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After months of talk, it’s go time for new PM

John Ruskin, the 19th century British art critic, once re marked that the greatest contribution that an aristocratic duke could make to the modern world would be to take a job as a grocer. This apparently bizarre suggestion goes to the heart of middle-class dignity -an idea that I identified in my last column to explain the significance of Narendra Modi’s victory. In our unequal, hierarchical Indian society, we need to correct our misguided notion about what constitutes a dignified life. Much like Ruskin’s Victorian society, Indians believe that dignity is not compatible with being a petty kiranawallah. When so many people work in shops, this prejudice is cruel and destructive -it cuts off decent, hardworking people from the respect of others and from self-respect.

Modi’s landslide victory invites us to be more imaginative in thinking about the nature of human dignity , to move from prejudice to a question. By electing a chai-wallah’s son, who affirmed the aspirations of the millions who have pulled themselves up in the post-reform decades through their own efforts into the middle-class, we are forced to challenge our assumption that selling vegetables is socially degrading. If an upper-class zamindar, who takes time off from his idle life of breeding race horses to stand behind a counter in the belief that supplying people with good vegetables at a fair price, or driving them to their destination in a three-wheeler, is inherently worthwhile, the prejudice might give way to a fairer assessment of human worth.

Ruskin is not only challenging how we judge shopkeepers; he also wants shopkeepers to take their own dignity more seriously . Modi’s victory has made us believe that: 1) anyone can aspire to middle-class status; 2) if one imbibes its values of thrift, ambition, industry and prudence; and 3) a middle-class society is a good society .

Narendra Modi has now been prime minister for six weeks and it is abundantly clear that this is a “Modi Sarkar“. He has established direct contact with secretaries at the head of government departments, encouraging them to take decisions and get in touch with him if things go sour. Ministers have an ambiguous place in this setup, which is probably a good thing considering the mediocre level of his cabinet. Ministers could not be happy -they have been forbidden to hire relatives or introduce personal considerations in their decisions.

Otherwise, this has been a period of welcome silence and calm after the din and clatter of the election. Now we need to see some action after months of talk. In one respect Modi should not be silent. He should learn from his predecessor’s mistake and insistently make a compelling political case for economic reform. He must keep educating Indians about the link between reforms, jobs, opportunities and prosperity . He needs to explain that only the competitive market (not giveaways) can deliver a middle-class society and that a rules-based capitalism leads to dignity, not crony capitalism. Unfortunately, he frittered away a golden opportunity to do this in the disappointing address of the President.

Modi has spoken about “tough“ decisions that are urgently needed to enforce financial discipline, and they risk losing popular good will. With this warning he has set the stage for a hard-nosed budget on Thursday. When it comes to price increases, he would do well to follow TN Ninan’s advice -take price increases in small bites and frequently, and avoid the fiasco over the increase in railway fares.

Achche din aane wale hain (Good days are coming), was Modi’s response to his victory.

Those few words carry a massive burden of aspirations but with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha and supremacy in his own party , he is the first Indian leader in a long time to have the freedom to act on his convictions. He is getting plenty of advice -the politico-bureaucratic system is trying to co-opt him, attempting to make him one of its own. He is being advised to be prudent, to make incremental changes and not unsettle the system. But he must not forget that an aspiring nation has elected him precisely because he is an outsider and wants him to shake up the system. So, he must not listen too much to others and follow his own dharma.

Gurcharan Das, July 9th 2014

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