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Modi’s Day-1 in office

[This is a summary of author’s comments made on May 27 to English and Tamil newspapers and magazines as well as on TV news channels.]

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had faced more flak and investigations than any other aspirant stepping into the shoes of a prime minister, has shown on Day-1 that he is a man of his own mind. His spectacular election victory owed it to his planning, execution and management of his election strategy. His relentless campaign against odds has shown as a one who leads from the front, not losing sight of overall goals, and an uncanny knack to get his way through overcoming his detractors both within and outside the BJP. Last but not least is his ability to pick a team and motivate them to give their best.

Many of these qualities came to the fore on his Day-1 in office. The BJP accustomed to its geriatric leadership functioning was infused with energy; of course the elderly leaders despite all the bowing and touching of feet were put to the pasture as younger leaders took over key functions. They had put their faith in him and it was pay off time. But under Modi they will have to emerge as achievers.

This was in marked contrast to cabinet making process of Dr Manmohan Singh. It was directed from the top with little opportunity for the Prime Minister to demur. Naturally it had disastrous impact upon the PM’s hydra-headed team’s performance and accountability.

Another promise Modi has kept is to balance the need for merit and talent in the cabinet against the political compulsions of maintaining caste, religious and regional and coalition partners in its composition. He had promised a lean cabinet and put together a team of 44 ministers. However, unoccupied berths in some of the key ministries like Defence promise to swell the numbers before the Budget session in July.

Invitation to SAARC leaders

Much has been read in Modi’s invitation to SAARC leaders to attend his inaugural ceremony. Some of the news anchors always keen to read tea leaves have called it a foreign policy coup. To do so would be overkill. But Modi the opportunist used the happy occasion to garner some good will in the neighbourhood where a lot of suspicion lingers about how he would lead the government.

On the other hand, Modi the showman knows that to be respected as the Prime Minister of the largest democracy, he has to give a thorough makeover of his image tarred by the Western press and English media that described him as a Fascist and anti-Muslim hawk. And he just used the opportunity offered by the inaugural ceremony. This would enable him to set the right tone for enlarging his international acceptability.

By inviting the SAARC leaders he has probably made a good start in this exercise. But for the skeptics to believe it was much more than a cosmetic exercise, the yardstick would be on the government’s performance in the coming months.

He has also sent a strong message of his preference for India’s immediate neighbourhood as his foreign policy priority. The message would have been more inclusive if Myanmar Prime Minister had also been invited for the inaugural.

Inclusion of Mauritius among the invitees is a strong indicator of the importance Modi attaches to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which has implications for the strategic security of the IOR. In tandem with Maldives and Sri Lanka, India’s two other Indian Ocean neighbours, it gives inkling to the likely enlargement of the nascent maritime security cooperation between India and its island neighbours.

Both China and the U.S. who see themselves as strategic stakeholders would have taken note of Modi’s style. It portends a confident, strong, and assertive leadership in India’s dealings with other countries.

Nationally, the Congress opposition despite some nit-picking had no other choice but to support his decision to invite SAARC leaders. The other battered regional satraps had little to comment as they were busy putting their houses in order. We can see this happening more often if Modi delivers some of his promises in real time.

Invitation to Nawaz Sharif

By inviting Pak Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa in spite of opposition from sections within his own coalition, Modi has demonstrated h is firm control over the government. Modi has also shown that while he is aware of concerns of coalition partners and states his decision, he would not hesitate to get through his decision if need be in the national interest.

Both the foreign leaders have reciprocated the good will behind the invitation from Modi by releasing Indian fishermen in their custody. Despite all the bonhomie shown in photo opportunities with them, Modi has reminded the two leaders that India was determined to pursue its core interests in building a win-win relationship with its neighbours and they need to help remove the impediments in its way.

In the case of Pakistan, he seem to have highlighted the key issues of trans-border terrorism, the need to speed up follow up action in Pakistan on 26/11 terror attacks, and opening up of Pakistan for Indian trade. Nawaz Sharif despite his more guarded reaction seem to have agreed to cooperate with India to ensure that the democratic government in Afghanistan is not destabilized after the withdrawal of U.S. forces by Taliban terrorists. If this goes through it would be a remarkable breakthrough to address India’s key security concerns relating of Afghanistan affecting the stability of the entire region.

