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Why we need to thank Modi for all the U-turns
Interestingly, as the central government completes its first year in power, it aligns its actions entirely along the UPA's policies it had opposed.
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Is making a U-turn necessarily a bad thing in politics and governance? Popular wisdom would say a resounding yes. The Congress has lately been accusing the Narendra Modi government, as it completes its first year in power, of being a U-turn sarkar on many key policies, as it aligns its actions entirely along the UPA's policies it had opposed. Then why are we being pleased that this is a U-turn sarkar?
The truth is, four big turnarounds Modi as prime minister has made on his party's pre-election position are pragmatic and in our larger interest. It started with the nuclear deal. In 2008, his party, then under LK Advani, had joined hands with Prakash Karat's to try to bring down UPA over its insistence on proceeding with the nuclear deal, which it called anti-national. Now, Modi calls it the "centrepiece" of the new India-US relationship. In fact, so bitter was the BJP's opposition to the deal that I was admonished on camera by Advani when (just as his memoir was being released) I pressed him on why he opposed the nuclear deal when it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who laid its foundation. "I know you support it even more strongly than UPA," he ticked me off. Modi reversed this without any hesitation or apology.
The next reversal of an oppositionist BJP position was on the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh. Again, when Manmohan Singh had finalised the agreement with Sheikh Hasina, the BJP had blocked it. Now Modi has had it passed successfully without an amendment.
The third reversal came last week. As with the nuclear deal in UPA 1, the entire opposition, led by the BJP, had resisted the UPA's decision to allow 51 per cent FDI in multibrand retail. For the BJP, this opposition had looked more natural. It counts the Bania community, which dominates traditional Indian retail (called kirana), as its loyal vote bank and FDI was seen as a threat to them. The RSS is instinctively opposed to anything big or foreign, and this was very big and 51 per cent foreign. Walmart was now as demonised as "Dunkel Uncle" (after Dunkel Draft, the first framework of negotiations leading to the World Trade Organisation) was in the years of early reform two decades ago. Uma Bharati threatened apocalypse if the evil Walmart came anywhere near India. It was the first issue of economic reform that the Congress staked its political fortunes on, making a rare statement of support with a rally at Ramlila Maidan with the PM, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. As with the nuclear deal, this issue was also put to vote in the Lok Sabha (although constitutionally it did not need parliamentary approval, just like the nuclear deal). The UPA won again but the BJP leadership had threatened to withdraw it if they came to power and their opposition was recorded in their manifesto. But the UPA's decision was reaffirmed last week as FDI in multibrand retail was listed in the comprehensive FDI policy announced by the Modi Government.
The fourth U-Turn is unfolding this week as Modi holds his third meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping within a year. One central theme in the BJP's criticism of the UPA was that it was appeasing both China and Pakistan, and the NDA would pursue a genuinely muscular policy on both. On Pakistan, that promise has been kept, although in my view it is imprudent, unsustainable, and will need revisiting eventually. But on China, Modi's turnaround is even more dramatic than on the other three issues already discussed in this one-year appraisal. The Chinese ran their finger in India's eye by getting their troops to saunter across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) when Xi came to India, but Modi held his nerve and avoided responding in spite of vicious prime time taunts. He has calmed down the usually neurotic Indian security establishment on the Chinese investment, visas and even response to Sino-Pakistan deals. It is relevant also to note how muted India's response has been to the Chinese military help for Pakistan, while America's new armament promises have been totally ignored, as if they don't matter.
But on China, there are other indicators marking a radical departure from the post-1962 RSS view. We have noticed his decision to cut the Rafale deal to about one-fourth of the original. Now the decision to pare down to one-third the strength of the Army's new eastern strike corps that the UPA had planned to make 90,000-strong. And he is in China again, even mentioning a border settlement.
To my mind, the first three about-turns were about broader continuity on national policies, particularly where these had been endorsed by Parliament.
