All eyes on Modi's India

opinion May 25, 2014 00:00

By IA Rehman

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

Students of politics want to find out how the Modi government 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 communal 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 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.