The pragmatic PM?

So far, ideology has not been the defining feature of Modi’s tenure.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Updated: August 22, 2014 4:35 am
Modi is market-strategic, not market-ideological. Modi is market-strategic, not market-ideological.

As in art and literature, in politics, a leader is defined by tropes, not details. A variety of themes ran through the novels of the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but magic realism came to distinguish his craft. A raga allows the artist flights of musical imagination, but she too must return to the basic structure of the raga.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken on a host of matters since coming to power three months back. Have the tropes of his vision and strategy started emerging? Let me suggest that pragmatism, as opposed to ideological correctness, is the clearest emerging trope.

Consider two critical examples. The first is economic. Is Modi’s vision an instance of free-market economics, or what in all non-economic circles is known as neoliberalism? Many had predicted that Modi would unshackle entrepreneurs and unleash “animal spirits”, the metaphor that best captures a neoliberal embrace of markets. Modi’s critics, especially on the left, also feared such a denouement. Both the right and left are wrong.

Just what is neoliberalism? It entails freeing entrepreneurs of state controls, privatisation of public-sector firms, reliance on the price mechanism, celebration of the profit motive, government provision of a legal framework that facilitates competition between firms, and government’s direct economic role confined to a conservative monetary and fiscal policy and to public provision of goods and services that private entrepreneurs would not find profitable to supply: for example, rural and urban roads (not highways), schools for the poor, sanitation, environment protection, defence. To paraphrase Adam Smith for India, it is not from the benevolence of the sellers of grain, salt and spices that we get our meal. We need to eat, so we pay for the grain, salt and spices; the sellers need to make money, so they sell us what we need for a profit. In this vision, self-seeking, via the invisible hand of the market, benefits all.

How does Modi fit in? His Independence Day speech scrapped the Planning Commission, laid out a “make in India” manufacturing paradigm and emphasised sanitation as a national mission.

The end of the Planning Commission certainly goes in the neoliberal direction. But “make in India”? Though aimed at enthusiastically attracting foreign investment, foreign investors are not promised a free hand. A red carpet will be laid out if they export. But they are less welcome if their aim is to capture domestic Indian markets.

This is not a neoliberal vision, but one that is part South Korean and part Chinese, two of the leading recent examples of rapid industrial transformation. After Park Chung Hee’s rise to power in 1961, South Korea’s government provided its industrialists, especially the so-called chaebols, all kinds of support so long as they exported feverishly. This strategy, combining government’s strategic control and markets, turned South Korea into an industrial powerhouse. In 1961, South Korea’s per capita income was the same as India’s. South Korea is now a first-world economy.

China after Mao went a step further. Since 30 years of communism had decimated domestic private entrepreneurs, post-Mao China provided foreign investors the regulatory freedoms and infrastructural advantages of special economic zones, provided they used China as an exporting base. In 1970-71, trade was a mere 5 per cent of China’s GDP; by 2009-10, the trade/ GDP ratio had climbed to well over 60 per cent. But the Chinese state did not rely on markets alone to do the job. It actively led China’s economic renaissance.

Whether or not Modi has South Korea in mind, the make-in-India-to-export idea has China written all over it. Modi is market-strategic, not market-ideological.

Modi’s view of sanitation also differs from neoliberals, for whom it is economic growth first and toilets later. They would unleash the growth process through a vigorous embrace of markets, then use the revenue generated by higher growth for toilets. It is Amartya Sen, the nemesis of neoliberals, who would emphasise toilets as much as growth. In Sen’s logic, better sanitation would allow better health, thereby enhancing the capability of the disadvantaged. Thus enhanced, even the poor can vigorously participate in the economy, thereby contributing to the growth process.

Let us now turn to the second example of Modi’s pragmatism. Does his bugle have a Hindu nationalist sound? Modi’s Independence Day speech leaned more heavily on Indian nationalism than on Hindu nationalism. It did end with Vande Mataram, but he also made a fervent plea for communal harmony, not blaming Muslims for the recent communal tensions in UP, which would have been a Hindu nationalist trope.

