Illustration: Satwik Gade
Illustration: Satwik Gade

The Chakravyuh in the Mahabharata was a seven-ringed, impenetrable battle formation. In his first year, the Prime Minister has successfully broken through two circles. But there are five more to go.


Abhimanyu was in Shubhadra’s womb when he heard Lord Krishna reveal the secret of how to enter the Chakravyuha. But he did not learn how to exit it, and that is the reason why he was finally killed in fierce battle in the heart of the enemy’s army. Not so Gandhiji, who triumphed over the Chakravyuh effortlessly. Not only was he able to enter and exit it with ease, he did so at a time and place of his choosing, dissolving it with ahimsa and creating independent India.

Jawaharlal Nehru largely designed the Chakravyuh of the modern Indian state. Even though not as easily as Gandhiji, he did succeed in entering and exiting it — democratic and secular India was the consequence. Indira Gandhi got trapped in the Chakravyuh. Like Abhimanyu, she got to the sixth circle, but was felled by the Emergency and, becoming increasingly authoritarian and paranoid, found the circles closing around her and she succumbed to the arrows from enemies both imagined and real.

We could continue preparing a report card for all the Prime Ministers and their Chakravyuhas but the coming anniversary of Modi’s first year in office is an opportunity to speculate on his chances of successfully negotiating the Chakravyuha of government.

Abhimanyu heard Krishna saying that the trick was to attack and destroy the soldiers to the left and to the right, so that irrespective of which way the circle turned, one would be able to enter it. The Prime Minister has attacked the politics on the Left but is not quite decisive in his support for the economic policies of the Right. While the Left is rebelling against his social and cultural policies, the Right is beginning to grumble that nothing has changed on the economic front. ‘Nothing is changed on the ground’ said Mr. Deepak Parekh.

In the Mahabharata, the Chakravyuh was a seven-spiralled, impenetrable battle formation. Let us see what the seven circles of Indian polity are.

The seven circles

At the outermost seventh circle is foreign policy. This is the country’s interface with the world — the neighbourhood, the region, and the global political and economic order. Here, Mr. Modi has been the most effective, gaining the attention of different international power groups and having them compete for India’s friendship. From getting the UN to declare International Yoga Day on June 21 to having the US President as Chief Guest for Republic Day to establishing a BRICS development bank to land swaps with Bangladesh, Modi has passed the first circle by neutralising the Left and ignoring the Right. There is a distinct Nehruvian touch to his foreign policy.

“ Mr. Modi has now reached the third circle of governance. Here, the struggle has just begun, with some people-friendly initiatives, and some questionable decisions. ”

The second circle too Mr. Modi has been able to penetrate. This is building a political coalition for governance. By winning elections with a single party majority and ending the era of compromise and coalition politics and then winning several State elections, Mr. Modi has inaugurated a new phase of decisive national politics. Some political resistance remains, from within his party and without, but these won’t stop him from going through this circle.

His penchant of concentrating power in the PMO when collegial governance is required may present difficulties during the return journey, since the feedback mechanism of politics that is required to manage such a diverse polity will be considerably enfeebled, but there is little doubt that Mr. Modi has built a political coalition to give domestic politics a decisive turn. At this point of time he is limited only by his will and his imagination.

Mr. Modi has now reached the third circle — the instruments of governance. Here, the struggle has just begun. There are some good policies, such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (bank accounts), the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (life insurance), the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (accident insurance), and the Atal Pension Yojana (pension for the unorganised sector), but these have to be seen in tandem with plans to reverse the social impact assessment and consent clause of the Land Acquisition Bill, the hasty environmental clearances, and the near-zero interaction with the media in India. Thus, some very good initiatives that are people friendly, with some questionable decisions that are people hostile. It is unclear whether his moves to defeat the warriors on the Left will be as successful as in earlier circles. Equally, the warriors on the Right are voting with their feet. Corporate India is beginning to speak about a ‘directionless’ economic policy steeped in hyperbole. Mr. Modi’s magic is losing its sheen.

It is at the fourth circle — the respect for democratic and parliamentary institutions — that Modi’s achievements begin to look thin. Ordinances are frequently resorted to. In his fortnightly letter to Chief Ministers, Nehru wrote on 16 August 1948, “Nevertheless, (ordinances are) a dangerous path to tread and governments get used to very special measures which they cannot do without later. For us, with our past record in regard to civil liberty, this is a particularly distasteful course.”

The ordinance has become Mr. Modi’s instrument of choice not just in the very visible land acquisition issue but also with respect to his desire “to give a government job to just one superannuated officer”. This emasculation of institutions can be seen in his returning the Supreme Court collegium’s recommendations for elevation to the Bench of an eminent senior advocate; in the government’s defence of Clause 66A of the IT Act, which was mercifully struck down by the courts; or in keeping important offices such as that of the Chief Information Commissioner vacant.

In the fourth circle, Mr. Modi is making little headway. It is too early to determine whether he has the capability to strengthen institutions or undermine them — with early evidence pointing to the latter tendency — but we need another year to find out.

The real test

It is in the fifth circle that Mr. Modi begins to lose his capability to determine outcomes. This is the circle that concerns the public discourse of a plural society; the discourse required to build a modern democratic state. Entering it requires informed intervention, speech and actions that support and consolidate the critical temper required by the humanist aspirations of a modern India.

By his silence, Mr. Modi has allowed the regressive elements among his supporters to determine the terms of public discourse. When the Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research says that ‘What we teach today in schools and colleges lacks both moral and material content, which could mould character and conduct… Our history is deprived of Bharateeyata (Indianness)’; or when the RSS chief says that Mother Teresa’s services were governed by conversion motives, Mr. Modi has remained silent, allowing public discourse to be dictated by a rabble-rousing minority.

If Mr. Modi gets through the five circles described above, the real test will begin in the sixth (political philosophy) and seventh (personal ethics) circles. One cannot govern a pluralist country like India with a philosophy crafted in a shakha. At its core must be a commitment to secularism and social justice. Perhaps a different secularism than the partisan one practised by the Congress, but secularism nonetheless.

A majoritarian mindset, which Mr. Modi seems comfortable with, is unfair to both the majority and the minority in the population. What are Mr. Modi’s core beliefs? What is his understanding of the relationship between communities? What steps does he plan for the empowerment of women? And Adivasis? How does he see dignity achieved in a society fissured by caste? What is his view on the rule of law even if it penalises his closest advisors?

These are not idle questions. They constitute the sixth circle where Indira Gandhi fell. Then, Mr. Modi will still have to face the seventh circle of personal ethics before finally emerging triumphant.

(Peter Ronald deSouza is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views are personal.)

Keywords: Narendra Modi, One year of NDA rule, Modi 365, BJP, Mahabharata, Chakravyuh