Round Table Discussion on "Prime Minister's visit to Indonesia: an Overview" by Prof. Baladas Ghoshal (Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies) on 12 July 2018 at 5.30 PM, SPMRF Conference Room, 9, Ashoka Road, New Delhi

A refreshing narrative

By Dr. Anirban Ganguly

THE victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Narendra Modi in 2014 was a mandate for transforming India. Prior to 2014, the country experienced a decade of uncertain growth and of hesitant political direction which was marked by major corruption scandals. It was a decade in which those tasked to run the government had no real political power, while those outside the government formed bodies and advisory councils that often overruled or worked at cross-purposes with the elected representatives. It was a decade where there was no clarity or division of labour between the political party and the government of the day, generating daily crisis.

It was a government where decision-making was delayed and placed on the back burner, in which policy paralysis and procrastination was a dominant feature, and governance through an Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) became the rule of the day. The sense of collective responsibility, delivery, accountability and an active prime minister to oversee, monitor and fast-track essential and transformative projects was non-existent. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government ‘squandered away hard-won gains and India’s political, regulatory and institutional systems simply failed to keep pace with the galloping aspirations of its young people and the rapid changes in the economy.’1

Thus Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014, seen against this backdrop, was ‘more than a popular mandate. It was a cry from India’s heart, a call for profound change and decisive governance in a country and among a people tired of excuses and exasperated by the old ways.’2The BJP and Modi read this mandate as that of an aspirational India. The entire 2014 election campaign and subsequent election campaigns suggest a shift which is gradually pushing the Indian political discourse to another, altogether new level. Electoral debates, discussions, and addresses are increasingly being based on issues – issues of livelihood, of development, and of opportunities. This is a shift which has been brought about by Modi’s persistence and determination.

When he addressed the nation from the ramparts of the iconic Red Fort for the fourth time on 15 August 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi defined his vision of a ‘New India’. Earlier in March 2017, when the BJP had won a resounding mandate in the provincial elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh, he had first spoken of a ‘New India’. Modi was clear and categorical that his vision of a New India was not an exclusive one. He reminded his audience, comprising of party workers who had gathered to celebrate, that ‘a government is formed with bahumat (majority), but runs through sarvamat (consensus), we work for those who voted for us and also for those who did not vote for us.’3

On the governance front, on his approach to India’s federal structure, Modi has been led by his articulation of ‘Team India’. The implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST), achieved through consensus, the massive exercise of taking along and on board all state governments has demonstrated this commitment to India’s federal structure. The Modi government’s decision to abolish the Planning Commission – to which states in the past had to come as supplicants – and his steadfast refusal to interfere in areas that are strictly within the purview of state governments has often earned him criticism but is also laying the foundations of India’s federal structure on a stronger footing.

Similarly, while accepting the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, the prime minister in a letter to the chief ministers wrote that, ‘I have been working to strengthen our federal polity and promote cooperative federalism.’ Gone are the days of abusing Article 356 of the Constitution to dislodge governments in the state. The Congress’s record in the past in this case has been most abysmal and petrifying.

On 15 August 2017, like every year, Modi brought in a new dimension on which to take the people forward – a dimension which was, like in previous years, motivating, goal setting transformative and called for societal, governmental collaboration. He defined the goals and contours of a New India exhorting everyone to work to rid India of the corrosion of poverty, dirt, corruption, terrorism, casteism, communalism, and to ‘create a “New India” of our dreams by 2022’ – the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. In 2017, on India’s 75th year as an independent nation, Modi insisted that the call of New India must be Bharat Jodo (unite India), he sees that as ‘our true strength, irrespective of caste, community and religion we are one India.’ Those who had laboured all these years to create a false stereotype of Narendra Modi naturally find such an approach disconcerting; it does not fit into the narrative of how they would want the Indian people and people at large across the world to view Modi.