Further, right after his election victory, Modi had said “Bharat meri mata hai, BJP meri mata hai (India is my mother, BJP is my mother)”. But he never said, then or now, “RSS meri mata hai (RSS is my mother)”.

An RSS background will undoubtedly influence Modi’s functioning. But the RSS strains will have to wrestle with the influences and demands that a prime minister’s office inescapably brings and generates. Simply put, a prime minister cannot be an RSS chief. India’s Constitution, which Modi has called “the only sacred document”, does not allow that.

Other than rhetoric, what might it mean to be pragmatic about Hindu nationalism? A distinction needs to be drawn between policy and personnel. The RSS will get personnel representation, especially in the party and in cultural and educational institutions, but it will not be able to dictate larger policy, economic or cultural.

This distinction between personnel and policy is sustainable so long as Modi’s authority remains unquestioned, which will allow him to set the basic policy parameters within which all appointees must function. But if he politically falters, the RSS might well press for both personnel and policy.

The RSS, of course, is not directly under the prime minister’s control. Dealing with the lower-level BJP leaders, many of whom continue to speak the Hindu nationalist language, contributing to communal tensions, remains a hugely significant political task. To not allow any Hindu nationalist discourse is to expect too much. But to allow anti-Muslim ideologues to lead debates in Parliament, or to not discipline the ground-level exertion of cadres, is a form of political silence that can grievously wound the pursuit of pragmatism. Just how Modi strikes a balance between governance and ideology remains an open question. As of now, the balance is precarious.

Finally, let us turn to foreign policy. Is cancelling talks with Pakistan a sign of ideological obstinacy or pragmatism?

Pakistan is the kind of state that makes it inordinately hard to define foreign policy pragmatism. Is it pragmatic to go on talking to a civilian state when the ultimate power resides in the military, which remains committed to anti-Indianism?

Or, is it pragmatic to follow the poet Sahir Ludhianvi: “Taarruf rog ho jaaye to usko bhuulnaa bahtar/ Taalluq bojh ban jaaye to usko todna achhaa/ …chalo ek baar phir se, ajnabi ban jaaye ham dono (Should knowing each other become a disease, it is best to forget it/ Should a relationship become a burden, it is best to end it/… Come, let us become strangers once again)”?

The poet, of course, was talking about individual, not national, relationships. Individuals can afford to break up; neighbouring nations cannot. Even if the relationship with Pakistan is a form of disease, there is no alternative to talking, repairing, moving on.

The writer, director of the India Initiative, Brown University, Raja Ramanna Visiting Professor, National Institute of Advanced Study (NIAS), Bangalore, and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy’, is contributing editor of ‘The Indian Express’

