Rebranding of Modi: PM is moving himself, BJP to the pragmatic political centre

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May 9, 2015

Over the last two years, what we have been witnessing is the third reinvention of Narendra Modi.

He is leaving behind 2002 (where he played Hindutva icon), the Gujarat model of development (where he played the business-friendly Chief Minister), his sectarian image (Sangh loud-mouths are hampering this makeover, but Modi himself is reworking his script), and just about anything else his detractors can use against him.

May 9, 2015

Over the last two years, what we have been witnessing is the third reinvention of Narendra Modi.

He is leaving behind 2002 (where he played Hindutva icon), the Gujarat model of development (where he played the business-friendly Chief Minister), his sectarian image (Sangh loud-mouths are hampering this makeover, but Modi himself is reworking his script), and just about anything else his detractors can use against him.

This effort is about moving Brand Modi to the pragmatic political centre, which is the broadest end of the market for votes in an electoral democracy. It is intended to ensure a second term for him and his party in 2019 – at the very least.

It is a surprise we didn't spot this earlier. We have only ourselves to blame as we presumed he would offer us more of what we imagined him to be. His enemies, who painted him as the evil architect of 2002, looked only at evidence that supported their prejudices ("attacks" on churches, et al). His supporters, who come both from the cultural right and the economic right and the aspiring middle classes, hoped he would be India's Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan who will lift us from statism to faster growth led by the private sector. Businessmen are particularly disappointed, as he is no longer the Gujarat CM who actively pursued their interests and made it the country's most business-friendly state.

The other day, former Union Minister Arun Shourie criticized the Modi government for falling short on economic achievements, but he was wrong on one count: that Modi had not made the transition from Chief Minister to Prime Minister. Shourie told Headlines Today: "Whilst Prime Minister Modi had made a good and quick transition from a chief minister to a prime minister in foreign policy, in economic policy he still thought and behaved like a chief minister. A Prime Minister needs to think in terms of policy."

Actually, this assessment is wide off the mark for a simple reason. No one has spent more time and effort making the transition from state to central leadership than Narendra Modi. His style of functioning – relying on the bureaucracy, and centralizing many decisions in the PMO – may not have changed, but his goalposts clearly are national.

Consider just one point: in the run-up to May 2014, we heard a lot about the Gujarat model and how he is so accessible to businessmen. But we rarely heard him mention the Gujarat model or his closeness to businessmen after he became PM. In fact, he has made it a point to distance himself from both, as this excellent Economic Times story notes. Not only did he close access to businessmen in his ministries (even prosecuting officials and corporate middlemen who were found purloining official documents from government offices), but he even pointedly mentioned some industrialists by name to show that it was not their interests he was trying to serve. Talking about the land bill (which industry wants and will benefit from), he talked not about how it would help them, but the poor. He said the land bill would help build houses for the poor, and asked: "Who is going to live in them? Are industrialists going to stay there? Will Mukesh Ambani live there?"

That he should even mention an industrialist by name is interesting, and is a direct riposte to the consistent efforts of his political rivals (Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, among them) to paint him as pro-business, anti-poor, anti-farmer. In fact, Modi's primary political statements of intent now revolve around the poor, though this does not mean he is not pro-growth or is anti-business. It is just that he will not talk about it. He will help businesses quietly. What he will talk about is the poor.

Addressing a joint session of parliament last June, President Pranab Mukherjee made the Modi government's objectives clear. "My government is dedicated to the poor; poverty has no religion, hunger has no creed. My government will not be satisfied with mere poverty alleviation but commits itself to the goal of poverty elimination."

Take newspapers today (9 May). Large advertisements talk about the launch of three pro-poor schemes, which seem fairly well designed. One is to provide accident insurance at low cost, another life insurance, and a third pension to senior citizens. All involve annual premium payments, but the payments are very reasonable: Rs 12 per annum for Rs 2 lakh worth of accident insurance; Rs 42-210 per annum for pensions payable after you turn 60 (the premium depends on what age you enter the scheme); and Rs 330 per annum for life insurance upto Rs 2 lakh.

These schemes have the potential to go universal, even though it is the better off who may initially invest in them. But banks and insurance companies have been told to offer the scheme to all account-holders – so they could become universal in due course. Since the Jan Dhan Yojana (the universal bank account scheme that is said to have reached all households in India) is being used to pay cash subsidies directly to the poor and middle class, at some point all Indians will be able to pay for their own insurance with minimal government subsidies. Thus far, direct benefits transfers are limited to cooking gas subsidies, but Modi could conceivably use the same accounts to transfer kerosene subsidies, NREGA payments, or even food subsidies. Once more subsidy money passes through bank accounts, the poor will be able to use this money for the other things they need – including insurance or pensions.

Put another way, Modi is rebranding himself as friend of the poor, even while moving from a largesse-oriented feudal approach to poverty to some degree of self-empowerment of the poor. This is smart, but a lot would depend on how these schemes are implemented. There will be some schemes that may need a government subsidy top-up (for claims could exceed premia), but these subsidies will at least not be wasted on crooks who have so far tended to siphon off goodies meant for the poor.

On the other hand, Modi will be doing the right things to make life easier for business – but without fanfare. The fanfare will be reserved for the pro-poor schemes. The passing of the insurance, coal, minerals and – possibly GST – will help business.

In the social sphere, Modi is rapidly moving away from the Sangh's obvious sectarianism and live up to his Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas formula – a non-sectarian approach to secularism. Among other things, according to this story, he is planning schemes for minorities that will be named after minority icons who do not have negative associations even for the majority community. Says The Economic Times: "The list includes revolutionary Ashfaqulla Khan, leader of Salt Satyagraha Abbas Tyabji, Quit India movement leader from Kerala Vakkom Abdul Khadir, and political activist and freedom fighter Ubaidullah Sindhi. Muslim women such as Bi Amma (Abadi Begum) and Begum Hazrat Mahal, who rebelled against British rule, are also part of the list, along with Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, seen as a proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity. Others include poet Iqbal, who penned the song 'Saare jahan se achha', and scholar of Indian Unani medicine system Hakim Ajmal Khan."

These moves are probably making the Congress jittery, which continues to bank on old-style secularism and feudal handouts. It also explains Rahul Gandhi's repeated efforts to brand Modi as anti-poor, often without any supporting evidence. Even Kejriwal will not henceforth find it easy to attack Modi from the Left, for the latter has moved his politicial positioning to the centre – from where he hopes to protect both the left and right flanks.

Only 2019 will tell whether Modi's third efforts at rebranding himself is successful or not. But if he fails, it could only be because of bad luck, and not for want of trying.


Courtesy: PTI