Challenges ahead for Narendra Modi

May 16, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

Supporters of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wear masks depicting Modi outside their party office in MumbaiThe swearing in of Narendra Modi as India’s next prime minister is imminent. Voters have given the BJP an overwhelming majority and the party is all set to form the next government on its own.

Modi, who ran a blistering campaign on the promise of better governance and a crackdown on corruption that had progressively hobbled the Congress-led UPA government, raised huge expectations among a jaded and weary populace.

The state of the economy, national security and demand for inclusive growth for over a billion people stare at the incoming prime minister, who will have to hit the ground running.

The much talked-about Gujarat model will now be tested in Delhi, and the challenge for Modi will be to extrapolate the state’s successes to a larger and more complex national level.

Modi ran a tight ship in Gujarat and relied considerably on his bureaucracy, while keeping many important ministerial portfolios with himself. The same arrangement may not work quite as well in Delhi, where equipoise between cabinet ministers at the political level and bureaucrats who implement policy will be critical.

Thus the immediate challenge will be in selecting the cabinet and other critical appointments, among which the principal secretary to the prime minister and the national security adviser will be foremost.

As always, the big four in the cabinet are the ministers for home, finance, defence and external affairs. The BJP has an experienced pool of talent and the senior generation of leaders – those perceived to be ‘senior’ to Modi – will likely be accommodated in constitutional slots. This could include LK Advani as speaker in the Lok Sabha and perhaps gubernatorial appointments for others.

The relatively younger crop of BJP leaders who will be vying for major political berths include Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Sushma Swaraj, with the caveat that rivalries within the party would have to be ironed out.

Domestic politics and macro-economic policies will undoubtedly reflect a BJP ethos and the induction of experts from the Indian diaspora – particularly in the economic and finance sectors – is very likely.

On security and foreign policy, Modi has already indicated that his preference would be to continue with the Vajpayee legacy, which would mean a certain degree of continuity that goes back to the Congress-led Narasimha Rao years of the early 1990s.

The Vajpayee era’s strategic and security policy orientation was shaped to a large extent by the appointment of the late Brajesh Mishra as both the principal secretary and the national security adviser to the prime minister.

The office of the national security adviser was created by Vajpayee in 1998 and its relevance was borne out by the conduct of the decisive nuclear tests in May 1998 – and the management of the politico-diplomatic fallout that the bold decision generated internationally.

The UPA government chose to divide the two roles, leading to a turf separation in the prime minister’s office.

Modi’s security challenges include the familiar shadow of terrorism and Pakistan, as also managing a rising China and imparting content to moribund bilateral ties with the United States.

Internal security is particularly sensitive, with the BJP’s victory seeming to exude a degree of Hindu triumphalism, thereby adding to the alienation of Muslims.

The stain of the 2002 Gujarat riots will weigh heavily on Modi as prime minister. Redressing this issue and conveying to citizens that the Indian constitution remains his abiding religion will be the paramount challenge for Modi.

Humility burnishes victory in an endearing manner, and more so in a political domain so visibly mediated by social media and other cyber means that the BJP and its support base harnessed so skillfully in this election.

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