After the Modi victory, a case for grace

An Indian supporter of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shouts slogans and a cut-out of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as she celebrates on the vote results day for India's general election in Siliguri on May 23, 2019. - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Mo

Now that a remarkable victory has been won, and Narendra Modi is set to be crowned again, it is time to pause, to contemplate and to embrace grace as a way of politics.

Forget what has been the most fractious and low-level campaign in history, the name-calling and divisiveness, the calculated generation of hatred and fear to win votes; forget the shameful behaviour of the Election Commission, the deeply uninspiring Opposition campaign and even the violence that was the nadir of what a former president saw fit to call a perfect election.

Only 40% of India’s electorate may have voted for Modi (and this is all about Modi, not the BJP, which is only incidental to the whole process, a shrunken lotus that lies in the background), but he is now prime minister of all Indians. India needs to give him that support, without stopping fair-minded scrutiny of his policies.

And Modi, in turn, and without waiting for the 60% to fall in line, will want to behave like the PM of all Indians. When his second term ends, he will be 73. Thoughts of the legacy he will leave behind will doubtless be occupying his mind. That legacy will include hard infrastructure — roads, bridges, ports, airports, and doubtless, the odd, harmless but pointless, statue or two. The untangling of red tape in business will probably proceed apace.

All that is difficult but is the easier part. A harder challenge is to generate jobs and kickstart the economy, to move beyond the slogans and acronyms that are so beloved of the PM, and to stay clear of unilateral decisions like demonetisation, which wiser minds — and all PMs are surrounded by them — may have counselled against.

But even that is easy in comparison with having to undo what you have done, and do what you have not shown a willingness to do. If a PM as hard-working as Modi cannot achieve this, few can.

Modi needs to rebuild institutions to a point that they are stronger than when he found them. For this, some of the damage of his first term will need to be undone. The primary objective would be to leave India in better shape, not just a BJP government at an advantage.

What about arming the Election Commission with some teeth, and a chief willing to bite, regardless of whom the trouser leg belongs to? A truly independent individual who has the power to cancel an offender’s candidacy if warranted? And letting the Reserve Bank do what it does best? Or allowing top talent to flower and perform to the best of their capacities?

Most of all, all Indians need to feel safe, valued and cherished in India. If you are a polarising party perennially in election mode, this is a difficult ask; but the next five years are the time to win elections on the steam of what you have achieved — and there will be plenty of achievements — not on the dog-whistle politics that the party defaults to when it feels strangely insecure about what it has delivered.

A great legacy would be to set standards in public behaviour. That is not too much to ask: if you are the dominant political party, it’s a responsibility. What about eschewing the use of religion to win votes? Avoiding personal attacks? Being quick to condemn bad behaviour by your followers, unmindful of whether it furrows eyebrows in your core constituency? After all, there is no point accumulating goodwill unless you expend it on good causes.

In all this, the Opposition — or what is left of it — has a responsibility to respond fully and generously. Could the parties sign a code of ethics on how they will conduct themselves in the next five years?

And what of the BJP itself? One look at television over the past six weeks would tell you what everyone in Delhi has known for the past five years. The government — and the party — are down to one man, Modi, and his able general, Amit Shah. A useful legacy would be to build a second line of young leaders that could carry forward the remarkable political victories of the first 10 years, and to get out of the way.

Gamesmanship or sportsmanship?

Gamesmanship is something that Australian cricket teams of yore have been known to practice. The dictionary defines it as the art of winning games by using various tactics to gain a psychological advantage. This is in full evidence with the BJP in election time. Other sides would do it if they could; it’s just that the BJP is very good at it. This is like Allan Border’s team in full flow. But sportsmanship is something else altogether. It is fair and generous treatment of opponents. In other words, a show of grace.

What about reaching out to Congress and the regional parties? A more consultative style of governance, even if the numbers allow you to proceed without consultation? To lock away the idea of Congress-mukt Bharat, not because it cannot be achieved, but because it betrays a killer instinct in overdrive, and rules out any form of cooperation. India doesn’t need to be ‘mukt’ of anything other than malaises like disease, dirt, poverty and corruption; it’s time to bury the hatchet.

Other than with some TV channels that have donned right-wing make-up (that would quite easily have been wiped off and appropriately re-touched if the election result had been different), Modi and Shah have had a rocky relationship with the media. By all accounts, it wasn’t always so with Modi. A lot of this goes back to Gujarat 2002 and its aftermath; since then, the liberal, secular media has been cold towards Modi at best, and the PM’s skin has not grown any thicker with time.

It was encouraging that Modi chose to attend a press conference in the last days of his first term — it was something nobody had expected, after all, this is a PM who does things on his own terms. Next, the media is waiting for a time when free and fair questioning is allowed, and answered. It will do the relationship a world of good.

Modi has been pilloried for being the most polarising figure in Indian politics. It is often not his fault — it appears to come naturally to him, given the number of drawing room conflicts that flow from the mention of his name. Can he now focus on being a uniting figure? Two successive monster mandates give him the opportunity. Now, that would be an act of grace.

(The writer is Editor, Deccan Herald)

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