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    South Asia
     May 29, '14

Modi keeps his frenemies close
By Medha Bisht

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Acche din Aayenge - the good days shall come - was the slogan of the successful election campaign headed by newly sworn-in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It could be said that Modi's campaign was similar to that of Barack Obama in 2005, because it succeed in appealing to the dreams and aspirations of all classes and religions. Call it good

fortune, opportunism, fortunate timing or the result of effusive self-confidence, Modi nevertheless has made it to the coveted seat despite the pessimism of naysayers.

That the announcement of cabinet portfolios on May 26 was carried out on the same day that South Asian heads of state attended his swearing in underlined that Modi has arrived - and that this prime minister's office will be a force to be reckoned with.

While the stars seem to be on Modi's side given the overwhelming majority he has garnered in the Lok Sabha (lower house) elections, there are also a host of challenges at a national, regional and international level.

Modi would likely gain from reading Pulitzer award winner Doris Kearns Goodwin's insightful book, Team of Rivals: Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. This reveals how the US president succeeded in his legacy by turning rivals into his best assets.

Lincoln's team included New York senator William H Seward, Ohio governor Salmon P Chase, Missouri statesman Edward Bates. All three men had wanted the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, but it finally fell into Lincoln's lap. While Lincoln understood the professional setback they had suffered, he was clever enough to befriend his challengers and make them stakeholders in his presidential projects.

Just as Lincoln emerged as the dark horse in the Republican Party, so it has been with Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Given the presence of stalwarts like Lal Krishna Advani, who was the prime-ministerial candidate for the BJP in 2009, it could have not been easy for Modi to project himself as a legitimate progeny of the party.

The discomfort between Modi and Advani is not hidden, and the cabinet portfolios announced on May 26 reveal an interesting insight to Modi's personality, with potential rivals co-opted.

Both Sushma Swaraj and Vankaiah Naidu, known to have been close to Advani and unhappy with Modi as a prime ministerial candidate, have been brought into the cabinet. While the former has been given the post of external affairs minister, the latter will be minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Housing, Urban Development and Urban Poverty Alleviation respectively.

Until just a few months ago, critics were predicting that Indian politics had fallen hostage to coalition politics, and that it needed stronger leadership at the center.

Modi is already making his presence felt in this regard. Despite his links with Hindu nationalist forces such as the Rashtriya Sewak Sangh, he invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the oath taking ceremony. Despite the protests of chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, he also showed his grit by inviting Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

While the BJP will not be held hostage to coalition politics, given the majority it has received in the national elections, it will be be interesting to observe how the interests of states are synergized within the parameters of national interest.

The ancient Indian philosopher Kautilya's classic treatise on politics and statecraft, Arthashastra, which originates in the 4th century BC, could offer some insights for. In the work, Kautilya offers some effective pointers for balancing internal and external forces.

While the gap between the desirable and the feasible can be quite daunting, the strategic thought in Arthashastra is conceptualized through the seven pillars of the state: swami (effective leaders), amatya (the council of ministers), janapada (the population), durga (forts and defenses), kosha (the treasury), danda (the army) and mitra (allies).

The seven elements are important because they constitute both the external and internal factors. While Modi has shown qualities of effective leadership, in terms of the collaborative effort in the formation of cabinet, it would be important to balance the most important internal element - the idea of the janapada with that of the external of forming mitra.

How the interests of the state are advanced by creating a conducive external environment was perhaps the most important aspect of Kautiliyan's strategy. The invitation to all South Asian leaders to attend his oath taking could also be interpreted towards creating a conducive environment, as it is a precondition for effective negotiation.

Allies should be an important element for effective diplomacy and the salience of the South Asian countries cannot but be underlined in this regard, particularly when India is witnessing much uncertainty regarding the intentions of China.

Another important element that needs to be highlighted in Arthashastra that is of relevance is that of yogashema (welfare of the population). The idea of yogashema, can well be understood through the "end justifying means" debate, whereby, it broadly meant creating strategies or policies which minimize harm to one's citizens.

Modi faces a challenging task in setting the parameters of national interest and foreign policy. This will be important in dealing with regional as well as international issues.

Perhaps Narendra Modi could generate a "South Asian moment" during his tenure. Given that economics could be the driving factor for guiding India's foreign policy, connectivity within and beyond the region could be a top priority.

This could well change the Asian chessboard, with China becoming a potential ally rather than a competitor.

Will Modi reframe India's foreign policy? While Modi is generally compared to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, perhaps displaying the acumen of "Abe" Lincoln, who focused on domestic management, could take him further on both the national and international stage.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Medha Bisht is Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at medha.bisht@gmail.com

(Copyright 2014 Medha Bisht)

The election as an Indian awakening (May 21, '14)



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