Former US President Richard Nixon came into prominence as a strong anti-communist crusader in 1952 and became vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the time he became president in 1968, anti-communism was still a major theme in the US, and anti-China views even more so, especially since China was arming North Vietnam in its battle against American imperialism. Since 1948, the oldest democracy in the world, America, had not recognised the political reality of China. Liberal and intellectual opinion was for recognition, but no Democrat could take this radical step for fear of political suicide.
And no Republican could recognise China because they were staunch anti-communists. How could one recognise the right of the largest, most populous, Communist nation to exist?
In November 1968, in a close battle with Hubert Humphrey, Republican Nixon won the presidential election and walked into the China stalemate. Ping-pong diplomacy was initiated, and in 1972, Nixon went on an official visit to China. Seven years later, America formally recognised China as a nation. This Nixon visit to China has become a political metaphor to describe, according to Wikipedia, “the ability of a politician with an unassailable reputation among his supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw their criticism and even opposition if taken by someone without those credentials”.
Recognition of the many political, economic and social failures, and new policies to change them, is India’s need today. We have continued for too long in postponing decisions, and governing with a philosophy that is embedded in outdated mindsets. India needs a prime minister who can take bold, non-traditional and non-predictable steps to get us out of our own self-made traps. Fortunately, there is a PM election round the corner, and all those wishing for a better India can vote with their feet, hearts and minds for the candidate of their choice.
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There are several prime ministerial candidates on offer, at least 16. Fifteen of them are chief ministers or former chief ministers and one belongs to the world’s oldest political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi. According to three recent opinion polls, Narendra Modi is first on the number of seats in the Lok Sabha list and Arvind Kejriwal brings up the rear with 9 expected seats.
Important policy decisions, as a practical matter, are rarely made by the establishment, by the existing political order. It cannot, because it has too much vested in it. What we as voters need to decide is who among the candidates is best placed to go against the expected Indian grain of lots of discussion and no action. Modi seems to be distinctly different than the alphabet soup formed by the rest. The rest pride themselves with economic policies to the left of Indira Gandhi, with being secular as in belief in appeasement of minorities and job reservations for all and sundry, and generally incapable of thinking beyond the narrow, outdated and inappropriate confines of traditional mixed-up and illogical policies. In the other corner is somebody who was born poor, a lower caste, a mere chai-wallah and someone brought up under the “watchful” eyes of a rigidly nationalist Hindu and archaic political organisation called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS, or the National Volunteer Organisation).
If, to paraphrase Rahul Gandhi, one were to assess candidates on the basis of outsiders to the “system”, then the list reduces to two and a half or a maximum of three. There is Modi, Gandhi and Kejriwal. Unfortunately for Kejriwal, his popularity has yet to reach the poor, the middle class or the rich outside of the confines of Delhi. Whether he does, we will know soon, but the opinion polls do not give him much chance. But opinion polls have been wrong, most prominently in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and in the Delhi 2013 assembly elections.
What is it that India needs to do? In foreign policy, there are three priorities — Pakistan, China and the US, and in that order. India needs to take a firmer stand with all three, and also to work out a permanent long-run solution with Pakistan, including a solution for cross-border terrorism, spillover of terrorism and radical improvement in trade, cultural and personal relations. For too long, the several-centuries-old brothers have been divided by religion.
Improvement of relations with Pakistan or Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh or Nepal: would India rather have Modi or Gandhi or J. Jayalalithaa or Mamata Banerjee? By opening up a discussion on Section 370, Modi has indicated that he can be trusted with change. Could Banerjee reach an agreement with Bangladesh? Or Jayalalithaa with Sri Lanka? Only Modi can carry conviction, and India, with him as he tries to establish long-term relations with our brotherly neighbours.
In social policy, there is the urgent need to establish gay rights, that is, the rejection/ amendment of Section 377 of the Constitution. Many political leaders kowtow to their own prejudice and religious bigotry to oppose gay rights. They hide under the presumed weight of public “opinion”. This has lessons for the AAP’s favourite method of deciding disputes — let us have an opinion poll. If referendums could decide thorny social, political and economic issues, then government is not needed, and nor, by definition, are political leaders like Kejriwal.
It bears emphasis that among the political parties, the Congress is the only party to have taken a principled stand on the gay rights issue. It is like the US Democrats in 1968 — it believes in the right thing to do, but cannot because of fear of elections. But no one expects Modi to recognise the human rights of gays, and no one expects Modi to confront the religious bigotry of Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
And the Supreme Court is not blameless either. The venerable and respected judges find it fit to be socially and possibly unconstitutionally proactive when they feel like it, and do so on not one but several issues, yet parrot the Constitution when it suits them. This is a very Khrushchevian mindset: “what is mine is mine, what is yours is negotiable”.
On economic policies, Modi does not have to go to Pakistan; instead, he needs to follow through on his own recommendations. If he becomes PM, India will have the best chance of ushering in important second-generation reforms, the most important of which will be decentralisation of state power. Emphasising this need, Gujarat Chief Minister Modi recently revealed how his government was taken to task by the Centre for laying down gas pipelines across the state. “The Gujarat government was targeted by the Centre for laying down gas pipelines across the state. The Centre said that it was its job, not the state’s. What is the use of such policies? We have reduced this centralisation of power in Gujarat.” According to Modi, if better governance is to be achieved, then the consent of the people (aam aadmi, in fact), and their participation in decision-making is necessary.
There are several pointers to the “Modi goes to Pakistan” reality. He has the best chance of success, both because he has been the most progressive in shedding old, discarded ideas and most importantly, because expectations for forward progress on Pakistan, Section 370 and Kashmir, Section 377 are the least from him and the BJP. In addition, chances of adopting Fidel Castro-Kejriwal type ideas like free water and free electricity are anathema to Modi.
The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company