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PRIME SKILLS

The obeisance made by Narendra Modi as he entered the parliament building must have taken many people by surprise. Placed in context, it was an obvious thing to do. He is known to be a devout person; if anyone missed that, his choice of Benares, a thousand miles from his native Gujarat, to stand for election, should have conveyed the message. The question can be debated why he did not stand from Dwarka, the capital of another migrant king of long ago, which would have been closer to his home. Perhaps he even took some risk in standing from Benares, whose weavers have suffered economic decline on account of the competition they face from the mechanized looms of Surat which turn out synthetic fibre imitations at a fraction of the cost. But then, the masters of the Benaresi sari, in which all daughters of well-to-do East Indian fathers were once attired for their weddings, are mostly of the minority community, and would not have been a reliable vote bank for Mr Modi anyway.

It is unlikely that Indians will know what rituals the prime minister’s office would undergo before the new occupant enters it. The previous incumbent had decorated its walls with photographs of himself either holding the hand, or staring at a camera in the company of, various leaders of powerful countries. It was not the most riveting visual collection one could think of, but it reflected his ideals and priorities. It is generally ministers of external affairs who handle relations with foreign dignitaries. But whether by chance or by design, foreign ministers in the cabinets of Manmohan Singh were generally lacklustre persons. Some might have said the same thing about him; but they cannot deny that he brought the bacon home in one matter: he ended the international pariah status that his predecessor had earned India by staging the nuclear explosion ceremony. And there are testimonials from other grand dignitaries that they found his counsel valuable.

Now those photographs will find a new home in a bungalow that has been refurbished for the former prime minister just a mile or two away. Maybe he will be happy staring at them and reminiscing about the time when he was nearly tempted to accept George W. Bush’s invitation to go and lasso steers on his ranch. But that would be a waste of his diplomatic skills honed over a public career of almost half a century. His successor is in a benign mood these days; he should consider finding a suitable use for Mr Singh’s diplomatic skills. The most obvious way would be to make him ambassador to one of the great powers. Just in case he considers that a come-down for a former prime minister, he could equally well be given a difficult but non-strategic assignment — such as improving relations with Pakistan, whose lingo happens to be his mother tongue.