity when he visits New York in October for a UN conference, leaving behind the obvious bitterness over a prolonged ‘visa controversy’ in the months before the election.

Modi’s innings has begun on a promising note, but how long the honeymoon period will continue will depend entirely on the performance of his government.

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