The Prussian statesman Otto Von Bismarck, who dominated German and European politics from 1860 to 1890, once made the famous remark: “politics is the art of the possible.” His statement implies that in politics one does not always do what is right or what is best. It is about what actually can be achieved. It is all about setting oneself pragmatic, achievable goals over ideological goals. The “art of the possible” involves avoiding to get stuck in immobility while trying to achieve the distant ideal of perfectionism. It involves making necessary compromises without having to sacrifice truth and honesty.
About fifteen months ago Narendra Modi of the BJP won an imposing and impressive mandate from the people of India who gave an absolute majority to a political party for the first time in thirty years. The Congress had been relegated to a very distant second, and with less than 10% seats in the Lok Sabha, it could not even claim the office of the Leader of the Opposition. The Congress with its fortunes tied to just one family, had no effective challenge to mount. The mountain of corruption that erupted in the second term of the UPA, effectively buried that combination under its weight. Modi had come through a searching agni parikhsha for twelve years not only by a hostile political opposition, but also by a vociferous mainstream media that gave up every pretense of impartiality when reporting on Modi and Gujarat. A campaign of personal calumny that was mounted against Modi is perhaps unprecedented in this country.
However, this time the people were not willing to buy the arguments of the media or of the discredited political parties and reposed their confidence in the man so reviled by the so-called “Lutyen’s Adarsh Liberals.” Mani Shankar Aiyar, perhaps the crudest representative of this mindset, disdainfully referred to Modi as that “chaiwala” who was welcome to serve tea at the Congress HQ in New Delhi. Modi, defying all the odds calculated by “eminent” psephologists, rode like an expert surf-rider on a monstrous wave that represented the people’s anger against his opponents. Fed up with Sonia Gandhi’s remote-control machinations, and the possibility of a third term for the completely charmless Manmohan Singh, people voted for Modi across the barriers of religion, class, and caste. Like Otto Von Bismarck who unified Germany in the 19th century, a politically fractured and emotionally scarred India rested its hopes on Narendra Modi to unify it.
Modi did not disappoint, and his first Independence Day speech from the hallowed ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi was like a breath of fresh air that helped to drive away the stench of a decade of decadence. A year ago, Prime Minister Modi had recognized that his India was plagued with a plethora of ills that had accumulated not only over the previous two UPA terms, but also over centuries of foreign and colonial rule. To restore the nation to even a semblance of good health would be an enormous, Herculean task that would require immense amounts of energy and patience. So when he spoke about the “chhote chhote kaam” that he identified as his priorities, he immediately struck an emotional chord with the people. “Swachh Bharat” was a call that no one could decry against. So was the call for the care of the girl child and for building toilets in schools, especially for girls. That morning he did not speak about any big-ticket reforms. Instead, he concentrated on small but immensely significant priorities for his government. Talking to millions over radio he reached almost every nook and corner of the country – including villages that were without electricity.
Modi, the mass leader, was in his elements, connecting with people in a manner no leader had done in recent times. His visits to foreign countries were huge successes, creating renewed respect for the country, and building bridges where none existed before. India’s stock rose almost vertically and Western capital started flowing steadily into the Indian exchequer. The foreign policy initiatives in East Asia, aimed at stitching coalitions in the Indian Ocean, comforted a number of small neighbours who were suspicious about the intentions of a country of 1.25 billion people. Modi assured them that India represented no danger for them, and was, in fact, a neighbor they could rely upon in times of distress. He has since made further advances in foreign policy with his visit to the UAE just after his second Independence Day speech. His Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, has shown amazing skill combined with firmness and has built upon the foundations laid by the Prime Minister.
Fifteen months after assuming the office of Prime Minister, perhaps it is time to make some assessment of his tenure thus far. While there is no doubt that he is a Gulliver among political Lilliputians that confront him; somehow there is a creeping feeling that he is allowing these Lilliputians to tie him down as they did in the fiction of Jonathan Swift. The gossip that on the domestic front he seems to have lost the plot seems to be finding receptive ears. He was always aware that his party did not have the majority in the Lower House, and that the opposition would not co-operate with him when it came to passing any major bills in the Parliament. Sonia Gandhi is never going to forgive him for “usurping” what she believes is the divinely ordained right of her family, and especially of her son. Perhaps it has something to do with her origins. Vendetta is a word that has its roots in the Italian/Latin vindicta. There is no forgiveness under this code. The feud will end only with the complete destruction of the party that is perceived to have done wrong to one.
Narendra Modi made a tactical mistake when he attempted to push big-ticket reforms like the Land Acquisition Bill. He should have known that Sonia Gandhi would not allow him to take credit for even one meaningful reform. Using her clout with the media she planted loud and shrill debates in TV studios where the anchors moderated the debate to discomfit the BJP spokespersons. She unleashed her pet commissars in the print media, again through a captive press, to spread lies, presenting a distorted version of the Land Acquisition Bill to the farmers and landowners. The Lalit Modi episode was also used by Sonia Gandhi to further disrupt Parliament and not allow any meaningful business to be conducted during the monsoon session. A huge casualty of Sonia Gandhi’s shenanigans is the GST Bill that she would have found difficult to oppose, but by agitating on a non-issue like the Lalit Modi fracas, she managed to waste precious time, thereby not allowing the bill to be debated.
