At the time of gloaming on the evening of 18 May 2014, Narendra Modi, the then Prime Minister-to-be of India spoke into the microphone on the banks of the mythological Ganga in the ancient city of Benaras, also known variously as Kashi and Varanasi. He had broad lines of sandal paste running across his broad forehead appearing broader with a massive electoral mandate for the political coalition headed by him, and yet broader with a clear mandate for the political party that declared him the prime ministerial candidate months ahead of the General Elections 2014. Just around an hour before, the channels had broadcast live footage, most probably from the CCTV camera inside the Sanctum Sanctorum, of Modi offering ritualistic prayers of “thanks giving” to “Kashi Vishwanath Jyotirlingum.”
Of the twelve Jyotirlingums situated through the length of India from Kedarnath in the Himalayas in the north to Rameshwaram at Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) in the south, Kashi Vishwanath has a special significance and symbolism for those who wish to “rule” and expand their dominion. Going by the commentary of a priest of the shrine accompanying the footage, many kings and princes of yore had worshiped at the shrine and sought the blessings of Shiva for victory. As the priest said, those who worshipped Kashi Vishwanath include Rama, the King of Ayodhaya who fought against Ravana, and Shivaji, the founder and maker of Maratha kingdom, who fought against the mighty Mughal Aurangzeb. Whether by coincidence because he contested election from Benaras, or by deliberate association and choice, Modi’s prayers at the ancient shrine had a subterranean message about his wishes for a long and successful “rule” as the Prime Minister of India at Delhi.
Modi’s short address – around ten minutes – didn’t contain a single word lambasting his political opponents. Rather, he chose to speak as the “man of the nation” paying tributes to Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest ideologue of the Independence Movement, the greatest icon of the Indian National Congress and the political mentor of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. In doing so, he sought to rise above the bitter ideological differences between his own party and the Indian National Congress, which he almost single handedly trounced in the singularly important General Elections 2014. Modi promised a “clean Kashi” to the people, and his mention of Mahatma Gandhi came in a particular reference to the latter’s love of cleanliness. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has had a traditional support base in the cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an ultra-Hindu nationalist organization. This should surprise many an academic analyst because Gandhi’s social ideology and that of the RSS have been incompatible, and because of the fact that it was an ultra-Hindu nationalist who assassinated Gandhi. For sure, Modi’s choice to laud Gandhi at what was almost an election victory rally at Benaras hinted at the independence of his political thinking. As the head of the government that comes to power riding what the people have termed a “Modi wave,” he has to adopt an inclusive national rhetoric. And, indeed, Mahatma Gandhi comes in handy in initiating that rhetoric.
Modi’s phenomenal success comes carved out of a very risky campaign strategy of focusing on and highlighting a single person, the persona of himself, in advertisements and campaign slogans. To illustrate, one of the advertisements carried out in all commercial media showed Modi telling the people of India that each vote cast in favor of his party would be a vote for him as the Prime Minister of India. In another illustration, there was a series of slogans ending in the punch line: “This time round, a Modi government” (translated from Hindi). Modi essentially campaigned alone throughout, physically addressing hundreds of political rallies all over India. Away from the physicality of people gathering for his rallies, he employed a dedicated high-tech team, headed by an Indian Briton, to maximize returns from various forms of electronic and social media. The heavy investment of his own persona in this one-of-its-own-kind campaign has, indeed, given India a Modi government “this time round.”
Modi was inaugurated as the Prime Minister of India on Monday May 26th, 2014. From 6 p.m. to 7.40 p.m. IST on the day, the national and regional electronic media of the country was fixated on the ceremony in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhawan (Presidential Residence) inaugurating Modi with his new-look cabinet of ministers. The occasion almost turned into an unprecedented SAARC summit with all heads of state of the countries of “South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation” in attendance. The pictures of the leaders lined up for a photo op with the president, the vice president and the prime minister of India on the steps of the Rashtrapati Bhawan will flash on the covers and front pages of the news magazines of these countries for weeks to come.
