By NK Singh
The first forty years of our life give the text, the next thirty furnish the commentary upon it”, writes Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century German philosopher known for his essays on the role of human will in creating the world that we experience—in a sense, a kind of European derivative of our concept of the Veil of Maya. The sum of this experience, at seventy, “enables us rightly to understand the true meaning and connection of the text with its moral and its beauties”—it gives us the panoramic view from the peak.
This is an important perspective. Our prime minister turns 70 tomorrow at a time when the rate of change, bringing both risks and opportunities, seems to be accelerating on all fronts. His simple, straightforward style is well known. His memory—for facts large and small—is legendary. This is equally true of his acuity in filtering through the noise with his legendary implementational capabilities while micromanaging to a fault of which examples are multiple: the iconic Narmada Project pumping water against gravity to bring succour and relief to the water-starved areas of Kutch; and, equally, the implementation of the iconic Statue of Unity.
Yet, it is also clear that this 70 is no time for him to rest and assume that the hard-won understanding of the present will, in fact, enable wisdom for navigating the future—the pinnacle on the horizon. “Those who stare at the past have their backs to the future”, notes the oft-repeated saying. Our complex world has forks in the road, not just oscillations around a stable centre. Change is non-linear: interconnectedness—and interdependency—is a fact of life. The next pinnacle will thus, be a different matter than the previous peaks.
Prime minister Modi has demonstrated his capacity for strategic, forward-looking vision on multiple occasions over the years. The Swacch Bharat Mission and the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, for example, took a creative and strategic approach to improve our nation’s health and productivity by directly addressing environmental health risks in taking up issues considered social taboos like ODF and sanitary pads. With his continuing belief in fiscal rectitude, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code tackle the two challenging frontiers of the banking system to extend access to financial services on the one end and shore up the foundations of bank solvency on the other. Again, moving beyond platitudes to address the root barriers to the world we want to see.
Looking forward, he is conscious of the need to navigate three new unfolding complex realities: rapid environmental change; shifting power dynamics between regions, actors, individuals and sectors; and the digital revolution from the Fourth Industrial Revolution to the opening up of new realms of intelligence. The earth that we once thought of as beyond our influence is now very clearly on the new trajectory of the Anthropocene. This has implications for temperature, rainfall, food and water security and biodiversity, among others. The rapid pace at which we are now able to analyse and influence myriad aspects of society, environment, economy, infrastructure and even individual lives has offered a glimpse of the powers that we can use to rise to the occasion. Modi is committed to harness the digital revolution in a comprehensive sense and to build greater collective security. And, how do we adjust to a new world where cybersecurity threats can arise from literally anywhere? These two trends are unfolding within—and influencing—a time of great change in the relationships that structure and reshape our collaboration. Modi’s belief in the PRAGATI (Pro Active Governance and Timely Implementation) platform is part of these same endeavours.
At the risk of presenting a birthday request rather than a birthday felicitation: what are some of the ways in which he can truly use the perspective of 70s in the decades toward 80 and beyond?
He will recognise the need for three qualities of leadership in the coming years.
The ability to remember the past, but also see the present very clearly. We are entering into a delicate era of shifting geopolitical sands. Our past alliances and interactions matter—friends are friends—but navigating new partnerships and initiatives that help us tackle emerging global challenges will require clear-eyed vision. This is true in internal matters as much as external affairs: we need new forms of a collaborative partnership between the Centre, the states, and local governments.
A leader of his stature knows how to work within the constraints of reality—whether fiscal, chemical or biological—and, at the same time, inspire others to unite in making the best choices among hard choices that these constraints dictate. We are on the edge of one of the greatest economic upheavals that the world has seen in recent memory, as Covid-19 and our efforts to halt the pandemic have accelerated existing trends to the point of discomfort and exposed hidden vulnerabilities. Prime minister Modi cannot wish this reality away and must build the support for an innovative strategy that can mirror the hopes and wishes of his countrymen.
Finally, we need a visionary with the energy and freshness of perspective to forge ahead in a world that could be seen as offering both opportunities and risks. The prime minister will be the first to recognise that, by hindsight, joy, beauty, and a common humanity are at the foundation of all that we have tried to do as a nation over the centuries. The horizon lies ahead.
The author is Chairman, 15th finance commission
Views are personal