Understanding PM Narendra Modi and the new India

Ever since Mr Narendra Modi convincingly led the BJP to a spectacular 282 seats victory in the 2014 General Elections, there has been much speculation, guesswork and research done in various foreign capitals around the world on the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy and an emerging super power.

In Bhutan, while we pride ourselves in knowing the Indian leaders and political parties, the rise of Modi has been so fast and meteoric that many of us are still catching up to know India’s new Prime Minister better.

For most Bhutanese what matters most in not Modi the Chief Minister or Modi the politician, but Modi the Prime Minister and his foreign policy outlook particularly towards Bhutan.

But before we get to that, we have to know the circumstances of Modi’s rise and the churning that it came out of in our biggest and closest friend, India.

Ever since the independence of India in 1947, the grand old party, Congress party, had an almost uninterrupted rule on its own for most of time, and then through a coalition governments until recently.

Given the grinding poverty that India was in, at the time of independence, the political ideology of the leaders and the prevailing global current of socialism, the Congress adopted a socialist mode of economic development for India for many years, which had its own benefits but also its many pitfalls, in the form of slow economic growth, corruption, less competition and excessive state control.

The inability of the Congress to fulfill many of its economic and social objectives lead to its slow but gradual political decline, which facilitated the rise of strong regional parties, based either on languages like in South India or castes like in North India.

Ironically, it was the Congress party lead by former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh who brought about important economic reforms and liberalization in the early 1990’s. This paved the way for the dramatic rise of a strong and aspiring middle class that was no longer interested in old slogans but eager to catch up with the developed world. It is also this mainly urban class that forms the core support group for BJP and Modi.

Given India’ s understandably complex political, social, religious and historical issues mixed with competitive, politics saw parties of every hue trying to win power using everything from caste to religion based mathematics, language to region issues to development. This was in the backdrop of the Congress, no longer being the dominant force as it once was.

As a result, the unstable 90’s saw political power distributed between unstable small parties and governments came and fell leading to political instability. Even the successive stable governments that were formed under NDA 1, UPA 1 and 2 were beholden to unstable and demand prone regional allies who could make or break governments.

This was coupled with a slowdown in India’s economic growth story which had taken off in the early 90’s in the last few years of the UPA 2 rule due to a host of factors from a global slowdown to mainly domestic factors, like policy paralysis, corruption, lack of strong political will, coordination issues, etc.

Meanwhile, in the state of Gujarat, its Chief Minister Narendra Modi became known for driving strong economic growth and competent no-nonsense governance. It definitely helped that he won three state-level elections ruling as the Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014, rising in popularity and political weight each time.

His rise was all the more remarkable as he rose from a humble background and rapidly climbed up the political ladder based on his merit, political skills, strong organizational capability, good communication skills and strong leadership. He was also one of the rare breed of Indian politicians holding political office, but untainted by any political scam.

Well known developments hurtled him on the national stage in 2014 where using his own governance track record, consummate political skills, charismatic personality and a strong focus on development among other factors won the BJP 282 seats, enough to form the government on its own, a first for any political party since the Congress in 1984.

The strongest and most decisive political mandate in 30 years for a political party and its leader, Modi signifies a strong desire for change in an India that is rapidly changing both demographically and politically. A strong and growing middle class is not content with the rate of economic growth, and the rural population, though grateful for various schemes by the UPA wants more than just doles, and a more youthful population are looking for jobs to achieve their dreams.

The fact that Modi’s mandate cuts across caste, region, religion and is pan-India in its nature shows an India that wants a fundamental change in its governance and wants a strong and stable political structure in New Delhi.

Modi has not disappointed so far, changing overnight from Modi the politician to Modi the statesman reaching out skillfully to friends and opponents alike. Using his political capital and administrative experience, he has also considerably strengthened the Prime Minister’s Office in India, to the extent that it now towers over other ministries. All the moves made, so far, by him as the Prime Minister shows that he has hit the ground running and he means business.

For Bhutan, this will mean dealing with India’s strongest Prime Minister in 30 years, who enjoys the backing of his people and has a lot of political capital. Being a hands-on, Prime Minister Modi will also play a key role in India’s foreign policy approach towards several key countries including Bhutan. The fact that he has decided to visit Bhutan first is a good sign and augurs well for India-Bhutan ties.

Modi visiting Bhutan sends out two important signals. One is that Indian foreign policy under Modi will give a strong emphasis in the SAARC region, and the other is that India appreciates and values its longstanding and reliable allies. It is interesting to note that Modi has also strong words of praise for India’s other traditional ally, Russia.

The conventional wisdom in South Asian diplomacy is that foreign policies remain the same while governments change, assigning importance to the role of continuity and diplomats. While this may be true, it will be foolish to assume the same for a strong Prime Minister like Modi who has already made some unconventional and positive diplomatic moves from inviting all the SAARC heads to his swearing in ceremony to visiting Bhutan first.

Bhutan will have to understand and know Modi better in addition to the new dispensation in New Delhi who will also play important roles in the India-Bhutan relationship.

The other three very important people for Bhutan, apart from Modi, will be the Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, a heavyweight in her own right, familiar to Bhutanese leaders as the former Opposition Leader, the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who is a famed and competent professional from the intelligence background, and the new Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh with a reputation for toughness.

So, what is Modi’s foreign policy? The best, and in fact, official cue to his foreign policy can be deciphered from the recent President’s Address to the Parliament, which though being ceremonially read out by the President is actually drafted by the Prime Minister.

An important component of that speech was the new government’s foreign policy priorities based on the principles of developing peaceful and friendly relations with all countries. The speech also mentioned India pursuing ‘enlightened national interest’ which is more mature and accommodating than just national interests. A key part of the policy is on building a strong and self-reliant India that can take its place among comity of nations.

The speech also talked about how the new government sent a unique and bold signal to the South Asian region and the world, by inviting, for the first time in independent India, leaders of all South Asian neighbors to the swearing-in ceremony of the new Council of Ministers on May 26. The speech said that this shows the government’s commitment and determination to work towards building a peaceful, stable and economically inter-linked neighborhood which is essential for the collective development and prosperity of the South Asian Region.

The policy also talked about working together with South Asian leaders to revitalize SAARC as an effective instrument for regional cooperation and as a united voice on global issues. All of this shows that Modi will be giving a high priority to SAARC in his diplomatic dealings, especially since the consensus among the strategic community in India is that the SAARC region did not receive as much priority in the past with multiple consequences including the entry of other powers inimical to India’s interests.

While Modi has a huge mandate, he has even bigger expectations, primarily on the economic front one of whose main pre-conditions is a stable supply of power. The recent power outages in the height of summer in New Delhi due to windstorms made headlines. Bhutan can play a major and positive role as a supplier of large volumes of relatively affordable energy to India. Modi would want to get the mega projects in Bhutan completed on time if not ahead of schedule.

The India-Bhutan diplomatic ties have not only been rooted in sentimentality and friendship, but in a lot of practical realism which has benefited both countries. Though it is in early days, all signs, at the moment, indicate that Modi, the ultimate realist, will bring in more dynamism, substance and strength into the relationship between the two countries.

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