While the BJP’s critics continue to propagate that it is an upper caste Hindu party and excludes religious minorities, especially Muslims, for Modi and his governance philosophy, through which he aims to shape the new India, all sections are its natural constituency. His government and the party aims and aspires to work in equal measure for all Indian citizens. Narendra Modi as the prime minister elect, in his first speech in Parliament had indicated that the government that he was about to form would overcome all barriers and divisions and reach out to the marginalized, the deprived, the exploited and the silent.

It was this point that he and BJP President Amit Shah had laboured on in some of their speeches during the election campaign in Uttar Pradesh. They emphatically spoke about the need to end discrimination in distribution of developmental benefits and stressed that opportunities of development and growth should reach across all sections in equal measure. Though stated unequivocally, it was caricatured and portrayed as rank communalism by a certain section of analysts and observers; few cared to dispassionately analyse the statement.

Modi is clear that development should not be denominationally driven, unlike other times when a prime minister piloting the UPA’s sinking ship had declared that minorities had the first claim on resources. In contrast, Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, had stated that it was the poor, the marginalized and the deprived, regardless to which community and denomination they belonged, who had the first right over resources. However, since it was Modi who said it, and since such a statement did not fit into the false stereotypes that have been popularized about him, it had to be blanked out and brushed aside. In Modi’s vision of a New India there would be no captive sections that were only paid obeisance for votes while their material status remained unaltered.

A change of our collective mindset is what he aims at; Modi exhorts us to collectively exceed ourselves for the ushering in of a New India. Over the last three years since he took over the reins of power, Modi has initiated change through peoples’ participation – a combination of what he has called jan shakti and jan bhagidari. He has initiated movements, not based on rhetoric or sloganeering, but which aim to comprehensively alter our collective mind-set. These are issues that have long been left unaddressed, especially by those who love to declare themselves as ‘progressives’. In year one, Modi called for saving the girl child, for strengthening and empowering her decisively.4 In year two, he spoke about the need of sanitation and cleanliness and for launching a nationwide movement to achieve these objectives if India aspired to be a great power.5

In year three, he spoke of the need to electrify villages, homes, and lives, which were deprived of power and relegated to the sidelines for over seven decades.6 Each of his exhortations was not a mere slogan but saw a detailed translation into comprehensive national movements involving stakeholders across states and societal strata – the Swachh Bharat mission and the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao mission to alter the prevailing mindset; others like the rural electrification mission to transform infrastructure; and the Jan Dhan Yojna and Ujjwala schemes to improve the lives of rural households on an unparalleled scale.

Almost two and a half years after the launch of the Swacch Bharat mission, ‘there has been a marked progress across key outputs being monitored. In rural areas, the percentage of households with access to toilets increased from 42 per cent (as on October 2014) to around 64 per cent (end April 2017). More than 1.9 lakh villages, 136 rural districts and 626 cities across the country have been declared open defecation free (ODF). More than 3.9 crore individual household latrines (IHHLs) have been constructed in rural areas and around 3.1 lakh in urban areas.’7

These are not mere statistics; surveys on the ground confirm a gradual but massive change in the mind-set of people. Coeducation schools in far-flung areas are seeing a return of the girl student once toilets have been built.8 The recent Swachh Sarvekshan Gramin survey of 140,000 households indicates: ‘Three years after the launch of the mission, a behavioural change is discernible, especially in rural India.’

Adil Zainulbhai, president of the Quality Council of India (QCI), describing this as ‘a people’s movement’, points out: ‘The survey found that more than nine in 10 (91.29 per cent) rural households having access to a toilet are actually using it. The results are similar for urban areas. Of 73 cities that participated in Swachh Sarvekshan 2016, 54 cities have improved their score in overall municipal solid waste management in 2017. Here again there is anecdotal evidence that open defecation persists in cities declared ODF, but these are isolated cases. Even if we are not yet at 100 per cent, isn’t 90 per cent plus a remarkable number, considering the daunting scale of the mission?’9

It is refreshing to see a prime minister who repeatedly speaks of sanitation, clean drinking water, improving rural health and of the dignity of women. The entire movement has also led to the emergence of several ‘natural leaders’ across villages who work to keep up the momentum, motivate and connect people and spread greater awareness, thus rejuvenating a traditional system of leadership and community participation that had once existed but disappeared with an increasing dependence on the state systems. The need for Swachh Bharat has started percolating through our collective conscience, especially among the young at the grassroots, it drove 18 years old Bilal Dar in Srinagar to take it upon himself to clean the Dal Lake; so inspired was Bilal that he rid the lake of more than 12,000 kg of garbage.

