Perhaps no other speech that Narendra Modi has made since he became Prime Minister in 2014 has been so widely appreciated as the one he delivered at the meeting of the newly elected MPs of the National Democratic Alliance on Saturday in the Central Hall of parliament. It indicated that he wants to change the substance, idiom and image of his second term in office.
Both admirers and critics could see the difference between Campaigner Modi and Captain Modi. After all, he had led the most polarising campaign in the history of parliamentary elections. But having won the renewed mandate, Modi, who will be sworn in as India’s PM for a new five-year term on Thursday, has struck a new, distinctly de-polarising tone.
His speech was truly praiseworthy on many counts – above all, on his new outreach to Indian Muslims. What he said on this count – and, more importantly, whether his actions match his fine words – will determine how history will judge the Modi Legacy.
There were two noteworthy points in his message to Muslims. First, he affirmed the need to win the ‘vishwas’ (trust) of Muslims. “Minorities”, he said,”have been deceived in the country through an imaginary fear created for the purpose of votebank politics. Humein is chhal ka vicchched karna hai. Humein vishwas jeetna hai (We have to pierce this deception. We have to gain trust.)” Second, he sought to drill a hole in a deeply-held belief and prejudice in his own ideological fraternity – namely, that Muslims are not “Us”, they are the “Other”. He said, “Ab hamara koyi paraaya nahinho sakta hai. Jo humein vote dete hain, woh bhi hamare hain; jo hamara ghor virodh karte hain, who bhi hamare hain. (Now we cannot see anyone as an outsider. Those who voted for us are ours. Those who severely oppose us are also ours.)”
Why has Modi undertaken this new and uncharacteristically direct outreach to Muslims? And why now? The second question is easily answered. Now that he has won a bigger and far more emphatic mandate, which is almost entirely a mandate for Modi and not for the BJP, he feels far more self-confident of steering his party and his government in the direction he wants. He does not even feel constrained by the ideological rigidities of the Sangh Parivar in this respect. The Sangh Parivar has to accept his line – and not the other way round. It is worth recalling here that, as Gujarat’s three-term Chief Minister, he had tamed the all-powerful Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other affiliates of the RSS in the state.
To know the answer to the first question, we should look at the compulsions as well as opportunities before Modi on both domestic and foreign policy fronts. The domestic compulsion is that with the voters’ expectations from him having soared sky-high, he has to perform to their satisfaction – especially on the economic front. The economy is not in a good shape. The demand for employment is pressing and widespread. The distress in agriculture remains unmitigated. And even though price rise was not much of an issue in the just-concluded elections, the likelihood of a spurt in oil prices (due to war-like tensions between USA and Iran) could add to the common people’s woes. In this situation, Modi understands the critical need for domestic peace, which can be breached by hardliners among his own supporters, making Muslims feel insecure. His words “Ab hamara koyi paraaya nahin ho sakta hai” is clearly directed at them.