MODI: WELL BEGUN IS HALF DONE

Less than a week after Narendra Modi became prime minister, there have been several favourable signs from the ruling dispensation. These do not have as much to do with the PM’s 10-point plan, which is no more than a list of what needs to be done, as with the remarkable toning down of the RSS’s hardline outlook.

What this show of moderation underlines is the realization in the saffron brotherhood that Modi is serious about his development agenda. As a result, not only will the saffron hawks be forced to put their standard majoritarian Hindutva programmes on the back burner, but they will also have to come to terms with today’s more accommodating world. Hence, the unexpected observation of an RSS apparatchik that the organization is against treating gays as criminals although it still regards homosexual relations as unnatural.

The RSS has also clarified that it does not believe in economic fundamentalism, signifying that it is ready to accept Modi’s economic blueprint. This can include the sale of the loss-making Air India. Such moves were compared earlier with selling the family silver.

Besides, Modi has shown that he is not the “I, me, myself ” person, as the Congress projected during the election campaign, by telling the Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh governments – both run by the BJP – not to include his life’s story in school textbooks.

However, nothing has crystallized so far where economic growth is concerned. Although the general mood is far more optimistic than during the closing stages of the Manmohan Singh government, it is only when the investments start arriving that Modi can claim to have turned the economy round.

At the same time, there is little doubt that the government is off to a steady start. But for the rumpus caused by a junior minister’s comments on Article 370 of the Constitution concerning Kashmir, and another one over human resource development minister Smriti Irani’s educational qualifications, the government’s first week in office has been noted mainly for the rollicking start which saw the SAARC dignitaries present at the swearing-in ceremony.

But, the controversies over Article 370 and Irani were avoidable. There was no need for the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh, to venture into a highly contentious field, especially when the BJP’s aversion to the Article is known. Not surprisingly, Modi told his first cabinet meeting that the ministers should be careful of what they say.

By the same token, the prime minister himself should have been careful about Irani’s nomination to a ministerial berth which deals with education when she (formerly the heroine of a soap opera) has studied only up to Class XII. Not only that, she has submitted conflicting affidavits on her educational status which expose her to legal action.

The Congress has lost no time to jump into the fray. Though scarred by the massive electoral defeat, the party is evidently still ready to seize any opportunity to embarrass the government. On the Kashmir issue, the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, has taken up the cudgels against the BJP by claiming that Article 370 is the only constitutional link between Kashmir and India and tampering with it is fraught with unforeseen consequences.

The stridency of his statements cannot be unrelated, however, to the poor performance of his party, the National Conference, which couldn’t win a single of the six Lok Sabha seats in the state. Neither could its ally, the Congress. Five years ago, the two parties shared the seats, three each. This time, it is the People’s Democratic Party and the BJP which have won three each.

Even as the Congress tries to stay in the news bulletins by venting its grievances on relatively minor issues like the ordinance passed by the government to appoint the former chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority, Nripendra Misra, as the PM’s principal secretary – the ordinance was needed to overcome the restriction on appointing the Authority’s chairman and members to central or state government jobs after retirement – the party’s main problem is the growing discontent in its ranks over the debacle.

What is more, the anger is directed at Rahul Gandhi, who has even been called a
“joker” by a member of the party in Kerala, who has been suspended for his candour. Others have been more restrained, directing their ire at the “rootless wonders and spineless creepers” surrounding the heir apparent.

But, notwithstanding the effort by the senior general secretary, Digvijay Singh, whose words tend to reflect the high command’s views, to dismiss the charges as the expressions of those frustrated by the defeat, the party will be making a mistake if it believes that the reservations about Rahul’s capabilities will die down.

The real test for Rahul will come if he refuses to lead the party in parliament. As Digvijay Singh has said, a leader has to lead from the front. However, throughout his career, short though it is, Rahul has shied away from any major responsibility. It was probably his mother’s ill health which compelled him to be the main campaigner. But, his body language has always shown him as a reluctant prince who doesn’t have his heart in the job. The Congress at the moment is like a ship lost at sea while the BJP is chugging ahead.