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India: Modi’s mute mode

by Bharat Bhushan, 28 June 2014

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The Asian Age, June 27, 2014

Following a voluble campaign, Narendra Modi has gone remarkably quiet after taking over as Prime Minister. So has his entire government. The Bharatiya Janata Party which runs the government is also muted after its president and most of its spokespersons were appointed ministers.

Therefore, there is no one to explain what the government is doing and why. Tweeting cannot be a substitute for a government to politically engage the people who have elected it to office.

The manner of the attack on non-governmental organisations and the character assassination of former solicitor-general Gopal Subramanium to justify scuttling his appointment as a Supreme Court judge have brought little credit to the government. An impression is created that it operates through selective leaks and innuendoes rather than clearly stating its principled position in the matter.

If there are NGOs whose activities are against the law of the land, then nothing prevents the government from moving against them. A national campaign targeting internationally recognised voluntary bodies and civil liberties organisations will earn the government no brownie points. Domestically it can trigger anti-government sentiments cutting across cultural, linguistic, religious and geographical boundaries.

In Mr Subramanium’s case, his unsuitability for the Supreme Court may have been the government’s considered view but it could have followed a more honest and quieter approach. There is no need to draw blood each time the government takes a decision. In the process, the government has ended up portraying itself as against an independent judiciary — which may not be the case. To compound its error, unnamed and self-satisfied government sources say that the record of the Congress Party is worse!

Instead of speaking up, the government has been using selective leaks from the Intelligence Bureau and the Central Bureau of Investigation. Blaming policemen for political decisions is not good governance.

The government’s reluctance to explain its actions upfront is also evident in the rail fares being hiked two weeks before the Budget Session. The presentation of the Railway Budget — and the debate on it — in Parliament is the occasion to discuss the issue. If the government is in fact biting the bullet, it should not be shy of explaining to Parliament and the people the necessity of raising fares. It is not sufficient to say that this bitter pill was necessary or that previous governments had also done the same.

In the case of removing political appointees as governors, there may be nothing wrong in expecting the incumbents to make way for the new regime’s appointees. Governors after all are selected through a closed and opaque process by the government of the day. The process of forcing their removal, however, could have been managed better.

On the controversy over giving preference to Hindi on social media platforms, perhaps a virtue was sought to be made of a necessity with a home minister who is more comfortable in Hindi than English. But was it necessary to add that this government had only re-issued the directives of the previous one?

Constantly rationalising bad practices by citing past precedents will erode the image that the new government wants to create for itself. It sends the signal that this government is led by people from the same stock as earlier governments and that nothing has really changed.

Much has been made of the fresh and bold foreign policy initiatives taken by the Modi government. However, contrary to expectations raised in his campaign, his moves suggest continuity rather than fresh thinking. He has already started a dialogue with Pakistan by opening the doors at the highest level. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited to his inauguration without any progress on containing terrorism aimed at India. Now it has also been revealed that the Modi government has started back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan. While these signals of policy continuity may be welcome, they are a far cry from Mr Modi’s election statements that Pakistan must first become “eligible” for a dialogue.

Mr Modi has also been softer on China than his campaign pronouncements. He allowed Chinese foreign minister Wang Li to become the first foreign leader to visit India. At a press conference Mr Li made the audacious claim that issuing stapled visas for Arunachalis — opposed by India — signified “goodwill” and “flexibility”. He also effectively converted what India sees as a border dispute into a territorial one, laying claim to populated areas in India saying, “In the eastern sector of China-India border, relatively big area is in dispute. This is an objective fact.” This is against the under-standing reached in 2005 of not disturbing settled populations in resolving the border issues.

The postponement of Mr Modi’s visit to Japan citing the Budget Session also helps China whose explicit aim has been to deter India from making choices which Beijing does not like. The postponement shows a lack of coherence and coordination in the new government.

The official visit to the US was also accepted with alacrity even though Mr Modi as a private citizen still continues to be on the US visa blacklist. As Prime Minister, of course, he will have no problem travelling to the US. The other concern that remains is the possibility of some local bodies filing a legal suit against Mr Modi for the 2002 anti-Muslim riots just as they did against Manmohan Singh for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. US laws explicitly permit this. Would we then still hope, as in the case of Dr Singh, for the US state department to declare that he has immunity? These issues needed to be clarified.

The way Mr Modi has handled foreign policy shows that he is yet to develop a cogent perspective. As of now, he seems as non-assertive as the previous government, whether it is on Pakistan, China or the US.

The only charitable view of Mr Modi’s first month in office is that he is still settling down and evolving a blueprint for his government. And, therefore, one must not judge him in haste.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi

P.S.

The above article from The Asian Age is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use