Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's recent statement on "toilets first and temples later" has made everybody sit up and take notice, given its obvious political implications.
This is understandable. Once Mr Modi was nominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election, every Indian voter became interested in knowing a little more about him and his ideas.
What certainly raised their curiosity level was that such a statement came from a man who sees himself as a Hindu nationalist and flaunts Hindutva as a brand of politics that polarises the nation on communal lines. So the question that it raised was: has the man, who is yet to apologise for the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the state's chief minister, made a subtle shift in his approach by trying to broaden his political appeal?
When Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh of the Congress made a similar statement some months ago, BJP leaders pounced on him for ridiculing the pious position Hindus accord to temples. No such protests were heard when Mr Modi made his statement giving toilets primacy over temples. Those who believed that the toilet-temple reference was a stray comment and not part of a larger plan to repackage Mr Modi or rebuild his image to a wider national or international audience should pause and think again. Mr Modi's address at the Global Meet of Emerging Markets Forum last Monday is a clear pointer to a more inclusive image that the Gujarat chief minister wants to promote while preparing for his journey to New Delhi.
In an address delivered through a video-conference link, Mr Modi not only talked about his development and governance agenda that he had successfully implemented in Gujarat, but also articulated, perhaps for the first time, his thoughts on democracy. Avoiding slogans, Mr Modi listed five key challenges about how democracy could be further developed and sustained in our society. Each of those challenges is significant not only in itself, but also because it was articulated by a man like Mr Modi.
The first big challenge for democracy, he said, was how its goals could be achieved through harmony. He did not expand this point, but at the same time there were enough hints to what he could have meant. Harmony of what? Did he mean harmony of ideas or harmony among people or communities? He could have meant both. A larger question that remained unanswered was how that harmony should be achieved and whether harmony could be achieved in a diverse society.
Mr Modi's second idea about democracy was even more interesting. He suggested that democracy could progress further with an enhanced level of participation. "We need to move ahead from representation to participation," he was reported to have said. As an idea, the transition of democracy from ensuring representation to participation is a tough challenge. Most democracies have remained stuck at the level of representation. The experiment of moving from a representative form of democracy to a participative one has just begun in a very few countries. And the likely consequences of that transition are still being hotly debated. Did Mr Modi contemplate such an experiment in India? Or was it a way of telling the Indian voters that he could deliver something better than what Arvind Kejriwal was hoping to achieve through his brand of participative democracy?
The third challenge for democracy, according to Mr Modi, was in the realm of information sharing. He announced that governments could no longer be run from secret files. Without referring to the existing law on the right to information, Mr Modi gave his own impetus to the demand for more transparency and information sharing by the government. The demand is unexceptionable and it is interesting that Mr Modi too believes that information sharing and transparency are vital tools for making a success of a democracy.
Fourthly, Mr Modi talked about the importance of ideas and policies that could help nurture and strengthen democracy. He elaborated this further by saying that institutions could be instruments for giving ideas a longer and more durable life. Once again, there cannot be any debate about the importance of institution-building in a democracy. What he did not say was institutions were even bigger than individuals, not just ideas.
The fifth challenge for democracy, according to Mr Modi, was the need for the government to listen to its people. A patient hearing of the people's voices can be the best insurance for running a democratic government. Listening to the people does not mean that conflicting views would stop the government from taking firm decisions. On the contrary, this would help the government take a decision without losing touch with reality.
Mr Modi's five mantras for democracy need to be looked at closely. They show that he is keen on repackaging himself and presenting a face that is more acceptable to different shades of people and opinion. The focus on harmony, participative democracy, transparency, institution-led policy making and responsive governance is an attribute that has been carefully designed to create a new image for Mr Modi - vastly different from what he currently projects. But the danger here is whether this strategy of creating a new face would deprive him of the support that his earlier image had helped him secure. Therefore, can he make this transition?