Inaugural rituals like swearing-in ceremonies have a power of their own. They create spaces, hierarchies, transitions, new pecking orders. They erase history to create history. One witnessed all this in the oath taking ceremony of Narendra Modi and his Cabinet. The stage was Lutyens’ Delhi and the ceremony marked the passing of an era. The Modi era claimed its turf in history by decimating the Nehruvian period.
The size, scale and even the imperial landscape of the ceremony made for a different drama. About 5,000 VIPs formed the chorus for a change in power. Even the choice of VIPs indicated a change.
The first thing that caught the eye was the presence of sadhus and sants. Even Sri Sri Ravishankar added his presence to the front rows. Secular minds will object but, in a way, one saw India at ease with itself — businessmen were prominent and there was no sense of embarrassment, no reference to crony capitalism.
There was a touch of Bollywood as well with actor-MPs and Salman and Salim Khan adding to the sheen. Yet, what marked the day was the presence of Saarc leaders — from Nawaz Sharif, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Prime Ministers of Bhutan and Nepal and Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom. India as locale seemed to be flowering in the South Asian context.
The curiosity, the gossip and the excitement showed that Mr Modi had not just invited a few neighbouring leaders but had attempted to create the prospect of a new neighbourhood politics. People reflected on the Delhi that Mr Modi was taking over. Earlier Delhi was the space Mr Modi had attacked for trying to usurp his right to history. Delhi under the Congress party was a continuation of the “Mughal rule”, he charged. The inmates of Delhi felt something new was being created. But a society that talked with rumour and gossip could find little information about the new Cabinet. Power without gossip is Mr Modi’s new style of governance and journalists wondered about the fate of Page 3.
One could also sense that Mr Modi realised that this was an inaugural and not a summit. The complaints of J. Jayalalithaa and Vaiko about Mr Rajapakse’s presence went unheeded. Ceremony, he knows, has its own logic and its own possibility in creating a new brand of politics. As one watched the VIP guests assembling there was speculation about the Cabinet. What created a sense of fulfilment among many observers was the appointment of Ajit Doval as National Security Adviser.
Mr Doval’s reputation as a legend precedes his appointment. TV commentators mentioned his Kirti Chakra, his role in critical negotiations, his time as an undercover agent. There is a general buzz of middle-class approval and one realises that if Mr Doval did not exist, the Modi government would have had to invent him. Such is the professionalism and machismo he provides to the new leadership. Here is a man with a touch of James Bond, who links covert operations to policy and internal and external security. The security idea as unity, as style, as policy, as concern which marks the Modi government was obvious.
The roll call of the new Cabinet revealed many old faces and surprising new entrants. One TV wag commented that the Bharatiya Janata Party had recruited all its faces — commentators who added nuance and gravitas to their TV shows. Prakash Javadekar, Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani are now prominent members of the council of ministers. The audience is wondering who would be the new faces on TV.
The BJP muster included an impressive number of women and they added colour, competence and a sense of energy to the event. One felt gratified that Ms Nirmala Sitha-raman, Ms Smriti Irani and Najma Heptullah were ministers. They brought grace and style to the ceremony, while Uma Bharti added fizz to the line-up, blatantly tweeting she had got the ministry of water resources.
One realised that as a new generation takes over, presence mixes with absences. The two great absences from the Cabinet were Murli Manohar Joshi and L.K. Advani. The two were present at the ceremony providing a touch of gravitas, but there was now a sense of a relay race, of a new era racing past them. A goodbye was whispered silently by many spectators to these stalwarts of Indian politics.
There were moments of decentering as side shows to the main ceremony. Mr Karzai, the Afghan leader, lambasted Pakistan as the seat of terror in the region.
Mr Karzai performed another function. He decentred our obsession with Pakistan, emphasising the plurality of Saarc. In a dramaturgical sense, he semaphored the new decentred politics that the Modi government might follow to go beyond old clichés and obsessions. As one of the commentators reminded the audience, there was an array of democratically-elected leaders from South Asia.
The ceremony was impressive but what added to the ceremony were the colours of the evening and the power of the architecture. Collectively, they added a mellowness to the day as Delhi welcomed a new ruler, a new government and a new pecking order. While TV and newspapers have been talking about the new order, segments of social media continued to articulate doubts about the new government. What remained unsaid was that the beauty of democracy is the ease of transition.
Sonia Gandhi yielded to Mr Modi without hiccup and both sensed the transience and limits of power. This has a sense of fable to it. One cannot ask for more.