Narendra Modi’s government would do well to heed the advice of Columbia University professor Jagdish Bhagwati to “hold back” Hindu chauvinist elements that, he believes, are undermining its larger development agenda. Bhagwati — unlike, say, Amartya Sen — is a votary of the “Gujarat model” that emphasises growth and job creation over welfarism and proliferation of entitlements. The fact that the state must first generate the resources to fund welfare programmes, and also institute mechanisms to ensure their delivery to the targeted beneficiaries, is something Modi would subscribe to as much as Bhagwati. But this basic convergence of economic approach is not the only reason why Modi, as prime minister, should pay attention to Bhagwati’s cautionary note at a recent lecture.
According to Bhagwati, the danger from the divisive social issues raised by the Hindu far right as well as individual BJP leaders is not restricted to “capturing the imagination” and instilling “fear among a large number of people”. Equally pertinent is their hampering legislative business in Parliament, forcing the government to issue ordinances to amend or enact laws, be it on raising foreign investment caps in insurance, facilitating coal block auctions or making land acquisition easier. This substitution of the legislative system with the executive route is obviously neither desirable nor sustainable. As Bhagwati rightly points out, it would ultimately derail the second-generation economic reforms that are necessary to bring back growth and pull people out of poverty. This, despite Modi being better placed than any prime minister in a long time to usher in the next big reform phase after 1991.
Significantly, Bhagwati has called for Modi himself to “say more things” to show those creating “social distractions” their place. By not making a statement clarifying his government’s position on religious conversions and inflammatory rhetoric, including from RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, Modi probably presented the Opposition with just the pretext to disrupt the functioning of the Rajya Sabha in the last session. Given the present arithmetic in the Upper House, the government has no option but to engage the Opposition. Such constructive engagement will be more possible if the government sends out a clear signal that divisive issues aren’t going to be allowed to take centrestage. There is nobody with more political authority and legitimacy to convey that than Modi. He should listen to Bhagwati’s sane counsel rather than Bhagwat and others who have made “bringing back our brothers who lost their way”, not development, the top national priority.