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T Thomas: Riding the tide

It is too early at the end of almost six months to pass judgment on the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But it is pertinent to take note of his inclinations, given his actions and pronouncements since assuming office. For example, inviting the leaders of neighbouring countries for his swearing-in ceremony was a masterstroke. Similarly impressive were his interactions with world leaders during his visit to the United Nations in New York. All in all, it has been a very good beginning.

Even those who were mortified by the Gujarat riots of 2002 are beginning to give Mr Modi the benefit of the doubt – whether or not he was personally responsible for and aware of the havoc that occurred. In any case, one could take a charitable view that a person can change and even grow with the job and additional responsibilities. At each stage, one is exposed to a new set of people and challenges. Beyond a point it can also be very lonely at the top if one is not the party-going, back-thumping type.

Mr Modi is going through a transition, from being chief minister of a largely prosperous, homogenous state to being the prime minister of a multi-lingual subcontinent which is still struggling to keep its head above water economically. He confronts an opposition which had been in power for several decades and still has several state governments under its control. And the wider world and its business leaders are not as enamoured of India as we in India tend to believe. It is by no means a walk in the park.

But Mr Modi has some innate strengths. First of all, he is a man with confidence and self-reliance. Secondly, no one can accuse him of cronyism of the usual Indian type – that is, family, community and caste-based cronyism. He has no family to favour. The Gujarati community, to which he belongs, has always done well with their consummate wealth-creating abilities, without having to depend on favours from government. Thirdly, he has shown moderation in his approach to those who are not with him – his first personal visit to someone’s home was to Manmohan Singh and his wife. Fourthly, and probably most importantly, he has the courage to discard the decades-old and mistaken Nehruvian public-sector orientation which was based on an innate suspicion of the private sector. He has publicly shown his intent to encourage and extend the scope of the Indian private sector. To me this is the most hopeful sign for the growth of our country – that we have someone in charge who will encourage and promote private sector investments as he did successfully in Gujarat.

To cement his success and ensure its continuity, Mr Modi may like to undertake a few steps which are outlined below:

  • Deliberately go out of his way to cultivate minorities who need reassurance. This can be done by giving them greater representation in the Cabinet and in key positions. Surely there are enough educated and competent persons among the 150 million Muslims in this country to take up such key responsibilities. Why not, for example, invite a person like Azim Premji to become Cabinet minister for industry? He has an impeccable record as an honest and yet highly successful industrialist. Cynics may term these as token appointments. But in a multi-religious democracy like ours such exemplary tokens are relevant and necessary.
  • While Mr Modi is better known and understood in western India and to some extent now in the north, he has to cultivate a more pan-India persona – especially in the southern and northeastern parts of India. He can do so by visits to these regions. Temples in the South like Tirupati and Madurai are as sacred to people in the South as Varanasi is in the North. So is Puri in Odisha. Mr Modi can plan visits to these regional centres. Masjids in Delhi and Mumbai and churches in Goa and Kerala are symbols of non-Hindu religions, which he can visit whenever he is in these parts of the country. Such visits by Mr Modi, with his oratorical skills, can help people from those religions to identify with him more sympathetically and harmoniously.
  • Offer majority shareholding to Indian private-sector investors in all major public-sector units within the next two years in a planned manner so that there is no bunching together of offerings. A certain percentage (say five per cent) of shares can be reserved for employees of PSUs so that their interest and support are assured.
  • Deepen our alignment with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as with Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Travel without visa restriction can be a first step. Even with Pakistan we should make it easier for people to visit India. We are now strong enough to be generous to them in a manner that will be mutually beneficial. With greater people-to-people contacts, animosities even at government levels will diminish. If he leaves it too late in his tenure, it may get buried among other negative distractions. If he takes the bold step now, India will stand behind him.
  • In many Western countries, India is perceived to be closer to Russia than to them. This is because of our dependence for defence supplies, which in turn was caused by the US’ alignment with Pakistan. That world is gone. Pakistan is no longer a threat; it is economically equivalent only to a mid-size state of the Indian Union. It is time for us to strengthen our ties with Europe and the US. We need investments from them for realising India’s full potential. They need the vast market in India for their technology and capital.

India is poised for a significant leap forward. The ruling party has a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. Mr Modi may yet surprise us all by showing increasing sagacity and success. There is the famous saying that, “there is a tide in the affairs of men”. Let us hope that India can ride the tide and go much further.

The writer was chairman of Hindustan Unilever


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