Monday, January 5, 2015

2014 made history. Rapid growth is now possible if the fanatics do not steal Modi's thunder

Don't dismiss 2014 as dead and gone. It will be recorded as a watershed year, like 1975, the year of the Emergency. With this difference -- that the change of direction in 1975 was for the worse whereas the change of direction in 2014 has the potential to be for the better. Whether that potential will be realised depends on one man and since that man is keen to leave his imprint on history, there is ground for optimism.

The rise of Narendra Modi, the biggest event of 2014, is unlike anything that has happened in the politics of India before. Not only is he unquestioned in his party; his freedom of action is greatly enhanced by the collapse of the entire opposition. The Congress, flattened by its worst humiliation in living memory, is unable to get to its feet again because it is unable to think beyond the Family Rule that ruined it. The Janata formations have united, but under the same tired old leaders who have nothing to offer except their same tired old egos. The Left threw away every opportunity that came its way and has shrunk to virtual nothingness. Narendra Modi is India's most powerful prime minister ever because he has no challengers in sight.

But he faces challenges and 2014 showed how some of them can be intractable. Crimes against women and children, for example. Delhi is shamed by the rape capital sobriquet while the country's most literate state, Kerala, is setting records in sexual attacks on children and infants. Add on other familiar features of our everyday life such as domestic violence, dowry deaths, female infanticide and acid throwing, and we'll see how ghoulish our civilisation has become. Continuing corruption is another challenge.Fastidiously opposed to the kickback culture, Modi still faces the reality of entrenched nexus between bureaucrats, politicians and the mafia. The discovery of Rs 15 crore in cash in a car in Noida recently led to the further discovery of diamonds and gold jewellery worth more than Rs 100 crore, all belonging to a former chief engineer. Similar cases come up across the country -- of "collections" by policemen, in sub-registrars' offices, at excise checkposts. They cannot be passed over as state subjects. They are a national malaise.

Compared to Pakistan, there were not many terrorist strikes in India in 2014. But the year-end explosion in Bangalore was a reminder of the ever present danger. That incident also revealed that we have disfunctional CCTV cameras, slow-to-respond police systems and, as the Chief Minister admitted, a lack of intelligence gathering expertise. We are simply not serious about meeting the challenge of terrorism. Can the Prime Minister afford to let it be?

The biggest challenge confronting Modi in 2015 is that his development agenda is in danger of being hijacked by his own cheerleaders. His dedication to the agenda won acclaim across ideological divides when Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar, men of proven merit, were given the critical Railway and Defence portfolios respectively. But they and Modi himself were upstaged by the likes of Swamy Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Giriraj Singh, Praveen Togadia et al. Their misdeeds punctured the national ethos in two ways. First, they spread communal enmities, creating fear and resentment among minorities and disturbance in the minds of others. Secondly, the Prime Minister took no effective steps to stop them, thereby giving the impression that he supported them. Not that he was unaware of the need to stop divisive extremists. As Chief Minister, he had reduced Togadia to a nonentity. Why is the same man now roaming around making hate speeches? Why were Sakshi Maharaj and Niranjan Jyoti allowed to get away with regrets expressed so unconvincingly? Why was Giriraj Singh rewarded with a ministership? Modi's adversaries cannot be blamed if they say that his real agenda is not development but something else.

That could well be wrong, however. Modi knows he cannot achieve his historical ambitions by evolving as a Hindu leader. He has to be the leader of all Indians; he must not only be a modernist but be seen as one by the world. He will lose his chance if the fanatic fringe steals his thunder. We should hope, for his sake as well as for India's sake, that he is biding his time and that, once he gains the upper hand in the states and in Rajya Sabha, he will suppress those who would derail his plans. If he succeeds, it will be India's success.