By all accounts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Singapore visit has been a resounding success. His oration in English, before a packed audience at Singapore’s celebrated Shangri La Hotel, drew a standing ovation. The audience comprised leading members of the corporate world, media and government, including PM Lee Hsien Loong and others cabinet members. The rousing address in Hindi the next day, to a massive gathering of the Indian diaspora, was the very embodiment of charisma at play. The harvest has been rich. The takeaway includes the elevation of Singapore-India relations to a strategic partnership. Other key results encompass the opportunity for Singapore’s Changi airport — a veritable global hub — to run two airports in India, and for India to pick Singapore as a financial centre to launch rupee bonds.
Modi’s achievements abroad appear to cut little ice back home. Coming shortly after similarly successful visits to the UK and Malaysia, the Singapore stint has kept to the pattern: Modi-mania abroad parallels Modi-bashing at home. The trickle of award wapsi that started after the Delhi assembly election debacle has turned into a flood before the Bihar verdict. The desertion of the intelligentsia has kept pace with the mobilisation of the political opposition into a grand coalition, taking personally on the PM, who appears increasingly on the defensive.
How forlorn Modi looked on the day after his return from the triumphant visit when he made a brief appearance at the all-party meeting hosted by Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu, seeking support for the GST “in the interest of the nation”! The winter session of Parliament promises to be stormy. The opposition, having tasted blood in Bihar, is closing ranks, targeting the government on a range of issues calculated to do maximum political damage.
The hiatus between the images of Modi abroad and the chorus of negativity at home has ominous implications for India’s government, opposition and the credibility of India as a business partner. A leader whose legitimacy comes from support abroad can get cut off from the political roots at home that gave him legitimacy in the first place. An opposition that draws its strength entirely from ganging up on an isolated leader can deflect attention from the essential core of the “Idea of India”, the imperative for reform, and the general credibility of India in the global arena.
The gap between the images abroad and at home and the slippage over the last 18 months deserve careful attention. Leaders are not born; they are made. Modi as candidate carried the aspirations of a disgruntled class that wanted a leader who would distance India from the floundering corruption of the UPA. That cheque has already been cashed by Modi. The benefits — like Swachh Bharat, infrastructure and vikas — that Modi in office offered are
essentially public goods, available to all. But the political costs of Modi in office are specific, felt by particular constituencies, biting deeply into accumulated privileges like quotas, subsidies and sinecures. The fear of losing plum jobs and symbolic threats to the lifestyle and culinary habits of particular communities have become powerful threads to string disaffected groups together.
Why does Modi enthusiasm abroad persist despite disenchantment at home? Socially isolated and differently treated Indians resident abroad need a rallying point in a leader who can give them a vicarious sense of power and purpose, and relative status, so that they can look at the dominant natives — from whose ranks they are excluded — “in the eye”. Modi genuinely feels for these people and effectively communicates it to them. Foreign governments and corporate sectors need a leader who can provide opportunities for them in the vast, expanding Indian market and guarantee property rights. While both arguments converge in enthusiasm for Modi, a PM who loses support at home is unlikely to remain a credible partner for too long. The messiah of today can quickly turn into tomorrow’s god that failed.
The biggest lesson for Modi from the recent debacles is that everyday politics is about power and patronage. Power-sharing, as Bihar has shown, is the glue that holds coalitions together. Modi can still reinvent himself and adopt the Nehru-Vajpayee mould by building direct and credible links with opposition leaders. Time is of the essence. The window of opportunity for the embattled PM will close once the next assembly elections become the new foci of attention, and then it will be turn for parliamentary elections. The urgent need is to send out a strong signal for power-sharing with political parties at home and a big-bang initiative for peace in India’s near abroad. Modi should “stoop to conquer” and negotiate, without appearing to capitulate.
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