Knowing Sonia Gandhi’s visceral hatred for him, and the media’s complicity with her, Modi has perhaps made a tactical error in the first year of his office as PM. He should have waited for the configuration of the Rajya Sabha to change before attempting any big-ticket reforms. The path of “chhote chhote kaam” that he had delineated in his 15th August 2014 speech is what he should have chosen until the numbers became favorable in the Rajya Sabha. By being in a hurry to institute big reforms he has wasted precious time and expended his energies that could have been put to better use doing small things. The people of India are not as uninformed as they were even a decade ago. They understand his compulsions and they will wait for major reforms to kick in. However, what they don’t understand is his reluctance to continue with the small reforms that would show that he was keeping his faith with them. For example, while asking the people to voluntarily surrender the subsidy on domestic gas, he could have announced that the subsidy on food served to members of Parliament would be done away with. MP’s opposed to this reform would have instantly been exposed as petty and greedy. Another reform that would have found instant rapport with the people concerns the judiciary. All of us know how wasteful the judicial process is in India. For a start, he could have asked the courts to reduce its holiday periods, and increase their sittings so that more of the pending cases would get an earlier hearing. The number of holidays enjoyed by our courts is nothing but scandalous. Further judicial reforms will have to come and many more courts will have to be established if the backlog of cases is to be brought within reasonable limits. People know it and will wait if the PM shows his intent.
PM Modi has perhaps erred in the handling of the OROP question. Having made it a part of his party’s manifesto, his government should have fulfilled the promise it made by announcing a scheme. It is likely that the ex-servicemen would have found it unacceptable, but that would have created an atmosphere of discussion, and consultation – not of confrontation. By repeatedly saying that his government is committed to OROP, but without specifying either its provisions or the time when it would be implemented, only furthers distrust and suspicion. It appears as if OROP is not even on the radar of the PM. Venerable war veterans resorting to hunger strike in public makes for very poor headlines and does nothing to enhance the image of the PM or the country. Even now there is time for the PM to make an unannounced visit to the site of the hunger strike, request all the veterans there to have faith in him, and announce an OROP package in their midst. That would be a statesmanlike gesture. Discussions on fine-tuning the announced package could then go on in the Finance and Defense Ministry offices. R. Jagannathan of Firstpost has written an excellent article on why Modi should announce OROP without any delay. In the article he even provides ideas for finding the money to meet this expenditure without having to resort to printing of currency. A link to his article is here- click here
The government should also instantly do away with another of Sonia Gandhi’s pernicious legacies. I refer to the disastrous Right to Education Act. I wonder why the extremely articulate and intelligent HRD Minister is finding it so difficult to propose the immediate suspension of this Act? It certainly does not help in improving the standards of our government schools, while it has a diametrically opposite effect on the private schools.
Till such time as the numbers do not favour him, PM Modi must continue to concentrate on small things that mean a lot to the common man. Reduction in corruption, easing of inflation, elimination or reduction of bottlenecks in trade and commerce, improved infrastructure facilities, cheaper travel and communication costs, improved safety on Railways etc., are a few of the areas that do not need the sanction of Parliaments. These are administrative reforms that can be initiated and the opposition will not be able to do anything about them. Readers can suggest many more areas where the administration can bring in meaningful reduction of red tape and making the lives of the citizens less arduous.
The recent show of strength by a nonentity like Hardik Patel in Modi’s Gujarat is an indicator that things are not going as well as the PM would like to believe. However, this political novice has perhaps given an idea whose time seems to have come. When he said that either Patel’s or no one else should get the benefit of reservations, he has articulated the thoughts that have arisen in a majority of minds across India. Reservation may have been a noble policy when it was introduced, but its political misuse has made it into a milking cash cow for a political elite that probably constitute not more than 1% of the country’s population. The majority continues to languish in abject poverty and reservation has hardly brought any relief to their sufferings. Instead, it has created a class of ill-educated and ill-trained professionals whose combined efforts have brought administrative, intellectual, medical, and industrial skills to abysmally low levels. It is time for a rethink on this policy. Tavleen Singh’s well-reasoned article on the subject appeared in The Indian Express on 30th August. A link to it is here: click here
Considering the political impossibility of doing away with reservations at one stroke, perhaps PM Modi could announce in the Parliament that beginning from the next year there would be a 2% reduction every year in reservations across the board. A creeping reduction over a couple of decades will make the psychological impact less traumatic, while burying this demon once for all. There will be no fresh demands from interested political groups to hold rallies of strength and disrupt normal life in their wake.
Narendra Modi is spending a lot of time and effort on winning elections across India. He should know that the people have voted for him because he appeared to them as a man who would bring their sinking ship to a safe harbor. They are not going to throw him overboard if he takes time piloting the boat through the perilous seas inhabited with all kinds of demons. Like Ulysses of the Odyssey, he will have to confront many monsters ready to pounce upon him, and like Ulysses he will have to defeat them more with cunning and guile rather than with brute force. The shores of his legendary Ithaca are within reach and he can find them if he does not get distracted from the course he had charted when he first embarked upon the voyage. The people have reposed their faith in him, and they are not going to abandon him or his party in a hurry. It is also true that at present there does not exist a worthy challenger to his leadership from any political party.
So, as Bismarck said: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”