Narendra Modi must put rhetoric aside and build regional trust

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:35am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:35am

Not for decades has India been so hopeful. Indians have overwhelmingly voted for Narendra Modi to be their next leader, counting on him to bring about the economic and social changes that the defeated Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance failed to achieve. The world's biggest democracy turned to him because it believed he was an efficient strongman who could restore growth, bring down double-digit inflation, cut crime, end corruption and build the essential infrastructure the country so badly needs. He has backed those aspirations by contending that "better days are ahead", but the to-do list is so daunting and so little has been said about important matters like political inclusiveness, foreign policy and sectarian issues that all that can be said with certainty is that he has a great deal to live up to.

Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party campaigned on his achievements as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. Relying heavily on social media, the message was hammered home that the new business, jobs, road construction programmes, 24-hour electricity and lower crime there could also be made reality nationwide. For the first time since Indira Gandhi's prime ministership in the 1970s, personality was put ahead of party to create a brand for the candidate that was too appealing to ignore. It was a strategy guaranteed to win over an electorate disillusioned by a decade of Congress' misrule and broken pledges.

But while Indians turned to Modi for the hope he represents, they should also have asked questions about the issues that he barely mentioned. Sustained growth will require stability and that necessitates the support of the country's multitude of political parties, ethnic and religious minorities and neighbouring countries. Yet inclusiveness and foreign relations were not election issues, despite the concern of the nation's 150 million Muslims over sectarian violence on his watch in Gujarat in 2002 and nationalist credentials similar to Japan's Shinzo Abe that have irked China and Pakistan, both of which have territorial disputes with India.

Modi has warned Beijing to "shed its mindset of expansionism" and berated Pakistan for backing Muslim separatists in India. Such rhetoric has to be put aside in favour of talks, cooperation and building trust. That also has to apply to the nation's diversity. If hopes are to be attained, Modi has to be inclusive, open-minded and innovative.