Having been sworn in as a prime minister with a clear mandate almost literally for himself, Narendra Modi must have been feeling hugely liberated from the injunctions and limitations that may otherwise have come in his way from his own party – and freed also from the compulsions of coalition. In fact, the stances that Modi has taken in his articulate speeches in the past ten days indicate that he is even liberated from his own perspectives – those he held or displayed while he was still a chief minister of a province and a candidate working on his one point program of dislodging the INC-led coalition government at Delhi. All this is history now, and we are looking ahead into a future, the characteristics of which have started emerging into definite contours to give us some starting points and new thresholds for the future course for India.
What Modi’s rise and ascension means in the contexts of South Asian affairs and in those of international politics is a vitally important point of contention and analysis right now. The political watchers have gone to work hypothesizing and conjecturing about the changes and landmark policy shifts that Modi may initiate. Internationally, with respect to the traditional western and eastern blocks, and regionally with respect to China and South Asia, India’s foreign policy has to date had the definite stamp of the thinking of the Indian National Congress. During the entire “Nehruvian era” extending right up to the very early 1980s until the assassination of Indira Gandhi, India was never seen by the West (led by the United States) as a partner. Nehru’s decision to adopt an economic development model leaning more towards the socialist system, coupled with his pioneering role in creating Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in partnership with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia – with the majority of India’s military purchases coming from the then USSR – were hard facts giving the US reasons to maintain a strategic distance from India. Then came the still-enduring crisis of Afghanistan, when Soviet troops entered the country in 1979 to support the ally government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against militants allegedly funded by the United States and associates. The US had two motivations: to disrupt the alliance between the USSR and the government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and to pay the USSR back for Vietnam. The militants against the USSR-supported government in Kabul had to be trained in the neighborhood, and thus began the long partnership between the US and Pakistan. To date, the US has been pumping billions of dollars into Pakistan. The rise of Narendra Modi, a prime minster from a rightist party with a clear majority in the government, has sent international experts in the West back to their studies. It took the US the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath to understand that long-standing Indian claims about terror emanating from the tribal areas of the rugged Hindu Kush regions of Afghanistan and North Pakistan have been genuine. The overtures from the US started after 9/11, and India-US partnership in fight against terror is now a reality. The US should be wary about what this definitive change of guard and government at Delhi will mean in terms of their interests in the region.
Having just been inaugurated, Modi will need some time to envision and envisage a long-serving foreign policy. Yet, there are some signals and safe conjecture that give us a clear idea of what directions he may take. Since he is not under pressure from the bosses of his party (as his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, was), and since he is a man who knows what he means to do, his approach in external affairs will for sure be independent and open. Also, it is safe to assume that he will not act upon any resentment against the US for denying him diplomatic visa in 2005 (already, analysts have started speaking out about the tactical mistake the US made in denying him a visa, Fareed Zakaria the most vocal and outspoken among them). Modi means serious business, and as long as he is convinced that the interests of India are taken care of, he won’t mind doing political and other businesses with the US. There are substantial reasons, both economic and political, for this prediction. One is the reckonable presence of the Indian business community in the US, wanting to create a substantial Indian market for its ventures. Having seen the province of Gujrat growing as a model of open and free economy, there are huge hopes among Indian businessmen in the US to see the entire country opening up the way Gujrat did during the 13-year reign of Modi as the chief minister there. Looking at it the other way round, the US has been a big market for Indian businessmen in India, and they would like that market to grow. Given the scintillating economic credentials of Modi in Gujrat, there is no denying the probability of India and the US moving closer in economic arena. However, one shouldn’t be hasty in drawing conclusions about the Indian economy and trade becoming US-centric.
