Mumbai: A popular political metonym emerged during the 1988 presidential campaign in the US. George Bush was being repeatedly questioned about what his grand strategy would be in case he moved to the White House. Bush recounted to a journalist how a friend had urged him to retreat to Camp David for a week to think through where he wanted to take his country. A derisive Bush shot back: “Oh, the vision thing".
Bush was later criticized for lacking the clarity of vision that was needed for the job. He lost the 1992 presidential race to Bill Clinton, a man known for his clear thinking on most important issues. Since then, political commentators have often discussed whether the presence or the lack of the vision thing matters for political leaders.
A successful politician needs three attributes on his side: a genius for running a campaign that can translate into votes, administrative abilities that will enable him to deal with current challenges, and an overarching vision that provides future direction to the government he heads.
As India prepares to celebrate its 68th Independence Day, there can be no doubt that Narendra Modi deserves a tick on two out of these three boxes. He ran a powerful campaign that helped him cut across the traditional barriers that had given India a fractured polity since 1989. His reputation as a good administrator has been based on his track record as chief minister of Gujarat.
Matters are less clear when it comes to the vision thing. Modi has not yet articulated in a coherent manner what his grand vision for India is. His rousing speeches on the campaign trail promised a new vision that would replace the tattered Nehruvian consensus. But he has yet not moved beyond broad statements about combining minimum government with maximum governance, some promises on blue sky projects such as bullet trains between cities, the catchy acronyms that he drops in his speeches and alliterative flourishes that would do a fresh business school graduate proud. That this has happened despite the fact that Modi is a natural communicator is puzzling.
These concerns have to be seen against the backdrop of bubbling discontent among some members of the commentariat who were rooting for Modi till recently. It is not that nothing has been achieved in the early days: projects have been cleared; the fears of the bureaucracy have been assuaged; some tinkering with labour laws has begun; Aadhaar has thankfully been saved from the policy dump; more foreign investment has been welcomed in defence, railways and insurance. Administrative clarity alone can give the economy some momentum after the policy chaos over the past three years, so it has not been a bad start. But it is yet not clear what direction the government eventually wants to take India. The budget presented by finance minister Arun Jaitley is a perfect illustration of micro achievements amid macro fogginess.
There are three significant areas where Modi needs to articulate his broad vision.
First, his idea of inclusive growth as well as the economic strategies needed to lift millions out of poverty.
Second, his overall understanding of India in a changing world based on new geopolitical realities.
Third, the nature of the Indian nation building project that began with the birth of the republic in 1950.
Modi has made stray statements on these issues several times but he perhaps needs to weave it into a larger narrative. He seems to prefer job creation to entitlements as the best route to improve the lives of the poor but it is not clear what the underlying macroeconomic strategy will be. He has done well to reach out to neighbours, but there are some concerns his geopolitical views will push India towards authoritarian countries such as Russia. He has famously described the Indian constitution as a holy book but his views on the nature of the Indian nation state are still unclear.
Modi has quite consciously taken the wrecking ball to the Nehruvian edifice, but one of the strong points of the Nehruvians has been a clear articulation of the core issues: economic modernization led by the state, a neutral positioning between the two warring camps during the Cold War and the creation of a constitutional state in a country that was earlier only loosely held together by an underlying civilizational unity. It is perhaps easier to criticize the Nehruvian consensus than it is to articulate a coherent alternative vision for the country.
The stellar cast of patriots who wrote the constitution had an underlying vision of a modern constitutional republic that was being grafted on a traditional society divided by the iniquitous caste system. Nehru provided a direction to a young nation that was finding its feet after several centuries of foreign rule as well as mass poverty. Modi supporters believe he has the historic opportunity to provide a new vision to replace the Nehruvian consensus.
Margaret Thatcher had famously slammed a copy of F.A. Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty on the table during a meeting of the UK Conservative Party, and said: “This is what we believe." That is a question Modi will need to address soon, especially since he is keen to take India in a new direction.
His first address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi is an opportunity to speak about the broad contours of his thinking.