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The pragmatic PM?

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

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’

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