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India's new PM faces a tricky balancing act

Can Modi keep supporters, opponents and minorities happy?

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • May 30, 2014
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Strengthened by the massive popular mandate won in India’s recent general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has structured a federal Council of Ministers consisting of personal loyalists and others nominated by allied parties and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the hardline Hindu group that played such a stellar role in propelling him to power.

But there’s no doubting who calls the shots. The new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader has drastically restructured the cabinet with fewer ministers by merging several departments.

In a country where the prime minister is said to be the first among equals, Modi has made it abundantly clear that while ministers have vast powers, all policy decisions are taken by him.

This is not seen as total concentration of power in one man’s hands, but a way to ensure that the government fulfills Modi’s promise of ”minimum government, maximum governance”, a catchy phrase never really spelt out by Modi during the acrimonious election campaign.

He also stunned his critics by taking a bold step in inviting the heads of government of neighboring South Asian states – including nuclear power and sworn enemy Pakistan – to his oath-taking ceremony in New Delhi on Monday.

This was a gathering not seen outside the annual general meetings of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation.

If Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif defied his politically active military to make the symbolic visit, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajpaksha faced vocal opposition among the Tamil minority, all of whom remember the atrocities against them in the island’s recent civil war.

Though the talks between Modi and these two neighboring leaders were brief and to some extent formal and ceremonial, they were important.

In Sri Lanka, India retains leverage with the Sinhala-majority government to push on human rights and to expedite national reconciliation.

Pakistan is a much more complicated issue. Both countries have large nuclear arsenals. They also have a plethora of issues that fuel a hostile confrontation played out in gun battles across the border, and a warmongering rhetoric by hyper national political groups on both sides. Pakistan and India have had four major wars, one of which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

The 68-year-old face-off over Kashmir remains a constant possible flashpoint. Modi and Sharif have promised to take the dialogue further, and it would seem that both leaders – who have each won popular electoral mandates – may perhaps be able to do so if not hampered by domestic issues.

The Congress government that recently ceded power never could dare take such an initiative – ironically – for fear of Hindu right wing political groups led by Modi’s BJP and its parent, the RSS.

Modi’s success depends on how he assuages Hindu feelings and how he manages to convince the RSS, which thrives on militant postures against Pakistan and demands tough action on popular ferment in the Muslim majority Kashmir Valley.

An early warning that this may not be easy came the day after the new government took office.  

The junior minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, RSS activist Jitendra Singh, called for a debate on Article 370 of the constitution which gives special status to the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

The state joined the Union of India on condition that it would get special status, which includes autonomy on most issues of governance except defense, currency and internal security. Outsiders cannot buy land in Kashmir, and most jobs are reserved for local people.

The BJP and the RSS have for decades demanded the scrapping of this special status, alleging it encourages local Muslim populations to seek independence.

The BJP manifesto highlighted the promise of scrapping Article 370. Constitutional experts believe that this law cannot be repealed at all. It also, to some measure, acts as a deterrent to any major meddling in the valley by Pakistan.

The minister’s statement drew an instant and angry protest from Indian civil society, the opposition Congress Party and all political groups in Kashmir, including the state’s chief minister Omar Abdullah.

In an ominous statement on television, Abdullah said: “Long after the Modi government is a distant memory, either Jammu and Kashmir will not be a part of India, or Article 370 will exist. This article is the only constitutional link between Kashmir and India.”

Abdullah’s statement was on camera, but he maintained he was misquoted. There was no attempt by the prime minister to contradict Jitendra Singh.

This strengthens conjecture that the statement may well have been a trial balloon by the government and the party to see how far they could go in implementing the election promise to the country’s Hindu majority.

For Modi, this poses a major political dilemma. His credibility with the masses, who took him at his word that he would bring in good governance and development, depends on early reforms, a tweaking of the administration and checking the sort of corruption that exists at the grassroots.

International approval is also of essence for Modi, who was denied a visa by the United States for 10 years because of his alleged involvement in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat state when he was chief minister there.

His building on a South Asian peace initiative, which started on Monday, could give him the statesman stature he craves.  

Modi may overcome the 2002 blemish if he can keep at bay the fundamentalist Hindu chauvinist elements who believe his sweeping election victory represents a charter to implement their Hindutva agenda.

This tricky political balancing act is therefore not just about relations with nations of a different religious persuasion abroad, it’s also about building bridges with the nearly 200 million people that make up India’s ethnic minorities, many of whom are still treated like second-class citizens.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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