The fourth is the most significant. In his bold, risk-laden approach to China, we see the unveiling of a Modi doctrine of national security and a recast of the old militaristic view of China, looking at the issue as less a threat and more an opportunity. Or rather hoping to lock horns with it from that end instead. I shall go so far as to say that Modi has de-hyphenated his establishment's worldview from Pakistan as well as the military humiliation of 1962. He knows that war can't be fought again, that this is a different world in 2015 and needs a newer approach than the '60s RSS war cry: Aaj Himalay ki choti se phir hum ne lalkara hai, door hato ai duniya waalo Hindustan hamara hai (Invaders, hear our war cry from the peak of the Himalayas, keep your hands off our India). Modi is embracing the feared invader of the past, ignoring his own ideologues' warnings that he may be walking into another bhai-bhai trap on China like Nehru.
While all these dramatic departures have gone through quite smoothly, two others, on GST and the Land Acquisition Bill, have been blocked. Why has one set of U-turns worked, but another stalled? Let us draw in the wisdom of PV Narasimha Rao. Of all the politicians I have had the privilege of knowing as a political reporter, there are no conversations I cherish more than those with Rao. It was in the course of a 75-min recorded conversation that he unfolded what I might call the PVNR Doctrine of Derisked U-Turns. I asked him, as a lifelong socialist, how did he persuade himself to make a U-turn on the economy in that historic summer of 1991? In a country as complex as India, he said, you can never afford to be seen making a U-turn.
So how did Narasimha Rao make a U-turn without making it look like he was making a U-turn, I was like a good pupil. "Bhai, suppose the ground under your feet is moving?" said the old man, and laced his wisdom with that rare, mischievous smile. How has Modi, in his first year as prime minister, marked by all the U-turns that we have listed, done on this Rao doctrine? On the nuclear deal, retail FDI, Bangladesh boundary, it was much easier to pretend that the ground under our feet had already moved. The first two had been endorsed in the Lok Sabha votes and won't it be an outrage to change a policy with parliamentary sanctity, even if his party had voted against them. These could, in fact, be passed of as acts of statesmanship. On the LBA, his party's past opposition had always lacked conviction and, in any case, Mamata Banerjee had taken the lead in blocking it. So the BJP had cover. On GST and land acquisition, the equation was different. One had been part-blocked by the BJP, and the other was fully supported. Each brought its own set of challenges.
The BJP never opposed the GST in principle but made it a part of its strategic obstructionism to block it, putting in front its Madhya Pradesh finance minister Raghavji, who later went into oblivion in rather lurid circumstances when his domestic help accused him of taking sexual liberties. Modi could have still got the GST through if he had shown the same humility he exhibited with the nuclear deal, and particularly the LBA, giving generous credit to his predecessors. He and his party erred in making it sound like their own idea and initiative, sort of sui generis. But it should go through in the next session, and the joint select committee is actually a good opportunity to cleanse it of many distortions that UPA had interpolated.
Land acquisition is a different matter altogether as the BJP is reversing its own position not in opposition with the UPA, but in resounding support of it. In 2013, it had joyfully voted for this awful new law which, in my view, was as messy as a dog's breakfast and, with its complicated social impact assessment mechanism, a National NGO Employment Guarantee Act. But, in voting for it, BJP leaders had raised none of these questions. In fact, they only wanted to make the law even tougher. Now it is strangling their economics and they want to change it radically. This is a real U-turn. There are no alibis, no pretence that the ground under your feet is moving. This is the result of both arrogance (as shown in bringing such a politically fraught law through an ordinance) as well as inexperience.
In his first year, Modi has shown boldness, and pragmatism, whatever the static over cow meat and excreta, ghar wapsi and the church, he has successfully pulled his government from the set RSS/BJP construct of ideas. It is now much more a Modi sarkar increasingly cast in his mold and frankly I prefer it. What he has lacked is parliamentary craft, and the use of disarming humility as a tactic. Running a government in a democracy is like playing Test match cricket. You play it session-by-session. Similarly, a government is run parliament-session-by-parliament-session. Let us see if Modi can fix that going ahead, because it won't be in anybody's interest, least of all his own, to end up like his friend Barack Obama, incapable of getting a bill through the legislature.