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Politics

On quest for reform, Modi cultivates his own mystique

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Independence Day speech transfixed many TV watchers, but it was not because of his fiery eloquence.

     In a significant break from tradition, Modi delivered his one-hour address without a bulletproof shield at his podium. For a country that has a history of leaders being assassinated -- including the father of independent India, Mohandas Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi -- it was an eyebrow-raising moment.

     During the Aug. 15 speech in the old part of the Indian capital, known as Old Delhi, Modi stressed his dedication to his job. "If you work for 12 hours, I will do so for 13 hours. If you work 14 hours, I will do for 15 hours." He said he sees himself not just as prime minister but as citizens' leading servant.

     The 64-year-old leader is seeking to energize an economy long referred to as a "sleeping giant" or "sleeping elephant." His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide victory in general elections back in May. But perhaps the boldness and, some might say, bravery he displayed that day in Old Delhi had something to do with the BJP's follow-up success in local elections in October.

     Old Delhi is home to many Muslims. And in India's Muslim community, resentment against Modi runs deep. He was chief minister of the state of Gujarat when religious riots broke out in 2002. A large number of Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs, and Modi has since been followed by a cloud of suspicion. The general election campaign was marred by bombings believed to have been targeted at Modi.

     Yet Modi took a chance in Old Delhi. And now that his party has further cemented its power, he can continue on his quest to rouse that elephant.

Ruffling bureaucratic feathers

Modi has a knack for coining catchphrases. At a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Myanmar in November, Modi said India's "Look East" policy had become "Act East." 

     U.S. President Barack Obama, who was also in Myanmar at the time, praised Modi as a "man of action." About two weeks later, the U.S. and India resumed trade negotiations after a four-year hiatus. 

     To woo foreign investors, Modi has also pledged to transform India from a "red tape" to a "red carpet" economy. That is still a work in progress, but the prime minister has made it clear he intends to revamp the bureaucracy -- sometimes to the chagrin of its members.

     In mornings now, government employees form long lines at the entrances of buildings in the administrative district of central New Delhi. To enter, they first have to punch in their identification numbers and place their index fingers on biometric devices.  

     Immediately after he took office, Modi ordered a probe into how much government employees were actually working. He was stunned by the results, which showed that only 20% of the staffers made it to the office on time. The prime minister decided to punish regular latecomers with pay cuts. And by introducing the biometric ID machines, it is now virtually impossible to game the system. 

     Not everyone is pleased. "Give me a break!" one male government employee in his 30s said. "I can't keep up" with the changes in the work environment.

     Some say Modi makes decisions arbitrarily, causing friction with others. In any case, not only is he shaking up the bureaucracy, he is also going his own way diplomatically. In the past, India has pursued an "omnidirectional foreign policy" -- attempting to maintain not-too-close yet not-too-distant relations with most other countries. Yet Modi has made no secret of his desire to strengthen partnerships with Japan and the U.S. 

     In a surprise move, Modi on Nov. 21 took to Twitter to invite Obama to India for Republic Day on Jan. 26.

     At the same time, the prime minister has adopted a pragmatic yet firm stance toward China, with which India has a longstanding border dispute.

Strategic inclusiveness

Modi has made a point of reaching out to India's far-flung eastern region, which borders Myanmar to the east and China to the north.

     The prime minister on Dec. 1 visited Kohima in the northeastern state of Nagaland. Dressed in traditional regional attire, he took a dig at his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who never made an official visit to Nagaland during his 10 years in office. "Nagaland is 10 to 15 hours from Delhi, but it took more than 10 years for a prime minister to come here," Modi was quoted as saying by local media.

     British and Japanese troops battled at Kohima during World War II. Today, seven states in the northeastern part of India, including Nagaland, are conflict-ridden due to the presence of armed separatists. They are also underdeveloped.

     But Modi is focused on connecting this poor region with Myanmar, where there are high hopes for economic growth. He is also eyeing increased security along the border with China.

     Modi unveiled plans to allocate 280 billion rupees ($4.87 billion) for the construction of 14 new railway lines in the northeastern part of the country, and to develop the area for tourism.

     In Kohima, where some militants are calling for the region's independence, Modi again opted to go without a bulletproof shield.

(Nikkei)

 

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