By adding policy details to his folksy speeches, Narendra Modi will not only hold himself to a higher standard of accountability, he will also set himself apart from the inane sloganeering of his rivals.
Narendra Modi’s first major speech as the BJP’s official Prime Ministerial candidate came two days after his nomination. This close to the elections, every line of every speech of Modi’s would have been planned weeks, perhaps months, in advance. Given the stakes, it surprised me that his first speech focused not on his main election plank – governance – but on India’s defence and security. As has been noted by editors of this blog, and elsewhere, these subjects are not Modi’s strong suits. So, it was hardly surprising that serious analysts found holes in his arguments quite easily.
The backlash against the criticism was instantaneous. One tweet, in particular, caught my attention (and became the genesis of this piece). The popular opinion among Modi’s fans is that campaign speeches do not need to be “PhD thesis”-like. I agree, partially. No one wants or expects a “PhD”-level understanding of defence and foreign policy issues from Narendra Modi or any other prime ministerial candidate. If you meet someone who does, they are probably pulling your leg.
However, it is fair to expect any person who aspires to lead India to display a firmer understanding of such important subjects. To me, defence and foreign policy, especially given our circumstances will be a top-3 priority of any government in the decade ahead. More importantly, since Modi is the only declared Prime Ministerial candidate at the moment, his words will be studied very carefully in foreign capitals around the world, and especially in our neighbourhood. Given his weakness, it is doubly important for Modi to get his messaging right. One loose word about nuclear weapons or border policies will needlessly raise an alarm. I’d go so far as to say that Modi should avoid extempore speeches on these matters entirely.
As one Narendra Modi fan noted, during that brief Twitter exchange “A leader needs to have a vision, not be an expert in everything under the sun.” I agree; that is why I am surprised Modi has not appointed a ‘brain trust’ to advise him. Defence and foreign policy decisions are not academic exercises. They have real-life consequences for the country and its citizens. We have dozens of problems in these areas that have been plaguing us for decades. We desperately need fresh thinking on these subjects. Is Narendra Modi the man who, through his leadership, can deliver such ideas?
For example, does he have a plan to end the stalemate over the Line of Control and Line of Actual Control? Would he send troops to Afghanistan to secure India’s interests there, as US troops pull out? How will he manage this without sparking off a fresh arms race with Pakistan? How will he ensure the country’s long-term energy security in the face of direct competition for resources from China? Indeed, what is his grand vision for the relationship with China? Will he sign unilateral free-trade agreements with India’s neighbours? what specific measures would he take to substantially indigenise defence production without compromising on the quality of weapons our soldiers fight with? Would he ask scientists to go ahead with work on a missile that can target the United States (the much-hyped ‘Surya’) or would he limit India’s arsenal to weapons that can ward off threats from the neighbourhood?
There is a large ‘middle’ of undecided voters who are still unconvinced of the virtues (or vices) of any of the parties. Modi can capture their support with well-reasoned and well-articulated positions on questions like the ones above. For example, a sound plan to secure long-term energy sources, will make a world of difference to fuel prices back home. If Modi can develop such a plan and articulate it, I foresee many, many votes swinging in his favour. Elsewhere, many Indians who trade with neighbours face another problem. Many find it easier to first send their produce to entrepots such as Dubai or Singapore from where they are re-exported, rather than send it across the border. Free-trade agreements with neighbours will make the lives of countless traders much easier. I suspect some may even contribute to his campaign as a gesture of thanks.
Here’s the crux of my argument: no one can ever be held accountable to a slogan. Just ask the Americans who were promised “hope and change”, but are now faced with some policies that make even George W. Bush seem like a moderate. Closer to home, we all remember meaningless slogans such as ‘India Shining’ and ‘Garibi Hatao’ for decades. Few of us asked ‘why’ or ‘how’, and we have paid dearly for this mistake.
If Narendra Modi is truly different from other politicians, he will instinctively understand the need to set the agenda with solid, well-formed ideas, rather than rely on tired slogans, clichés and platitudes. By committing himself to serious policy proposals, he will create a new standard of accountability among politicians who seek high office. No Indian politician has dared to do this in the past for reasons that are well understood. As an ace communicator, Modi should not only have no trouble simplifying the arcane worlds of security, foreign and economic policies for a lay audience, but even be able to explain why his ideas will make a difference in our lives. I, for one, would be delighted if I found some new wine in this flashy new bottle.