Will Modi lead India to new heights?

Author: Rajiv Kumar, Centre for Policy Research

There are some uncanny similarities between Narendra Modi and Barack Obama. Both have risen from humble beginnings, both are charismatic public speakers and consummate communicators on social media, both were relative outsiders to the capitals where they now hold the most powerful office, and neither is dependent on their political party for their electoral success. Each has also shown an exceptional ability to mobilise financial resources and human talent to their cause.

But one hopes that this is where similarities will end. Hopefully, Modi will be more successful in reforming the economic and administrative system he has inherited and will be a less divisive figure, politically and socially. To achieve this he will have to act resolutely and quickly against bigots and fringe elements in the Bharatiya Janata Party, which he led to a historic victory in the 2014 elections.

Modi has the ambition to transform India, and lead Indians out from poverty and beyond the middle income trap to prosperity. He holds significant credentials for this task based on his track record in Gujarat, the state that he ran for 12 years as chief minister. But India is not Gujarat. It is much more than even the sum of many Gujarats, because of the huge diversity, complexity and heterogeneity that characterises India. Modi will, therefore, have to consciously jettison his Gujarat experience and make the transition from being a CEO to a statesman. He will have to become comfortable with nurturing several CEOs like himself, and increase delegation instead of centralising all action in his office.

Modi brings total commitment to office. He has built up a solid reputation as a hard task-master and a person who does not flinch from his chosen path, even if he risks unpopularity and ostracism within his own party. He has a laser-like focus on improving governance and the delivery of public services. That will bring succour to both investors and the marginalised. He has promised to root out corruption at the top. But he must also address ground-level corruption and official harassment, which is the bane of the middle class—his principal support base.

Modi has made it amply clear that the focus of his foreign policy will be India’s neighbours in South Asia. By visiting 16 countries in his first year and decisively upgrading Indo–US relations, while also improving upon the status quo with Japan and China, he has clearly shown a desire to secure India’s position on the high table of global governance.

Modi knows that the success of India’s foreign policy will ultimately be determined by whether he can put his domestic house in order. We should expect him to focus far more on this critical task in the coming period. He has to also pay sufficient attention to strengthening India’s democratic institutions. Modi has an historic opportunity to take India to new heights both domestically and globally, and he seems to have the talent, skill, passion and ambition to seize this opportunity.

Rajiv Kumar is an economist and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, and Founder Director of the Pahle India Foundation, Delhi.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Leadership in the region.