As said earlier, Narendra Modi means business, and he will take it wherever he gets it. He has already been in contact with the markets and business leaders in Europe, Japan and China. Rather than committing himself to the US alone, he would like to diversify business into alternative markets including China, Russia, the UK, Germany, France, Switzerland and others. That he will look to Russia as a potential market can be read in his enthusiastic reply to Vladimir Putin’s quick and warm congratulations on the election. And while the US was still languishing in the issue of the visa denial, the governments of Germany, France and the UK had already started engaging Modi in meaningful business relationships. The British High Commissioner to India, Sir James Bevan, had already met with Modi in 2012, giving the world a big hint about the inclination of the European Union towards a good economic partnership with Modi’s Gujrat. Perhaps learning a lesson from James Bevan, the European Union ended its boycott of Modi and started sending envoys to meet him and talk about possible collaborations. And the latest is that the European Union hailed Modi upon his victory as a “person of great prominence.” There are short hints in the news that Sweden and Denmark are also upbeat and are keen on joining hands with Modi. The ball is in the US’s court.
Even before he formally took the office, Modi started his job in quite an independent manner. His invitation to the heads of the governments of SAARC countries to his swearing in was immediately termed by local analysts as a diplomatic coup. Indeed, it has turned into exactly that. The most surprising and encouraging development was the attendance of Nawaz Sharif, the premier of Pakistan. Regional analysts concur that the Pakistani Army maintains tight control over the government, and that Sharif’s attendance at the swearing in must have come with the army’s nod. To confound the analysts, though, there was a violation of the truce at the Line of Control at the very moment of Modi’s inauguration. It is very much a speculator’s business to try to see how much this tokenism will go into an actual normalizing of relations between India and Pakistan, which hit a nadir after the succession of events starting with Kargil conflict of 1999, followed by the 26/11 (2008) terrorist attacks in Bombay and the various and continuing skirmishes at the Line of Control that cuts Kashmir in twain. It is far too early to predict anything about the gains from this visit of Sharif to India, but it sure signals a bold gesture on both sides. There is a huge anti-US lobby in Pakistan. However unlikely, if Modi’s India and Sharif’s Pakistan come together for greater cooperation, there is the possibility of the US losing some ground in the region.
From another perspective, Modi’s invitation to the SAARC heads of government signals his desire to play a leader’s role in the region. It wouldn’t be off the mark to intuit an international ambition in Modi, with SAARC as his point of beginning and stretching beyond to engaging Russia and China to create a kind of tacit power pole. Though, if this does happen, it will need time and a lot of additional investment. The region has been shaken by the change of political culture in Delhi after a long period of more than six decades, and the establishments in Russia and China must be curiously watching and analyzing this change. With Vladimir Putin roping in China through a long-term business contract for gas supply, it shouldn’t be farfetched for anyone to guess that there will be increased efforts from Moscow to engage Delhi in business and other partnerships. If it goes in that direction, it would be, in some ways, a repetition of India’s position under Nehru in 1950s, and later in that of Indira Gandhi in late 1960s and 1970s, when India found itself closer to the USSR. The Indian defense establishment knows well enough that the fighter aircraft and other military aid the US supplied to Pakistan were primarily used against India in successive wars. The US should be much wiser now, having suffered the brunt of Afghanistan itself, and should shape its India policy in such a manner as to give Modi alternatives and thus preempt a drift towards Putin.
The journey from beginnings as a worker at a small tea stall to the Prime Minister of India is a phenomenal one crafted by Modi on the strength of his ambition and willpower. There are clearly reasons for us to assume that he will go for it if he smells the possibility of playing a bigger role in the South Asian region and in the world. The beginning of that role has already been made through the informal get together of the heads of the states of the region. Modi is not wasting any time. Following the warmest and first handshake with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan on the day of his inauguration, there is business for these two important leaders of the region through talks to open up a channel of bilateral dialogue that had been dead for quite some time. One of the catchy slogans of Modi’s election campaign was, “Good Days are Ahead” (translation from Hindi). We have to wait a few months to see what’s ahead for India and its one and a quarter billion populace.