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Last Updated Thursday June 22 2017 11:27 PM IST

Birds of a feather? A president, a prime minister and a chief minister

TP Sreenivasan
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Birds of a feather? A president, a prime minister and a chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Narendra Modi and Donald Trump

No three men could be more different from each other than Messrs. Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Pinarayi Vijayan. They differ in background, ideology, values, and habits. While one of them was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the others had humble beginnings. Their responsibilities are different and they exercise power of varying degrees. Even their lifestyles have nothing in common. The pomp and splendor of the White House do not match the grandeur of the ornate Trump Towers around the world. Mr. Modi has carved out a sartorial fashion niche for himself after he became the prime minister. The move to the Cliff House has not made any difference to the modest apparel and lifestyle of Mr. Vijayan.

However, a slender thread of similarity runs through them across miles of land and sea. None of them was in power three years ago. Messrs. Trump and Modi had only a small chance of winning the elections they fought. There was many a slip between the cup and the lip for Mr. Vijayan. None of them had absolute political power before. But today the fortunes of the US, India and Kerala will depend on their performance. Their successes and failures will determine the fate of about 1.5 billion people. They are committed to the progress of their people, but their methods are considered decisive and divisive at the same time.

The three of them came to power through free and fair democratic elections, but none could claim to have formed governments of the people, for the people and by the people. They had high majorities to take them to the pinnacles of power, creating anxiety in the minds of those who opposed them. There was hope that once they were elected, they would become the leaders of their people, in true democratic fashion, regardless of the size of their majorities. But they remained loyal to the platforms they had announced before the elections, without seeking the support of their opponents. Majoritarianism, rather than democracy is the source of their agenda and power. Succession is also not clear for the prime minister and the chief minister.

All of them rode to power on an anti-establishment wave because of the failures, inefficiency or corruption of their predecessors. The voters chose them not necessarily for the promises they held or their record of the past or their integrity. All of them had skeletons in their cupboards, such as unfair business practices and disrespect for women in the case of Mr.Trump, communal antagonism in the case of Mr. Modi and suspicion of corruption in the case of Mr. Vijayan. It was not that the voters loved them more, but that they loved their predecessors less. The voters were shooting in the dark when they elected them. Anything would be better than the craftiness of Hillary Clinton, the ineffectiveness of Manmohan Singh and the mistakes of Oommen Chandy.

It is too early to make an assessment of the three men. Mr. Modi has done three years, Mr. Vijayan six months and Mr. Trump less than a hundred days. But their strengths and weaknesses have been displayed sufficiently to see where they are heading. All of them are likely to complete their terms of office.

Mr. Trump has stuck to his election guns, regardless of the anxieties about them around the globe. Except on the day of his election, he has neither spoken nor behaved as a president of all Americans. His executive orders, appointments and pronouncements only increased universal concern. But he has begun to be flexible and willing to reverse personnel decisions more than Mr. Modi or Mr. Vijayan. He has adopted a more traditional line with China and Russia than originally indicated and has shown no signs of withdrawal from global issues as he had professed. He sees no nepotism in deploying his close relatives in the White House to assist him, an idea that neither Mr. Modi nor Mr. Vijayan can emulate. He gives the impression that he will safeguard the integrity of the Presidency and will not do anything to invite impeachment, which was talked about within days after the election. His strong intervention in Syria, challenging both presidents Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, looked principled and instinctive.

Mr. Modi has virtually washed away the blood of communal carnage from his hands even though it had appeared that all the perfumes of Arabia would not sweeten his little hand, as Lady Macbeth lamented about her own misdeeds. He has established his priorities in domestic and foreign policies and framed slogans and actions to pursue them with determination. The 'good days' and 'development of all' he had promised appears to be in the realm of reality today. He is leading from the front and he takes failures in his stride. In foreign policy, he took India into the American camp even more deeply than his predecessors did. With Pakistan and China, he took a tough line and made peace more elusive. He will definitely leave behind a well-governed and prosperous India, but he will only pay lip service to secularism and communal harmony. He appears poised to win another general election, which would strengthen his self-proclaimed mandate. The streak of dictatorship in him is likely to accentuate rather than recede in the future.

As a Communist chief minister, Mr. Vijayan was expected to carry the party along all the way to swim or sink with it. But he appears to be enchanted by Mr. Modi’s success in dominating the party and the state. His penchant for wrong decisions and then sticking to them, with a few exceptions, even against the bigwigs in the party may hurt him unless he corrects his highly personalized style of decision making. His steely determination has won him the reputation as a 'man with two hearts.' The phrase is not supposed to mean that he is kind and benevolent, but that even if one heart melts, he has another one to hold firm. The thorn in his side is the 'Fidel Castro' of Kerala, 93-year old Mr. VS Achuthanandan, who, unlike Fidel, intervenes in the day to day administration of the state and hits Mr. Vijayan where it hurts. With Mr. Achuthanandan in his own party, he does not need the opposition to keep him on his toes.

Messers. Trump, Modi, and Vijayan may not compare themselves with one another or consider one another as role models. They are not birds of a feather that flock together. But history has placed them as leaders with similar expectations and similar challenges. Inveterate optimism on the part of the electorates has invested them with the power to dispense justice, despite their past errors. None of them had a period of political honeymoon with the people as they had to confront events, which rolled in like unending waves from the first day. Their methods have not been particularly popular, but there is still considerable optimism about them as their people realize that they have a major stake in the success of these three men.

(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora.)

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