The smarter leaders know their time is limited and power transient. The smartest ones have one more quality. They are not afraid of starting something they know they may not be able to conclude in their time.
It’s a complex formulation in these impatient, hypersonic times. But governance is patient business even in this era when leaders of the largest democracies communicate with their peoples and counterparts on social media, when the prime minister of Malaysia writes a solemn 400-word note to the world confirming that the piece of wreckage found on France’s Reunion Island indeed belonged to MH370, missing for 515 days, or when Obama charms America by exchanging endearing banter on Twitter with astronauts in the NASA space station. Or when Narendra Modi gets all of India waiting expectantly with a teaser, in less than 100 characters, about an important decision he was going to announce at 6.30 pm last Monday.
If you prefer to be more prosaic, you can simply call it pace of change. Or you can borrow a more profound line from serious BBC anchor Nik Gowing and call it the tyranny of real time. But it takes extraordinarily mature politics and smart leaders now to maintain institutional continuity. Or to have the confidence to launch projects they won’t be able to see through to fruition, or to conclude what someone else similarly started, and faded away without concluding, but passing the baton to the successor, even if an adversary.
This is the perfect week to discuss continuity because Modi’s “important announcement” was the framework agreement on settling the remaining issues with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu. The peacemaking process with the last, Chinese-trained tribal insurgent group of any significant size in the North-east was initiated in 1995 by P.V. Narasimha Rao, who ran a minority government. It was continued in the Gowda-Gujral interregnum, given new energy by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then pursued vigorously by Manmohan Singh over a decade. Modi has now completed it. Look at it this way. The process took 20 years, during which the NSCN negotiated with six prime ministers as regimes changed. But we can say with pride they were talking to an Indian establishment of continuity. Because governments may come and go in democracies, but the constitutional state must be uninterrupted.
Also read: Modi govt could look beyond NSCN (I-M) for peace in Nagaland as new players emerge
As with the Naga agreement, the Modi government has been mocked by the Congress for taking credit for its own ideas and initiatives. These include, besides the Naga accord, the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh, loosening of the nuclear liability regime to facilitate operationalisation of the nuclear deal, a genuine embracing of Aadhaar and, using it, launching direct benefits transfer, first with LPG subsidy, notification of FDI in retail through the automatic route, legislation to allow 49 per cent FDI in insurance, and so on. It is true that all these were ideas that originated in the UPA’s time.
But some qualifications apply. First of all, the UPA ruled for a full 10 years. They had both the mandate and the time to float new ideas. Frankly, they had the time to put these into effect as well, but they lost their way, distracted by NAC pressures (it was suspicious of Aadhaar, direct benefits transfer, retail FDI, for example) and in the rapidity with which they lost political capital once the scam season began and Anna Hazare appeared on the scene in 2011. Rather than accuse Modi of stealing their ideas, they should be happy he is taking them forward with greater vigour. In a less mature democracy, temptation would have been great for a successor to junk everything the predecessor started. In this case the opposite is happening, and it is not new or unique. Most national leaders have shown similar pragmatism even if some, just like the incumbent now, may be more enthusiastic in claiming credit.
Modi has not merely had the good sense to use the UPA’s superior intellectual energy to his benefit. He has also brought in the one ability the UPA lacked: of building public opinion to back radical ideas. He has sold LPG cash transfer as a pro-poor reform and personally promoted the “give it up” campaign to build a view that it is a cheap thing for the rich to steal poor people’s subsidy. He stood at a joint press conference with Obama to call the nuclear deal the centrepiece of a new India-US relationship (and by implication good for the Indian people), put his personal prestige on the line on the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh, and now made such a big event at 7RCR out of the Naga settlement. The Congress complains that he is riding their ideas. But think, in a lesser country, he would have junked them. And had they been a more confident government or better political managers, they would not have left this entire menu half-done on the kitchen table.
Let us, however, leave nitpicking aside, because ours, in this very newsy week, is a feel-good argument. Institutional continuity is as important in the shaping of destinies of nations as change. Events of these weeks show that even in a period when our polity is so messily polarised, Parliament non-functional and bitterness pervading the political air, we still do not dump good ideas just because they were somebody else’s.
Also read: It’s time Muivah and NSCN (I-M) realise that demand for sovereign Nagaland won’t work
You can write many books on how Indian leaders have provided their country the gift of policy stability, sometimes even sacrificing narrow-but vital-interest, being accused of making U-turns of sacrificing selfish political interest, at least immediately. My favourite example is how P.V. Narasimha Rao built up all that was needed to carry out the nuclear tests but couldn’t quite do so because he acknowledged he did not have the political capital nor India the economic and political strength yet to pull off something so audacious, even if it would have benefited him in the election of 1996. This has been confirmed in many subsequent accounts, including the most respected nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar’s recent revelations to me in an interview. It is also a well-established fact that Rao did tell Vajpayee subsequently that he had left all “samagri” (ingredients) in place for when he assumed power. By the summer of 1998, Vajpayee concluded that India had the necessary economic and diplomatic strength, and completed the job. Just as Modi has done with many in-progress ideas now, the latest being the Naga accord. That is why it is such a wonderful week for us to cherish.
Postscript: In 1984, the first, and the only Indian so far went on a space mission, albeit in a Soviet mission. Indira Gandhi immortalised that moment by asking, in a phone conversation telecast live, Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma how India looked to him from his orbiting perch in the spaceship. Sharma was up to it: Saare jahan se achcha (better than the rest of the world), he said borrowing poet Iqbal’s lines every Indian knows.
Times have changed, and so have mediums of communication. So President Obama, who uses two Twitter handles, has been posting pictures from the NASA space station and also exchanging some banter. “Hey @StationCDRKelly, looking at the photos. Do you ever look out the window and just freak out?” Kelly, the astronaut, was a bit more formal in his response than Sharma, but won applause of millions with: “I don’t freak out about anything, Mr President. Except getting a Twitter question from you.”
Tells you how technology and tyranny of real time are also such formidable tools of communication and image-building in the hands of smart, modern leaders. Of course, Obama is also using his handles non-stop to build opinion for his Iran deal and canvassing his Congress on it.
Also read: Nagas will co-exist with India but won’t merge with it, NSCN(IM) chief Muivah says