National Interest: Talk less

That’s what Modi should tell his ministers before they shoot their mouths off and damage his hard earned political capital.

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: May 31, 2014 5:58:07 am
Modi, in fact, has to go a step further. His challenge is to change the mindset of a chronic opposition to the establishment. (Source: Express photo) Modi, in fact, has to go a step further. His challenge is to change the mindset of a chronic opposition to the establishment. (Source: Express photo)

At a public event for the release of my new book, Anticipating India, in Mumbai on May 6, I was asked if, now that I had anticipated the rise of Narendra Modi accurately, could I also list the five meteorites that could impede his government. I wasn’t able to name  five right away. But I mentioned a couple, not knowing they were already lurking around the corner. Frankly, I have also been in the business far too long to not be conscious of the perils of falling in love with the “anticipating” business just because you got a few things right. The beauty of Indian politics, after all, is that it has its set, predictable patterns by now, but it can also make you look stupid.

The first two meteorites were easier to foresee because they conformed to a set pattern. I had said the first distraction (I choose that word carefully —  distraction, not  danger) Modi will have to deal with will be the fact that the ideological empire of Nagpur will compulsively strike back. Not merely in terms of the embarrassing but frivolous glory of cow’s urine/ dung, desi ghee, Vedic research type of thing, but even substantive issues. The second, that it is one thing to have a mass leader win you power in a presidential-style election. But the personality cult it unleashes will be difficult to shake off. And sycophancy is not the monopoly of one political party or coalition. Both of these have confronted Modi in his very first week as prime minister and are testing both his statesmanship and patience. After winning such a clear, affirmative verdict, the last thing he needs is to fritter away his freshly earned political capital with needless and irrelevant controversy.

The first and the silliest was initiated by Jitendra Singh, the new Union minister of state in the prime minister’s office and the department of personnel and training, and elected to the Lok Sabha from Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir. He will now make history as the minister who grabbed the first headlines in this cabinet, in spite of his low rank and relative anonymity. He said the process of discussion on the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution had already begun, with talks  among the various stakeholders. This had many immediate consequences. First of all, it brought Omar Abdullah, down and out, a new life, almost like a batsman after a fielder drops a skier. He was back on Twitter, where he spends most of his time, but now with an argument that impressed even his fellow Kashmiris. Which stakeholders was Mr MoS talking to when nobody had consulted him, the elected chief minister of the state? An entirely untimely and unnecessary argument broke out on social media and TV channels and took away some shine from the first couple of days of the new government.

Before this little fire had been put out, the other meteorite flew in: sycophancy. Three BJP state governments, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, announced they were introducing chapters on the life of the new prime minister in their textbooks. Now, you’d agree that this is not unprecedented. That the “other” side has had its six decades of doctoring our textbooks, deifying the Dynasty, so why should you begrudge “this” side doing the same thing. It is just that it is very early days yet, the new prime minister has a job to do and school textbooks, like Article 370 and, going ahead, the uniform civil code and Ayodhya, are irresolvable, contentious ideological issues. And while the RSS may think they are at the top of its agenda, Modi was astute enough to not employ these in his campaign and would not even claim that he got this mandate to implement them, even if he may feel strongly on each issue. He is too shrewd to not be conscious that he has been elected prime minister of India and not the Sangh Parivar.

He has now done well to put out both fires. Senior ministers have calmed the Article 370 issue and Modi himself has forbidden his party’s states from inserting chapters on him in their textbooks. He has also done well to ask his ministers to avoid wasting time renaming the UPA’s schemes and focus on making them more efficient instead. The greatest blessing for a newly installed government is that it can pretty much own the headlines, at least for the first few weeks. You can’t have breathless indiscipline of this kind ruin them.

Modi, in fact, has to go a step further. His challenge is to change the mindset of a chronic opposition to the establishment. Whatever the view of the RSS, he has to hold a little tutorial on Article 370 for his cabinet colleagues, most of whom, you can be sure, haven’t even read those hundred-odd words. All Article 370 does is limit the Centre’s and Parliament’s immediate jurisdiction over J&K to issues specifically listed in the Instrument of Accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh with Lord Mountbatten on October 26-27, 1947, merging his state with India under certain preconditions. An abrogation of Article 370, howsoever irritating you may find it today, implies repudiation of the Instrument of Accession. That’s why Omar Abdullah is essentially right when he says that if Article 370 is abolished, J&K will no longer be part of the Union. While he, as chief minister, needs to be more sensitive to the dangers of making such arguments in 140 characters that brook no nuance, he makes a solid constitutional point. What other principle will you use to keep Kashmir with India if not this instrument, based on the Government of India Act, 1935, that empowered rulers of Indian princely states to merge with India through such an agreement?

Will the principle be jiski laathi uski bhains (might is right)? Why do we need to even try that now? It has worked for us since 1947. India kept Hyderabad, even though the Nizam wanted to go to Pakistan, because of its Hindu majority and lack of contiguity, and Kashmir, because the ruler wanted it in spite of its Muslim majority and contiguity with Pakistan. Over time, Kashmir has become more integrated with India, not less, and, particularly as India has become more federalised, Article 370 is losing relevance. (The governments of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and the BJP in Assam, each of them has stalled sovereign foreign policy decisions. Imagine the furore if J&K had done something similar). That’s why Jitendra Singh has scored a self-goal by reopening the issue and reviving demands in the Valley to strengthen it instead. Brave man he must be, to question such a key covenant of the Constitution within 24 hours of taking the oath to protect it as a minister. Unless he confused the “sangh ke mantri” in the Hindi text of the oath to mean the mantri of the Sangh in Nagpur and not of the Union of India.

We know that it would be impossible for Modi to publicly state that he is putting these ideological issues in cold storage. He is more powerful than any prime minister in the last 25 years. But he is no Deng Xiaoping yet to be able to say something like, since this generation does not have the wisdom to resolve these issues, let us leave it to a wiser generation. But he also cannot let mavericks damage his precious political capital. The Americans solved a similar problem in an entirely different context, the complex START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) with the Soviets in Geneva. To prevent silly chatter and static, they printed set answers to the questions most likely to be asked on 3×5 cards, told all delegates to carry them in the top pockets of their jackets and to simply read from them. A set of similar 3×5 cards for the waistcoat pockets of Modi’s new ministers would be a useful beginning.

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