We live in an age where a Hindi film is declared a hit if it has a strong opening on its first weekend: The era of the silver jubilee is well and truly behind us.
Politics too, is experiencing a similar compression in time. So, Narendra Modi’s first 100 days are already being seen as a verdict on his government. A 100 days is just over 14 weeks. A five-year majority government is expected to last around 260 weeks. Are we being a shade premature in assessing Modi as Prime Minister? Maybe we are, but when a 24 x 7 news cycle makes today’s news tomorrow’s history, then a public figure has to be prepared for instant judgements. Modi’s Independence Day speech in a way was a breakthrough moment. Until then, there was a growing concern that a man who perhaps spoke a tad too much during his campaign was now worryingly silent.
Modi was chosen Prime Minister because he offered change, not continuity. He was meant to break the status quo. After a decade of a prime minister in silent mode, the Indian voter was looking for a leader who would constantly communicate with them, who would bring the same energy and innovation that his campaign rhetoric had promised. The first few weeks suggested that Modi was still struggling to come to terms with life at 7 Race Course Road. The Cabinet selection was disappointing: There was little that could be described as brave and fresh in his choice of ministers. No attempt was made to bring in lateral entrants or inject a certain meritocracy into a government which is desperately short of talent. Instead, the general impression was that Modi is intent on bringing his Gujarat model of a highly centralised chief minister’s office to the PMO. Long presentations by bureaucrats cannot be a substitute for political action and it appeared that Modi was falling back on his instincts of trusting the babus more than he did his fellow-netas. In the first 100 days, there are numerous stories, some possibly apocryphal, of how the Prime Minister has been watching over his ministers, giving them very little elbow room to operate.
The authoritarian streak in Modi was seen to reflect in a government whose ministers were constantly looking over their shoulder to see if they were being tailed. Only Arun Jaitley was seen as a minister who Modi trusted enough to allow relative independence. And even Jaitley’s first budget didn’t match the expectations: It was widely seen as a play safe economic statement, lacking ambition or the big idea. Which is why the Independence Day speech was an important marker. It was, in a sense, the ideal platform for Modi to express himself: He revels in any moment that allows for oratorical flourish and direct communication with the voter bypassing the political system. That he called himself a “sewak” was typical Modi: It was an attempt to try and project himself as an outsider in Delhi’s VIP culture, almost a harkback to the ‘chaiwallah’ card that he played so successfully in the 2014 election campaign.
By making sanitation and toilet-building a key element of his speech, he effectively changed the terms of what constitutes ‘nation building’. Prime ministers like to see their Red Fort interventions as reflecting a lofty idealism: In reality, they are tedious speeches which list out a litany of statistics and projects that are couched in bureaucratic language. Modi, on the other hand, was, literally, calling for a ‘back to the basics’ approach. The idea of a toilet in every school is revolutionary because it calls for a shift in priorities: It is both an indictment and a call to action for a nation that aspires to be on the global high table but where millions have to still defecate under the open skies. That Modi has linked his ‘Clean India’ campaign to the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations in 2019 is brilliant symbolism: There can be no better tribute to the Father of the Nation than a drive to clean up our streets. But of equal significance was Modi’s appeal for a 10-year moratorium on divisive politics.
At a time when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat seeks to impose his view of Hindutva on the nation, when ministers in a BJP government in Goa openly talk of a ‘Hindu nation’, where parts of Uttar Pradesh are on the boil because of communal tension, will the prime minister’s message be heeded by members of his sangh parivar? Modi is not a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ any longer: He is the Prime Minister of India with the executive authority to rein in anyone who chooses to impose a majoritarian worldview on the Indian people. Which is why his fine words must be followed by firm and concrete action to convince the sceptics that Modi will not be a prisoner of his origins. This is the real test then for Modi the Prime Minister. There is enough reason to believe in the first 100 days that this is a Prime Minister who will not be bound by convention, who wants to break free of political correctness and tradition. But does he have it in him to also rise above his own past, one that was reared in the nursery of the Sangh’s ideological dogmas?
There is much of the Nehruvian consensus that should be challenged: Modi’s desire to re-invent the Planning Commission, for example, must be seen as a welcome move to discard economic models which have faltered. But an astute prime minister would also realise that Nehru’s commitment to a secular ethos needs to be treasured: Can Modi rise up to the challenge? Post-script: Modi’s commitment to ‘cleaning up’ India will be best tested in his Varanasi constituency. If he can bring hygiene to Kashi’s putrefying streets, he will truly have delivered on his Independence Day message.