Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently marked a year in office. His was not an ordinary victory last year. He galvanized India with his campaign and promises for a new India. As a result, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), won a historic mandate: for the first time in three decades, a political party gained a parliamentary majority on its own. Still, Modi was seen as a controversial politician whose ascendance to the highest political post in the country inspired both fear and hope.
Modi’s rise also coincided with the worst-ever electoral performance by India’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress. A year ago many were talking in terms of writing obituaries for the country’s grand old party.
Where does Modi stand after one year? Has he been able to usher in the much promised economic reforms the country needed? What is the state of the opposition in India now?
To learn more about these questions, The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke to Harish Khare, a senior political commentator, journalist, author, and a former media advisor to Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister of India. In his book How Modi Won It, Khare expresses deep skepticism about Modi’s rise to power in Delhi.
The Diplomat: In your book, you are very skeptical about Narendra Modi. Now you have seen him as prime minister for almost a year. How would you rate his performance?
Harish Khare: So far we have seen a change in the government, not regime change in the classic sense of the term. To be fair to Modi, he is constrained by the constitution of India just in the same way the previous government has been. He has the [outright] majority in the Lower House, which no government has won in the last three decades.
I don’t see any remarkable transformation or change. It is more of the same but since they are new people, new faces, new voices around the government they have brought a new energy, a new slogan which is natural. New vocabulary — that’s what the change is. The country feels that this prime ,inister is talking more than the previous prime minister. That is the primary change that we have seen in the last year.
Is Modi a polarizing leader? What is your assessment now?
As a student of political science and Indian history, it is obvious and should be obvious to any intelligent person that what a politician says before the elections can be determined by what forces supported the man in his campaign. That will decide to a great extent his performance in office.
In my book, How Modi Won It, I tried to make the point that two very vital segments of society were wholeheartedly behind Modi; they mobilized and brought new energy to the campaign. One was the extreme right wing organization, RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the ideological mentor of the ruling BJP with a sectarian agenda. Second was the corporate sector of India. Having become prime minister, Modi cannot ignore these important segments of support.
What we have seen in the last two months,particularly on the issue of Land Acquisition Bill, is that there have been very loud allegations against the BJP leader for favoring the corporate sector on this crucial legislation.
On the front of social sector we hear lots of unhealthy noises. We see how right wing forces have become very vocal. There is no way Modi can control them. In fact he provided these divisive forces a certain degree of legitimacy. They provided him boots on the ground in the run-up to the campaign. Now it would be unnatural for anybody to expect Modi to tell the RSS guys to go home and pack up. The RSS is not going to accept that. He will continue to have creative tension between these two major groups: the extreme right wing on the one hand and corporate bosses on the other, who gave massive funds in the campaign. My own guess is that he outspent the Congress party four to one. So he made his choice during the campaign and his supporters want something in writing now. That is what he will have to do.
How do you look at the claims that Modi should speak out against these divisive groups?
Well, Modi’s presence itself inspires these divisive forces. His whole political persona has been designed by himself. Post-2002 religious riots in Gujarat created a new political persona for Modi: a persona which is deeply anchored in majoritarionism. He never tried to alter or hide that image. He may try to please his global audience and domestic constituents by making the right noises against fundamentalist forces. But the right wing extreme elements will go ahead with their agenda.
What is your take on the status of the Congress Party in India today?
I think in the larger context you should understand that we had elections just a year ago and I would not like the opposition parties to behave or pick up confrontation from day one. Increasingly we live in the age of superfast communications and as a matter of fact all democracies have become very impatient democracies. So we want a Congress to play the role of the perfect opposition. Now the fact of the matter is that the party was in power. Rightly or wrongly, its people, cadres, and leadership, even its way of thinking, have become, in a way, governmenatalized. Historically the Congress party always thought of itself as a party of the governance and they find it very difficult to take a polemical view of things.
Even when they were in opposition during the first BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government between 1998-2004, the Congress leaders were always mindful that the things are complex, that India is a complicated place to run and that there is no easy solution. Unlike the BJP, which believes in slogans and believes that slogans can solve problems, Congress party’s changeover from a party of governance to a party of opposition fighting pitched battles in the streets cannot happen overnight. From cabinet to street is the journey that you cannot make instantly.
What kind of role you foresee for the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) in national politics?
My own sense is that the AAP will be a Delhi-based phenomenon. [AAP head Arvind] Kejriwal and company have been active around Delhi for more than 15 years in the NGO sectors, social sector, and advocacy so they have a certain base in Delhi, which may or may not exist in other parts of the country. But the AAP has not yet become a kind of mesmerizing brand that can become a qualitative force in areas where they don’t have legacy of social activism.
Do you see the AAP as a threat to a centrist parties in the long run?
It is a challenge to the Congress party, which has thrived at its best when it has taken the left-of-center line. Some may call it a populist approach. Here is a party, called AAP, which is ultra populist. It’s in many ways eating into the space of all political parties, including the BJP and the Congress.
For the past 60 years, India’s politics have been centrist and leftist. The AAP is also coming into that space. How much it will be able to survive it is difficult to say. Their record in Delhi — how they perform here — will determine whether it can become a pan-India idea. It is still not an all-India idea.
With Modi at the helm, it is being advertised that the Prime Minister’s Office has regained its powerful political voice. What do you have to say on that?
There is no ideal model to suggest that this is the way the Prime Minister’s Office should function.
How do you rate Manmohan Singh’s tenure as prime minister?
India was an extremely fortunate to have such an educated, enlightened, modern mind as its prime minister. He was a prime example of the philosopher king. I was fortunate enough to attend some of the global meetings that he attended. You can see the difference in the quality of conversation. Western leaders listened to him; he was always heard with great respect and attention. It was his greatest achievement that he kept family away from the corridors of power. This is something of a hallmark at a time when all political parties are becoming family outfits. When Singh came to power in 2004 the country was gripped by a great sense of anxiety. Those were very very difficult times, immediately after 2002 Gujarat riots. Dr Manmohan Singh brought sanity in polity.
How do you look at the state of the Congress party in the country today?
I think the Congress party is coping with the decision they took in January 2013 when, in the Jaipur session, they made Rahul Gandhi vice president of the party. That was not the wisest of decisions. It created a faultline. Already there were two different centers of initiatives and actions, that is, party and the government. At Jaipur the Congress brought in a third center of initiatives. There was no attempt to harness and synergize these three centers. That reflected very badly in the kind of campaign the Congress party ran in 2014. My own personal feeling is that the organizational confusion between the two centers should be resolved soon.
What about regional parties? How have they reacted to Modi?
My own sense of understanding of Indian history and polity is that it is very tricky to decide how much autonomy a state should have vis-a-vis the center. This is not the first time we are having this question. Nehru was a great leader and he was able to listen to regional leaders. Under former Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, regional parties were threatened. In 1984, every single regional party was wiped out but within five years they were back. At any point when the party at the center tramples upon regional sentiments, regional parties will get stronger. It requires political wisdom and sagacity for the party at the center. It requires cleverness not to stoke feeling of regional resentment, which in turns sustains regional parties.
How do you look at the time ahead for Modi?
It will not be easy for him to govern. India is not Gujarat, which Modi ruled for more than a decade. He needs to grasp the complexity of the country, he needs to understand the diversity of the nation — only then he will be able to rule India. With his limited world view, it will be tough for him to govern. His political standing will also be judged by the results of the upcoming regional elections in the states, like Bihar.