Fifty years after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s greatest post-independence leader, the country today has a new charismatic prime minister whose strong and forceful nature has led to comparisons with Vladimir Putin and Margaret Thatcher.
Narendra Modi, who Monday evening was sworn in at a ceremony attended by over 4,000 people in the vast forecourt of Rastrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, can also seen as an almost Nehru-like figure who is expected by a vast proportion of the population to usher in a new era of a success for a nation that has failed in recent years to live up to its potential.
That is a dramatic change and challenge for a man who was pilloried for years for his association with Gujarat’s anti-Muslim riots in 2002 when he was chief minister, and was condemned as a divisive politician.
He has however already shown an ability to usher in a new era by inviting the leaders of the six surrounding South Asian countries to attend the swearing in ceremony. They have all come, including Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan who has welcomed a “new page” in the two countries’ relations.
Modi is also attempting to streamline the government with his cabinet appointments. He is planning the creation of new umbrella ministries covering what he calls clusters for areas of transport and energy, though that the details of that plan have not emerged yet.
Within minutes of being sworn in, his new website was launched with Modi asking for co-operation in scripting “a glorious future for India”.
The latest indications of members in the 23-member cabinet include:
Arun Jaitley, a top lawyer and the commerce minister in the last (1998-2004) Bharatiya Janata Party government, is the finance minister. He is also the minister for corporate affairs, which has been bracketed with finance before. Surprisingly, he is also the minister for defense although that may be a temporary arrangement.
Rajnath Singh, the BJP president and a chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is home minister, and is believed to have been named as number two in the cabinet.
Sushma Swaraj, the BJP’s leader in the Lok Sabha, is the external affairs minister. She was a leading opponent of Modi’s rise to be prime minister, so this shows he is prepared to embrace opponents.
Nitin Gadkari, a former BJP president, is minister for shipping and surface transport (which has been merged before).
Other Cabinet appointments include Ravi Shankar Prasad as minister for law and telecoms (which were both held by the same minister for part of the last government).
Smriti Irani, who heavily reduced Rahul Gandhi’s majority at Amethi in the general election and holds on to her existing Rajya Sabha seat, becomes human resources development minister. At 38, she looks like being the youngest cabinet member.
The sensitive post of environment minister has been given to Prakash Javadeka who said this evening he belongs to an international group trying to balance the often conflicting claims of environmental protection and economic growth. He has been the BJP’s spokesman and is also to be information and broadcasting minister.
Maneka Gandhi, widow of Sanjay Gandhi and sister in law of Sonia Gandhi who has been estranged from the family for 30 years, becomes minister for women and child development.
Also being sworn in today are 10 ministers of state who will have independent charge of their ministries, and eleven more who will report to cabinet ministers. Further appointments are expected in about a month’s time. Some of those named today are first time MPs who will be reporting direct to the prime minister.
Many of these ministers have substantial political experience, but the appointments are not especially notable in terms of potential effectiveness, apart from Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. Though having no economic background apart from being a commerce minister earlier, he can be expected to take measures that will reform tax and other procedure and improve India’s image as an investment destination. He is also likely to drive urgently needed changes in defence procurement and manufacturing, which have been largely ignored by the outgoing government for most of the past ten years.
The other appointments would not be especially significant if it were not for the fact that Modi has a reputation as a strong leader and administrator, who ensures that ministers and top bureaucrats deliver on policy implementation. Results are expected to stem from his personal drive and attention to implementation.
It is his determination to reform the way that India runs its economy and development that has led to comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, who knew exactly what she wanted to achieve and transformed the British economy 30 years ago.
The comparison with Putin stems from early fears – encouraged by his detractors – that Modi would be an autocrat whose tough policies would have little care for the interests of minorities and neighboring countries. His totally unexpected invitation to the South Asian prime ministers to be in Delhi this evening confounds that comparison, at least for now. Tomorrow he will have meetings planned to last about half an hour with each of the visitors. Though this will not provide time for much substantive discussion, it will mean that he has established personal contact which will ease relations in the future.
The Congress Party is carping that his invitation to Sharif is a reversal of the BJP’s relentless criticism of the last government’s overtures to Pakistan at a time when cross-border infiltration of militants and terrorists is continuing. But Sharif is coming as part of the South Asian group and future contacts will depend on whether Pakistan takes tough measures.
The comparison with Nehru is partly based on the fact that India has not had such a strong and charismatic prime minister committed to building a successful nation since Nehru. Indira Gandhi pursued her own power-seeking agendas. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, had great potential but was not in power long enough to develop. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a great prime minister and statesman, but without Modi’s reforming zeal, while Manmohan Singh was hemmed in by Sonia Gandhi whose primary agenda was the survival of the Gandhi dynasty.
Modi’s challenge now is to run the cabinet and other ministers who he has appointed today so that he builds the strong nation he has promised with Thatcher-like effectiveness and does not become diverted by the BJP’s Hindu hardliners into Putin-like nationalism.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the lower right hand corner of the AS front page