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Dear Narendrabhai: Hearty congratulations on becoming the 14th prime minister of India. And many more for creating history by leading your party to absolute majority on its own in the Lok Sabha. It’s a feat no other leader—not even Atal Behari Vajpayee—and no other party has been able to achieve since 1984. In achieving this, you have also achieved something unimaginable: you have brought the coalition era to an end at the Centre. The fact that you have still chosen to lead a government of the NDA is reassuring: Indian democracy and centre-state relations are strengthened when smaller, regional parties have a share in governance at the national level.
No less towering than your electoral achievement has been the mountain of hope and expectations, comparable only to Mount Everest, which your victory has created. It’s a good thing. A nation living on low levels of hope gets habituated to low levels of achievement. And even though India’s achievements since Independence have been impressive, they still constitute only a hillock in comparison to the Himalayan needs, as well as potential, of our nation.
Our youth, especially those belonging to underdeveloped regions and underprivileged sections of society, are impatient for opportunities that match their soaring aspirations. No political leader recognised this better than you did. However, mere recognition of this reality was never enough. You alone were able to convince a large number of first-time voters, and many older voters too, that your slogan of development and good governance, backed by your own impressive track record of leadership in Gujarat, was capable of making India a high-achieving nation. In politics, performance always speaks louder than promises. This is where you scored over your opponents, making voters see in you a ‘strong leader’ who can deliver faster economic growth, more jobs, more and better educational opportunities, less corruption and so on. The big surge in the BJP’s vote share in this election— from 18.5 per cent in 2009 to 31.4 per cent in 2014—is irrefutable proof of this.
The authoritative manner in which you conducted the campaign and the resounding results that it has produced is irrefutable proof of another truth: that this is essentially a mandate for you, for Narendra Modi; much less so for the BJP; and far less does it amount to support for the Sangh parivar. One hopes the Sangh parivar recognises this and does not give in to the temptation of overreach. Your leadership will be tested on the willingness of your government not to be dictated to by the RSS, even though it would do well for the government to seek the cooperation of all patriotic and service-oriented organisations, including the RSS, in a non-discriminatory way.
This brings me to certain reservations I had—and which I still have, to some extent—about your leadership and the party you lead. (It’s a party I served for a long time.) At one level, these reservations do not matter now, because once a majority of the people have given their verdict in a democracy, it must be accepted by all, including those like me who did not vote for the winning party. Nevertheless, I am mentioning my reservations in the belief that a good leader never ignores criticism. Many leaders, including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, have been harmed when they allowed themselves to be surrounded only by yes men and sycophants, whose tribe grows exponentially in times of victory and shrinks quickly in the wake of defeat.
If Modi remains an autocrat, it will damage democracy. If he fails the test of secularism, his downfall will begin.
There is another reason why allusion to my well-publicised reservations about your leadership is necessary. I would become a hypocrite and a darpok turncoat in my own eyes if I simply praised you in your hour of victory without referring to the fact that, just about a year ago, I had described you as an “autocrat” who cares “two hoots” for his party. My observations were based on the manner in which you have led the government and the party in Gujarat for over a decade. I believe that India’s prime minister must not only be a strong leader, he or she must also be a democrat, by conviction and in action. An autocratic leader is prone to undermine the institutions of democracy. And if the institutions of democracy are undermined for the benefit of a party or an individual, the rot spreads in the entire society. A decisive leader like you will surely cause India’s infrastructure to improve dramatically and the economy to be re-energised rapidly. There is little doubt about that. But if you remain an autocrat, democracy, which is much more than five-yearly elections, will surely give way to social disorder and institutional decay in the long run. Already there are apprehensions in the media fraternity on this point.
Being a democrat does not mean suffering fools or pandering to indefensible social and political interests. Nevertheless, the nation expects Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demonstrate that he respects constructive criticism both in Parliament (especially when the opposition has become so numerically weak and fragmented) and outside it; that he respects the independence of constitutional bodies; that he deals fairly with state governments run by non-NDA parties; and that, above all, he respects the freedom of the media.
A large number of Indians have reservations on another important score. They have serious doubts about your commitment to secularism. Indeed, many of your vocal supporters derisively dismiss secularism as “sickularism”. On the one hand, you have repeatedly stated that you regard the Constitution of India as a sacred text, which is greatly reassuring. On the other hand, you have largely remained silent on secularism, which is an idea enshrined in the very preamble to the Constitution. If it is your view that secularism has often been distorted and misused by your political opponents for electoral benefits, you are right. But the BJP is also guilty of practicing anti-secular and polarising politics for electoral gain. Some of this, sadly, was also evident in the recently concluded elections. You strengthened this impression by not visiting Muzaffarnagar, where horrific communal violence took place last year, or Assam, where innocent Muslims were massacred by Bodo militants more recently.
I agree that wearing the Muslim skullcap or visiting the Gyanvyapi mosque while in Kashi for performing the Ganga aarti is not the real test of secularism. The real test lies in your own conscience. And what is in one’s conscience necessarily gets mirrored in one’s actions. As far as the people of India are concerned, you, as their prime minister, are undoubtedly called upon to show, in whatever substantive as well as symbolic ways that you deem right, that you have equal respect for all faiths, which is what secularism at its core means. If your governance remains secular, you will surely rise to great heights of success and take India to greater heights of glory. If you err on secularism, your downfall will begin. Unfailingly.
Modi should specifically pledge that his government will work towards the goal of a riot-free country.
Today, you are the prime minister of 1.25 billion Indians. The position you occupy places upon you the moral and constitutional duty not to practise—nor allow anyone in your government to practise—discrimination on the basis of religion. The concerns that our Muslim brethren have on this score are not unfounded, even though I hasten to say that they too must do some soul-searching. The BJP’s manifesto has some positive assurances to the “minorities”—which, in my view, is a wrong way to describe non-Hindus. Its promise of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ is highly welcome. You should extend this promise to include ‘sabki bhagidari’, ‘sabko suraksha’ and ‘sabko nyay’. The fact that the BJP does not have a single Muslim MP among its 283 members in the Lok Sabha ought to be a matter of concern for you. Despite this, you should include competent and committed Muslims at all levels in your government, including in the cabinet. Specifically, you should pledge that your government would work towards the goal of a riot-free India. If you demonstrate honesty of purpose by going the extra mile in ensuring justice, security, development and empowerment for all Indians, rest assured that in 2019, India will give you a renewed mandate for another five years.
Let me conclude by forwarding to you a congratulatory message, along with a pearl of wisdom, which one of your admirers asked me to convey to you. (This person, like many others, still thinks I am with the BJP.) He is K.T. Pandurangi, a 96-year-old Bangalore-based Sanskrit scholar of great eminence, whom I have had the honour of knowing. He asked me to send you the following simple but profound subhashita: praja hite hitam rajnah, praja sukhey sukham rajnah (The ruler has no interests other than the interests of his people; the ruler has no happiness other than the happiness of his people).
Dear Narendrabhai, the people of India have placed on your shoulders a heavy burden of responsibility. If you discharge it with wisdom, hindsight and foresight, history will remember you as a leader who did a lot of good to India.