Similarly, the Ujjwala initiative has liberated millions of rural women from the chulha trap, saved them the unhealthy grind of smoke and tears and empowered them. The Ujjwala initiative has in fact directly impacted lives of rural women in India, saved over Rs 50,000 crore and, more importantly, resulted in the mobilization of the entire middle class, which heeding Modi’s appeal decided to give up their privileged subsidy. Thus, Modi’s approach of Jan Bhagidari-Jan Andolan is altering mindsets, transforming lives, plugging systemic gaps and loopholes, building up resources and redirecting them into the system. Why did this work in India and not elsewhere? Perhaps because this was taken up by the government ‘in a big way with major support at every level from the prime minister himself down to individual households giving up their subsidies.’10

The rural electrification drive under which 78 per cent of the 18,000 villages have been electrified, has been further strengthened with the recently launched Saubhagya Yojana which is meant to support last mile connectivity for rural households. This demonstrates the minute attention that Modi invests and pays on these transformative projects. Thus, Amdeli in remote Gadchiroli, and many other such villages, received their first spark of electric light seven decades after independence.

The debate, since 2015, has usually focused on whether these villages were being actually electrified but never veered round to the fact that despite so many years of so-called ‘progressive’ rule, such basic amenities as toilets and electricity have eluded a section of our people for so many decades.

These flagship initiatives are indeed gradually and against great odds changing the Indian landscape at the grassroots. Only those who are compelled to oppose Modi politically or have made a career out of demonizing him over the last 15 odd years will refer to these as jumlas – surely the changes on the ground have another story to tell. Empowering and enabling is Modi’s mantra of a New India. As he points out, ‘he aspires to change the system from being a regulatory one to becoming an enabling one.’ The need of the hour is, he says, ‘to immediately reinvent our working style as well as mindsets. It’s high time that we moved from being “regulators” to “enabling entities”.’11

Thus, while social and intellectual elites are busy discussing big political ideas and manufacturing controversies in TV studios, the daily lives of millions of countrymen in the hinterlands of India are being transformed. Only those who are politically biased, ideologically motivated and irrationally opposed are raising the ‘idea of India’ bogey and arguing that intolerance has increased. They are misleading the masses by propagating that the emphasis on nationalism is to sidetrack the more actual and practical issues affecting the Indian voters. In fact the BJP and Modi government has invested tremendous energy to bring the issues affecting the daily lives of ordinary Indian citizen to the centre stage of electoral and political discourse. Let me also categorically state that the issue of nationalism and service to nation is not an electoral tool for the BJP. It is the very essence of our party’s existence and we shall not bow down on anything that hurts the pride of India or endangers our security.

Contrary to the narrative of a certain section, Modi engages with the people; he does it in his own way. He does not follow the pattern set by previous leaders and prime ministers – that of interacting with select media groups and through them address the people. Unlike these past leaders, every year on the anniversary of the government – if one may use the word ‘anniversary’ for lack of another and more appropriate nomenclature – Modi’s performance generates vigorous, voluble and sustained and informed discussion and debate on what he and his government has achieved and has yet to achieve.

In the past, such occasions were primarily used to release a customary booklet at a mundane function in the national capital, followed by a dinner for a select few. But Modi has altered that and his ministers have repeatedly fanned out across the country, directly addressed people, mingled with them and presented their report card to the people at large. In his Mann ki Baat, for example, he has asked people to tell him about the issues which they would like him to address. Despite ridicule, and attacks, Modi has opened new channels of communication, such as use of social media by him and his government. Public grievances raised on social media platforms are swiftly addressed (take the example of assistance given to non-residents in distress by MEA). Such approaches signify a marked difference from the past and how we approached governance.