It would not be true to narrative to read much more than it in the meetings. They are ice-breakers to provide the two sides to understand the nature of change in Indian leadership, while providing the Indian Prime Minister an opportunity to put through his foreign policy exercise. Further progress in relationship can only through after ground is carefully prepared by the respective governments.

Invitation to Mahinda Rajapaksa

The meeting between Modi and President Rajapaksa has both an international and national context. Modi has shown his readiness to build upon the strong relationship existing between the two countries. At the same time, he has requested Sri Lanka “to expedite the process of national reconciliation in a manner that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Sri Lanka” in the words of the Secretary Ministry of External Affairs Ms Sujata Singh. This would remind Rajapaksa that he had still not delivered upon his promises and caution him of possible impact on the relationship if he continues to delay. He has also reassured Rajapaksa that though some of his political partners are supporters of Tamil Eelam, there was no change in his government’s stand on a united Sri Lanka.

Despite all the drama with Vaiko’s loud protests in the Capital, the din of black flag demonstrations in Tamil Nadu, and the State Chief Minister Ms J Jayalalithaa going into a sulk, Modi’s absolute majority in parliament has given him an opportunity to structure his Sri Lanka policy to make it vibrant. It has also given him a chance to build upon the BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu as the state politics is in a state of flux after Ms Jayalalithaa scored a stunning victory reducing the opposition to single digit.

BJP’s present partners in the state are political light weights; despite their reservations on Modi’s Sri Lanka policy they are likely to be more benefitted by continuing the alliance with the BJP. This would enable them to have some clout at the Centre essential for their survival. After seeing Modi in action, some of these parties might rethink on the viability of pursuing a hawkish stance on Sri Lanka.

The DMK, though reduced to a zero in the parliament, still retains the loyalty of nearly one fourth of voters. However, the party has still not recovered from the leadership paralysis that struck it after the drubbing at polls. The fratricidal struggle for the party leadership between the DMK leader Karunanidhi’s scions Alagiri and Stalin continues.

As though these are not enough, Kalaignar Karunanidhi is in for hard days in his old age as both his party and the family network that build a huge fortune are in shambles. The Damocles’ Sword of corruption trials are hanging over his octegenrian wife Mrs Dayalu, daughter Kanimozhi , nephew Dayanidhi Maran and party loyalist A Raja.

As corruption trials are likely to be speeded up as promised in the BJP manifesto, DMK will have to rework its political strategies to survive. This might induce the DMK to forget its much-hyped preference for secular partnership to take a re-look at the BJP alliance in the state.

At the state level, Ms Jayalalithaa went into hyperbole on Modi’s invitation to Rajapaksa describing it as betrayal and insensitivity to Tamil feelings on the Sri Lanka issue. Lack of reaction from Modi probably made her boycott the inaugural ceremony. Not only that, she went on to ban her party’s 37 newly-elected parliamentarians from attending it.

While this was in keeping with her “black or white” style of seeing more enemies than friends, her not so friendly response to Modi has to be understood at two levels –personal and political. With political pundits predicting the possibility of a hung parliament, her prime ministerial ambitions soared. Despite securing 37 of the 39 seats, Modi’s landslide victory nationwide has put paid to her ambitions.

Her boycott of Modi’s inaugural shows that she was far from reconciled with the outcome of the elections at the national level. With this negative attitude, Ms Jayalalithaa has lost a good opportunity to recoup the good personal equation she used to enjoy with Modi.

Politically, she needs to improve her relationship with the Modi government to mend her fractured Centre-state relationship of the past. She needs to domit as she needs Centre’s cooperation and good will to see through some of the ambitious projects in the state. With the state assembly elections due in another year and a half, she needs to show results as the DMK and all other opposition parties will be working hard to put up a better performance. So she can be expected to evolve a face saving method of building better relations with Modi and the Centre in that order in the coming months. And the politically savvy prime minister may reciprocate such an overture if there is a future in it.

Thus the emerging political environment in the state improves the chances for Modi to work out a holistic Sri Lanka policy. Such a policy should address India’s national imperatives as well as the state’s specific concerns on Sri Lanka Tamils. It can give meaningful expression to India’s and Tamil Nadu’s concerns not only to serve national interests, but also remove some of the bottlenecks in India-Sri Lanka relations. But for all this to happen Modi has the difficult task of delivering his promises; and India and the world will be watching.

(The writter Col R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: Blog:

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