Narendra Modi's opening gambits

An artist draws a portrait of India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Can some shrewd political moves recast his conservative image? Photo by AFP.
05 June 2014
An artist draws a portrait of India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Can some shrewd political moves recast his conservative image? Photo by AFP.

India’s new prime minister is making strong moves to ditch a tainted image when it comes to women and minorities, writes SHVETAL VYAS PARE.

Narendra Modi may be many things, but two of his actions after winning a decisive electoral victory in India show the new Prime Minister is a very shrewd man.

Both actions make preemptive moves against all-too familiar accusations levelled at him in the past; the status of women and minorities under his right-wing governance.

It is difficult for Modi to distance himself from the actions of the more militant right-wing groups that form the cultural wings and the grassroots support of his party, the Bharatiya Janta Party (Indian People’s Party). These organisations, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (Global Hindu Forum) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation), are known for their conservatism and lack of tolerance for difference.

In the game of politics, he has made a strong opening play.

Modi’s first counter action is his choice of Chief Minister for his home state of Gujarat. As Prime Minister elect, Modi gave up the stewardship of his home state, passing the mantle to Anandi Patel, a woman and the former education minister.

Modi has also included more women in his Cabinet than in previous governments.

 In a country where the Shri Ram Sena (army of Lord Ram), a right-wing Hindu group, is justly infamous for entering a pub in Mangalore in 2009 and beating up two women there for the ‘crime’ of drinking, this allows Modi to enter debates around the rights of women on a positive note.

Modi’s supporters also point out that Gujarat is among the safest states for women in India. But, Gujarat has always been relatively safe for women, even before Modi came on the scene.

It is a dry state, which means that it is illegal to sell, buy or drink alcohol except under exceptional circumstances. This does mean that alcohol is not available in Gujarat, only that the lucrative business of alcohol operates underground and the consumption of alcohol occurs behind closed doors.

In other parts of India, especially in the north, street hooliganism and 'eve-teasing' (a euphemism for sexual harassment or molestation) of women is frequently associated with the consumption of alcohol. This sort of behavior is less public in Gujarat.

This is not to say that it is alcohol that causes molestation. There exists, however, a certain kind of public misbehaviour, including harassment of women, dangerous drunk driving, and molestation, that is exacerbated by the consumption of alcohol.

But while Gujarat may be safe, the city is undoubtedly safer for women whose behaviour operates within traditional confines and less so for those whose markers of modernity are more visible.

The attitude towards women in Gujarat is more benevolent paternalism than of respect for individuality, as in many other parts of India. Thus, a girl who is dressed in Western clothes is assumed to be less respectable than one dressed in Indian clothes, in Gujarat, as elsewhere.

By appointing a woman to the top position in Gujarat and including them in his cabinet, however, Modi has provided his supporters with precisely the sort of ‘fact’ that will be quoted repeatedly in his favour – namely that he does positive, proactive things for women's empowerment rather than merely talk about them.

Modi’s second action is  a masterstroke. For his inauguration ceremony, Modi invited the leaders of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nations – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives. For one, this invitation sets in motion a strategy of pursuing greater regional dominance. More cleverly though, it afforded the Indian Prime Minister a chance to meet his Pakistani counterpart within a day of assuming office.

Modi may never live down the carnage of Gujarat 2002 – three-days of inter-communal violence which led to mass killings of Muslim minorities. But the move gives his supporters a chance to claim that he is not prejudiced against Muslims and is instead making friendly overtures to a Muslim dominated neighbour.

By accepting, coming and talking about a new chapter in Indo-Pakistan relations, the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has conveniently provided Modi and his cohorts with some distance from their treatment of minorities in Gujarat. Here is another 'fact' that shows the progressive, almost secular credentials of this much-maligned man. It begs the question; could anyone be more misunderstood?

It would seem Modi definitely knows his chess. And he knows both his Chanakya (an important figure in the development of Indian political thought living from c.370-283 BC) and his Patan ni Prabhuta (an historical novel deemed central to the development of Gujarati political thought).

If politics is a game that changes as you play it, the Indian polity has just seen the opening moves of a sophisticated player. Let’s see where the endgame takes us. 

Shvetal Vyas Pare is a PhD scholar researching India and Indian history at the School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. 

Updated:  16 October, 2013/Responsible Officer:  Web Communications Coordinator/Page Contact:  Web Communications Coordinator