When Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrates the completion of his first year in office in May, he may remember the week that has just gone by as among his best. Though the prime minister has shown little interest in the theologies not approved by the RSS, he has spent the week amid a surprising display of penance and atonement, in the season that the Christian world commemorates through self-denial.
"My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence". Spoken on the occasion of two Indians having been beatified by Pope Francis late last year, the words rang out against the backdrop of the prime minister's disturbing silence, or guarded admonitions, all these months in the face of the rising impatience of his party colleagues who had been brainwashed into the RSS's sectarian variant of Hinduism, or Hindutva, as its early preacher DV Savarkar called it. Modi's speech was meandering but it was precisely timed to give him a makeover after the accusation that India was promoting religious intolerance became more and more loud, not only from the usual suspects, like the Congress, but a star guest like President Barack Obama, not to speak of internationally respected publications like The Economist and the New York Times. Evidently stung by Modi sounding "sickular", Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief known for his walrus moustache, attempted to cut loss as he dashed off to Kanpur the next day where he reminded the audience that India was indeed a "Hindu rashtra". But its regular champions fell silent. To make sure none in the saffron brigade speaks out of turn, Bhagwat himself responded to an earlier remark by Sakshi Maharaj, a particularly acrimonious MP who'd said that Hindu women should give birth to at least four babies, apparently to neutralise the alleged over-productivity of their Muslim counterparts. This time round, "walrus" gravely reminded his team that Hindu women ''are not baby-making machines''.
From then on, it was a different Modi, or almost. Since he got egg on his face by donning a monogrammed suit, something, as a hack promptly remembered, that former Egypt tyrant Hosni Mubarak too had done, he thought up a smart strategy to silence his critics-off putting the suit on the auction block. The strategy worked. It not only fetched an astounding four point three crore rupees but buried every possibility of the Mani Shankar Aiyar-types codding him by calling him "dus laakh", ten lakh rupees being the imaginary price tag affixed to the suit.
Moreover, a marked improvement was noticed in his style of handling his political opponents. Mukul Roy, a rebellious Rajya Sabha MP of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC), began knocking at BJP's door for protection ever since the CBI had interrogated him for his suspected role in the multi-billion-rupee Saradha ponzi fiddle. BJP, passionate about becoming a force some day in the native state of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, an icon of political Hinduism, seemed receptive to Mukul's offer but it suddenly turned cold. While analysts split hair about Mukul being an asset or a liability, it is obvious that a new deal from South Block was waiting for Mamata. Her visit to Dhaka last weekend got bolstered by diplomatic support from Delhi on a scale that exceeds top central ministers, not to speak of the vitriolic leader of a hostile state government. And in Bihar too, it was a transformation saga. A week after former chief minister Jitan Manjhi getting PM's audience for nearly an hour, and obviously being emboldened to split from Nitish Kumar's JD(U) by banking on BJP's support, Manjhi suddenly found the hands of help firmly withdrawn. With no alternative, he had to resign, chafing at Nitish taking his seat.
Even more spectacular was the development at Shastri Bhavan, seat of the petroleum and natural gas ministry, where, in a trap laid by the Intelligence Bureau, the government collared a band of document thieves who reportedly sold their haul to corporate buyers, including Reliance Industries Limited and an Essar Group company. According to reports, the official documents pilfered by the gang include the ministry's notes on a national gas grid project for inclusion in finance minister Arun Jaitley's forthcoming budget speech, and several intra- and inter-ministerial communication on sensitive subjects, like the government's stance in arbitration with RIL on the pricing of KG D6 gas. However, regardless of the stolen documents' true worth to their corporate buyers, the incident underlined the vulnerability of the government, and its secrets, to corporate predators. Till recently, Modi was at the epicentre of a public condemnation for encouraging "crony capitalism". But he showed the spunk to turn the searchlight of investigation on one of the cronies, the courage that his UPA predecessors lacked. It is a huge turn-around.
Is there anything in the prime minister's life or experience that is driving him to choose the path straight and narrow and to forcefully revert to his pre-poll promise of offering just good governance? There are many ways of looking at this issue. A simplistic explanation is that, after failing to get a single reform-oriented legislation through in the winter session of Parliament, Modi has felt the limitation of a mere party leader in bringing about sweeping changes in governance. So he must be nice to everyone, including his bitter critics who dominate the Upper House. No wonder the PM honoured a wedding invitation in the family of Mulayam Singh Yadav, patriarch of the Samajwadi Party and his unrelenting critic.
I think it is a narrow view of human behaviour that presumes the individual to be a perfectly rational agent driven by incentives. It is possible that his party's defeat in the Delhi Assembly election, within months of his thundering success in the Lok Sabha poll, has made him introspect. If it is true, it's a great quality in Modi - the ability to listen.