express@expressindia.com

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First Published on: August 22, 2014 12:43 am
  1. A
    aasare
    Aug 22, 2014 at 9:44 am
    Facts is an unknown phenomena for sickular naxalites
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    1. A
      Atul
      Aug 22, 2014 at 5:42 pm
      Varshney is trying to separate Narendra Modi from the rest of the party or the BJP/RSS ideology. He is mistaken, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, has said innumerable number of times that our country has been turned apologetic and lethargic due to slavery of 1200 yrs. We have to come out of it.. listen to his speech in central hall of Parliament after being appointed PM.He just not any other PM of India.. He is a nationalist, a Hindu, a statesman, a guardian of India each separately and all at the same time whatever pleases you Mr. Brown Scholar!
      Reply
      1. C
        cruiser
        Aug 22, 2014 at 4:31 pm
        "The RSS will get personnel representation, especially in the party and in cultural and educational insutions", and, i feel that is poisonous and mortally dangerous for this nation in the llong run.
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          Gopal
          Sep 23, 2014 at 8:57 am
          He is a boring professor in USA. He should stick to writing for journals because he does not know how to write well for a newspaper.
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          1. B
            Bharat
            Oct 30, 2014 at 5:42 am
            "Further, right after his election victory, Modi had said “Bharat meri mata hai, BJP meri mata hai (India is my mother, BJP is my mother)”. But he never said, then or now, “RSS meri mata hai (RSS is my mother)”."You really think he would hesitate to say it?You have never said Sonia Maino is your mother either; you just write as if she were.
            Reply
            1. B
              Bharat
              Oct 30, 2014 at 5:42 am
              "Further, right after his election victory, Modi had said “Bharat meri mata hai, BJP meri mata hai (India is my mother, BJP is my mother)”. But he never said, then or now, “RSS meri mata hai (RSS is my mother)”."You really think he would hesitate to say it?You have never said Sonia Maino is your mother either; you just write as if she were.
              Reply
              1. G
                G Shah
                Oct 30, 2014 at 8:40 pm
                India has awakened. We will not listen to these intellectuals. We know what is righttellectuals are stupid.
                Reply
                1. G
                  G Shah
                  Oct 30, 2014 at 8:40 pm
                  India has awakened. We will not listen to these intellectuals. We know what is righttellectuals are stupid.
                  Reply
                  1. M
                    Manu
                    Aug 22, 2014 at 3:42 am
                    Ok, Dr. Varshnay, instead of taking cheap shots on Yogi Adityanath, will you counter his arguments on facts? Waiting for your next post....Or else labelling someone communal does not make one so, bring on facts and counters.... you're a professor, no?
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                      Narendran Cp
                      Aug 22, 2014 at 4:30 am
                      There is a branch of Christian Apologetics known as presuppositionalapololegistics. A Christian presupposinalistargues the validity of Christian theism by presupposing it .And the case isclosed. Varshney presupposes RSS ideology is not good and then argues RSSideology is not good! And so the case also is closed.
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                      1. R
                        Royan
                        Aug 22, 2014 at 5:28 pm
                        RSS has nothing to do with any party....Its an community union and has successfully taken care of its community...Its better to learn from them then criticize......
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                          Adbul
                          Aug 22, 2014 at 5:44 am
                          What do you want to say? Just cut-pasting from here and there with no objective and no conclusion? PM Modi should first remove these pseudo intellectuals - they have no understanding of the ground reality but claim to know everything. Please write with purpose, not to get hits alone! Your resume alone should not sell the story! Very poor piece of work! Complete waste of time.
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                          1. R
                            rohit sood
                            Aug 22, 2014 at 11:37 am
                            varshney rants again. These pseudo intellectuals alter egos knows no bounds.
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                            1. V
                              venky
                              Aug 22, 2014 at 10:34 am
                              The w talk of minority representation itself is a deep political strategy, frequently used by SP, Congress to create vote banks and consequently malevolence. The way the author has written now, was written by experts during the election campaigns. When he talks of Modi following a Hindu nationalist theme/Indian nationalist theme, it is in a bad taste. A PM is focussed on developing the nation, not on religion, that too after Modi has repeatedly talked of developing everyone. Again bringing the talk of RSS is again in a very bad taste. Modi has always used economic development with FDI as agenda, despite RSS not having much affinity to the same, this shows that there is no link. Link is only in the personnel form which the author has quoted. Talks of pragmatic PM and RSS don't get along.
                              Reply
                              1. S
                                satish
                                Aug 22, 2014 at 6:01 pm
                                Modi himself is RSS :-) Rastriya Swayam Sevak. Not only Modi every Indian should be a RSS
                                Reply
                                1. S
                                  SP
                                  Aug 22, 2014 at 5:33 am
                                  I do not know why in otherwise well written article, the author brings up RSS. The problem is not Yogi Adityanath. There are genuine issues Hindus face when they are in minority. See how dalits had to give way to Muslim majority village in UP or see how UP Government encouraged illegal mosques. While Hindus do not convert they become targets of conversion by other communities. Any attempt to modernize all communities to bring greater social cohesion is thwarted to keep religious leaders happy. Even gender justice is sacrificed. Unless we evolve non-partisan methods of governance, these problems do not go away. So called secular political parties try hard to divide Hindu Society into castes, cles, language and regional groups. Anything resonates only in an appropriate context. See the treatment of Hindus in stan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia. Are these not real issues?.
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                                    George
                                    Aug 22, 2014 at 8:51 am
                                    And you presuppose RSS ideology as good and g and the case is closed too! It has always been like that. When a Modi-Bhakt speaks to another Modi-Bhakt they sound to each other absolutely convincing.
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