Modi @ 6: Popular and committed but is there a need to review statecraft?

Modi may not be getting the kind of feedback and reality check that is vital for effective and empathetic governance and this is where, apart from Chanakya, the Canute principle acquires relevance, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor


Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed one year in office in his second term on Saturday (May 30)  and in the same week he had also been at the helm of the Indian ship of state for a full six years – having been sworn for his first term on May 24, 2014. His anniversary coincides with the country managing serious national security  challenges along two tracks - that of public health as manifest in the COVID 19 pandemic; and the military stand-off with China along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC).

However, despite these setbacks which may have dented the reputation of any other leader, Modi remains very popular with the larger cross-section of the Indian electorate  and his messianic appeal to  his flock is unprecedented.  There is little doubt that if there were to be a snap poll now,  notwithstanding the COVID devastation to citizen well-being and the China challenge,  Modi would sweep the polls.

However, the more exacting metric is how effective has PM Modi been in realizing the objectives he had set for himself when he assumed this office – namely the welfare of the citizen. In his acceptance speech in  May 2014, the earnestness and dedication of the PM-designate was moving. Modi promised that his government would be one that “thinks, works and lives for the poor and is dedicated to the villages, youth and women of India.”

Six years later, in an open letter (May 30)  to "the fellow Indian", PM Modi  reiterated that “Empowering the poor, farmers, women and youth has remained our priority.”

This normative objective of governance  that is cognizant of the most vulnerable cross-section of society harmonizes with the concept of ‘yogakshema’  that Chanakya, the ancient Indian philosopher and royal advisor, had outlined in his treatise, the Arthashastra. In this comprehensive text on statecraft  written in 3 BC, the ancient political guru noted of the duty that devolved on the ruler:  “In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king (prime minister in the modern Indian context) and in what is beneficial to the subjects his own benefit. What is dear to himself is not beneficial to the king (PM) , but what is dear to the subjects is beneficial to him.”

As a freshly minted prime minister who was willing to make radical departures, Modi made two very significant citizen-relevant policy announcements  early in his tenure and these related to the urgent need for India to become ODF (open defecation free)  and his focus on the safety of the girl child. These two issues that had been swept under the carpet for decades were in dire need of  public acknowledgement and policy redress and to his credit,  Modi was willing to pick up this gauntlet.

However, the degree to which this intent and the earnest  Modi rhetoric accompanying it has been actually realized remains moot  but the goal envisioned is laudable. Many such commitments have remained the equivalent of  ‘work in progress’ for lack of bench strength within the Modi core team and the discordant political culture now prevalent in India which has soured centre-state relations in a visible manner since 2014.

Yogakshema, or welfare of the people, is the holy grail  of all governance and Modi would be well advised to apply this tenet of Chanakyan policy by way of making an objective assessment of the  last six years – when his hand was on the tiller.

Reality check  

However, one of the more negative aspects of the Modi tenure has been the near-total absence of nurturing and encouraging constructive criticism on major national policy matters. The opposition in parliament has become feeble and fragmented and the COVID related lockdown has resulted in little or no rigorous legislative deliberation,  the hallmark of a vibrant democracy. Dissent where it is visible is deemed to be "anti-national".

To further accentuate this trend,  Modi has not met with the Indian media in a free and empathetic manner. It merits  notice  that  a distinctive feature of the Modi style of governance is one of imperiousness wherein the PM is inaccessible.  Press conferences are unheard of  and  the media has been kept at a distance and what passes for the occasional ‘interview’ is that of the simpering, unctuous kind that makes the discerning citizen cringe. 

Consequently, Modi may not be getting the kind of feedback and reality check that is vital for effective and empathetic governance and this is where, apart from Chanakya, the Canute principle acquires relevance. The medieval English  King Canute was fabled to have sat on the seashore  on his throne with his fawning courtiers and ordered the waves to roll back and not wet his robes. The courtiers were dismayed that the unruly waves did not obey the royal diktat and a superficial reading seeks to portray Canute as a foolish ruler. The sub-text is  more nuanced and relevant for India in 2020.

Canute, it is documented, was fed up of the fawning nature of his court and wanted them to understand that, though a king, he was a mere mortal.  Later commentary refers to the role of the courtier in providing honest feedback, advise and opinion to the sagacious ruler in the larger interest of the realm.

Realising citzen-centric goals 

Modi’s most tectonic policy decision in his first term was demonetization announced  suddenly in November 2016  and it had a tsunami-like effect on the well-being of the citizen and the economy. This move was hailed by the faithful as a historic and bold decision that would re-wire India’s fiscal system but there has been no objective assessment about November 2016 and ‘yogakshema’. Much the same may be said about the manner in which Modi 2.0 has dealt with the COVID pandemic – but this challenge is still unfolding.

PM Modi will now embark upon his seventh year in office  and his commitment and sincerity are palpable. In his May 30 open letter he notes that there are many challenges “that our country faces”  and  “there could be deficiencies in me ” but reiterates that together India will prevail. Dwelling on "action and duty" Modi signs off as "Pradhan Sevak", or prime servitor. 

Internalizing the tenet of Chanakya’s  ‘yogakshema’ and using the Canute yardstick of abjuring unwarranted personal praise would  perhaps enable Modi  to realize the citizen- related goals of May 2014.

(The writer is Director, SPS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted