Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
NOVEMBER 8,2016 was a hugely consequential date for both Donald John Trump as well as Narendra Damodardas Modi. It was when the US tycoon was elected the 45th President of the United States, and also the date when the Prime Minister of India announced the currency swap measure that will either make or break his political career. Several commentators have sought to establish similarities between Modi and Trump, but the fact is that both are very different in circumstance, personality and in their style of governance. Trump was born into a millionaire household, Modi into very humble surroundings. The incoming US Head of State ran large corporations and married three women when the present Prime Minister of India sold tea at railway platforms for a living, while his mother worked as a maid in households to ensure that her family had something to eat every night.
While Trump was active in business, jetting around the globe on his private jet, Modi went town to town in India by bus and train, working as a social activist and reformer. Even in personal appearance, the bearded Modi is very different from the clean-shaven Trump. However, it is in the distinctive Donald Trump styles of governance that the US President will be very dissimilar to Prime Minister of the world’s most populous democracy.
Narendra Modi has had contact with officials for decades, and over the years, has not only befriended many but worked with them during the thirteen years ( beginning 2001) that he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. As Prime Minister, Modi relies on his officials to ensure a constant flow of information to him and to implement his orders. Not since the period when Indira Gandhi was in her first innings as Prime Minister has the official machinery been as powerful as it now is under Prime Minister Modi. When he introduced the policy with which history will hereafter associate him, the removal of 86% of India’s currency with four hours notice, it was noteworthy that the matter was almost exclusively discussed only with officials.
The small group of those privy to the decision to remove from circulation (old) Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes included Reserve Bank of India Governor Urjit Patel, who championed the move as he believed that at least Rs 450,000 crores of cash would fail to be returned to the banking sector, and would therefore significantly alleviate the pain caused by over Rs 900,000 crores of bad loans, most given to crones of politicians and soon afterwards parked in overseas banking havens. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was enthusiastic about the move as he saw it as a means to such away counterfeit currency as well as take away the value of cash in the possession of terrorists. Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia calculated that the direct tax base of the Government of India would expand by more than double, as those who formerly dealt in cash would be forced to route their earnings through the banking system.
Prime Minister Modi believes in comprehensive monitoring and control, and this is impossible in a cash context but easy within the banking system. Finally, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Nripendra Mishra wanted India to join Sweden in being an almost completely cashless society, and held meeting after meeting of officials to push through the currency withdrawal scheme announced on November 8. Modi has put not only his own political future and that of the BJP on the line but the very economic future of India by his bold move. Donald Trump would never take such a consequential step by consulting officials, as from the start, the US business expert has developed considerable scepticism about the value of official advice, and is expected to go far beyond official precincts in order to get advice for devising policies.
There has been disapproval from the anti-Trump brigade about the high level of military and corporate leaders in the new administration. However, such a focus is understandable in a context where the President will set policy and thereafter, the job of his Cabinet will be to carry these out. Both military personnel as well as those in corporate positions have been conditioned to obey orders speedily and efficiently, and this is what Trump will expect of his executive team. In contrast, officials are usually much slower to carry to policies that they regard as out of the box. Indeed, they will come up with hundreds of reasons why such unorthodox policies should not get carried out, in contrast to military and corporate types, who are used to carrying out orders from top without hesitation.
While Modi stood loyally by known faces in his Cabinet and in top administrative picks, and has given pride of place to officials in his governance system, Donald Trump has chosen fresh faces and bypassed old (and failed) warhorses, while officials in the Trump administration will be expected to perform rather than to dither, accept rather than to question. Even in actions such as his birthday visit to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister Modi has remained faithful to doing things that would meet with international approval. Both the US and China were happy that the two PMs met in such convivial surroundings in Lahore a year ago. In contrast Trump knew that there would be a global ruckus about his determined move to talk on phone (and possibly meet in person later) with the President of Taiwan, yet he went ahead.
In his nearly three years as Prime Minister, Modi has shown respect for the longstanding administrative system and for those associated with it across the decades. He has, for example, avoided filing charges against any national heavyweight of the United Progressive Alliance, even giving Manmohan Singh a clean chit. A forgiving and generous Modi has repeatedly promoted officers known to be close to the UPA, and to Sonia Gandhi and her loyalists, such as former Finance Minister Chidambaram or a maestro of political strategy, Sharad Pawar. It is difficult to imagine President Trump tolerating known Clinton confidants in the higher levels of his administration. Modi and Trump are vastly different from each other, although the US and India are of course coming closer and will do so with accelerated speed once January 20 sees the 45th President of the US take charge of the world’s most consequential country.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.