Similarly, Modi’s effort to free Muslim women from the shackles of ‘triple talaq’ received great support as a large section of Muslim women saw his exhortation as genuine support to their cause. In Modi’s vision of a New India, anachronisms such as triple talaq had no place or relevance. When the Supreme Court’s verdict came, some leaders and political parties who habitually harangue the electorate on India’s secular fabric and on Modi’s communal mindset kept silent lest they offend and ignite the mullah mindset!

Since 2014, there is a thriving industry of Modi abusers and baiters, who seem ready to sit in protest, and at every opportunity blame him for all that is not right. This section continues to make every effort to create an image of India under siege. The stories of threats to India’s democratic ethos are being manufactured by those who used to enjoy the fruits of being close to the power circles of Delhi. While Modi’s government, inspired by its philosophy of ensuring the security of all Indians across the world, rescues Father Alexis Prem Kumar, Judith D’Souza and Father Tom Uzhunnalil, some choose to approach the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) and make false claims about oppression and internal displacement of religious minorities in India. In fact, in states like West Bengal and Kerala, the BJP workers and supporters continue to be targeted by the ruling dispensations there.

There is a new vibrancy to India’s foreign policy discourse. Under its rubric India has shed its image of an ineffective big brother, and has gained credibility as a reliable partner and power which, while conscious of international norms and laws, aspires to play its role in the comity of nations and not merely subsist as an appendage of big power games. India is increasingly seen as a responsible power, willing to stand up for its national interest but also eager to contribute to the global well-being. The recent Doklam episode with China and the mature manner in which India under Modi handled it, with firmness shorn of rhetoric and chest thumping, adhering to international norms of doing things, not buckling under pressure and earning wide support is in itself an example of how India has matured in its dealings with the external world in the last three years.

The hegemony of a false narrative of India is being gradually challenged. The hegemony of those who could control the discourse of and about India is being challenged; the call for India’s disintegration either crassly or suavely made does not go unchallenged anymore. Criticism of the government, of Modi, of his party and of his initiatives is welcome, but calls for India’s disintegration, for her dismemberment do not go unchallenged anymore. India’s national security is more zealously guarded, India is not hesitant to safeguard what is rightly hers, does not back-pedal when she has to defend her turf, the surgical strikes in September 2016 was an example of that, much to the chagrin of many at home who wish India to be a soft and compliant state.

The result of 2014 was not only a change of government, it was a mandate to alter India, mainstream the neglected and the marginalized. It was a mandate to enlarge and deepen India’s democratic experiment, to make it more inclusive, and more cohesive. Modi’s approach to fulfil that aim in the last three years has only reinforced that possibility. The BJP under Modi is increasing its footprint across the country by winning allies and support of various communities. This is no hegemony, but a refreshingly new narrative of a New India.

Footnotes:

  1. Bibek Debroy, Ashok Malik (eds.),India@70, Modi@3.5: Capturing India’s Transformation Under Narendra Modi. Wisdom Tree (with Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation), New Delhi, 2017.
  2. Ibid.
  3. PM Modi’s address at the BJP Headquarters in New Delhi, 12 March 2017, following the party’s win in the assembly (provincial) elections across several states.
  4. Launched in January 2015.
  5. Launched in October 2014.
  6. PM Modi announced this from the Red Fort on 15 August 2016.
  7. Kishore Desai, ‘Swachh Bharat Mission: Making of a Jan Andolan and a Governance Mantra’, in Bibek Debroy and Ashok Malik (eds.), op. cit.
  8. Adil Zainulbhai, ‘A People’s Movement’,The Indian Express, 28 September 2017.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Kirk R. Smith, ‘The Indian LPG Programmes: Globally Pioneering Initiatives’, in Bibek Debroy and Ashok Malik (eds.), op.cit.
  11. English rendering of the text of PM’s address at the Awards for Excellence in Public Administration on Civil Service Day 2017 accessed at: http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx

    (This article was published in November 2017 Issue of Seminar)

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