No government elected for a term of five years can be reasonably judged within its first ten months in office. But the clamour to judge has become irresistible and emphatic conclusions already drawn. Narendra Modi, the poor man, to have inherited a country in ruins and find it a devilishly complex ship to manoeuvre deserves some pity, even if all empathy is to be denied. And that is exactly what is being done by some erstwhile enthusiasts who are ready to denounce.
For the moment one allows doubts to be surmounted by the memory of the resplendent aration the banks of the shimmering Ganga, marking his historic electoral triumph, that reawakened hallowed sacred sensibilities shrouded in the mists of time.
Is the government doing everything according to plan? Quite clearly not. Election manifestos are aspirations that need to be become actionable plans to be executed. And the manifesto cannot, by definition, become a seamless reality in action.Still, one can indulge in the imprudent luxury of evaluation from the comfortable vantage of not having to personally make hard choices between competing and often irreconcilable objectives that governments face.
And the manifesto is not the whole story. The surge in electoral support, aroused singlehandedly by Narendra Modi, accompanied the earnest desires of countless millions who had long felt denied, indeed repudiated, in their own homeland.
Narendra Modi does not claim to have won the momentous elections of May 2014 alone since many worked anonymously and dedicatedly to turn the popular enthusiasm into votes and parliamentary seats. Yet Narendra Modi was the indispensable factor without which it would have all come to nought. For that alone he deserves some respect and patience. Whether his achievements in government will seal his place in history with unvarnished glory remains to be seen.
But let us not forget the dire state of the country he inherited in May 2014, with economic growth collapsing, and universal demoralisation. To that must be added what is now acutely clear—a scale of corruption and grand larceny unknown since Nadir Shah and Robert Clive. And it was presided over by a prime minister without a vestige of integrity and honour because he knew everything and did nothing to halt it.
As for the first family’s role in the dismal state of affairs, they should be grateful that Indians are such extraordinarily tolerant people because they deserve the fateof Louis XVI and his spouse in 1793.
Broad areas of assessment
Four broad areas of government activity would be worth examining to understand Narendra Modi’s efforts to govern: economy, foreign affairs, socio-politics and, not least, managing communications with the electorate.
These issues are not independent of each other, but can be appraised separately.
The management of communications with the electorate has lacked timeliness, consistency and there are signs of a degree of capitulation to a mainstream media fundamentally hostile to Narendra Modi’s government. It seems governments across the world are vulnerable to manipulation by the media and succumb somewhat. This accusation was levelled at even the most successful in winning elections, like the British Prime Minister,Tony Blair.
Foreign policy blitzkrieg
The government of Narendra Modi is showing itself to be unexpectedly adept in conducting foreign affairs. His visits abroad have been resoundingly successful. His popularity with people of Indian origin, residing abroad, has instituted a new dimension to Indian foreign policy aspirations. Politicians abroad have suddenly become aware that there is electoral benefit in associating themselves with Narendra Modi. He has brought together Indians worldwide, a feat that must be noted for its dramaticvitality, even if its significance turns out to be less momentous in practice eventually. Narendra Modi’s reception in Nepal, with spontaneous warmth and high regard, may not have resonated with his rivals in India, but cannot be gainsaid.
The BJP-led government now enjoys unexpectedly high standing in capitals as far apart as Washington and Canberra as well as Japan and Bhutan. These visits are not a substitute for the mundane realities of hard negotiations. But an India asserting its place in the world and growing rapidly will acquire the kind of influence it has always craved, but failed to attain.
Narendra Modi also has a dream team in NSA Ajit Doval and FS, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. He himself had already shown unnoticed flair in negotiating with foreign leaders while chief minister, which his visits to China might have hinted at to observers. These successes occurred despite the mindless revocation of his US visa although he never sought one after it happened,until the US ate humble pie and pleaded with him to accept one. He then navigated his US visit with a natural and enviable panache. More visits abroad will no doubt take place and he is poised to address some unresolved major issues that will surprise.
One the economic front, only a little can be said since major outcomes are in the future. But already there is optimism that the government is facilitating conditions to encourage entrepreneurship and economic growth. The rise in the stock market cannot alone be a testament to effective policy, but one can hardly ignore it.
Criticism of the first budget last year is irrelevant because it was largely a holding operation. Bold measures taken in haste without sufficient evaluation of inherited circumstances and possibilities might have prompted an unwelcome retreat.But it would no doubt have pleased habitual detractors of the government. Complaints from some quarters that the government has not undertaken enough reform since taking power in May 2014 are absurd. Major institutional innovation has been put in motion that cumulatively must be judged unprecedented.
Planning Commission dismantled
The dramatic abandonment of the Planning Commission, which had become a fossilised relic of the past, going through the motions, has to be applauded. The effective remit and performance of its replacement will become more apparent in the future, but the appointment of Professor Arvind Panagariya to head Niti Ayog and inclusion of Professor Bibek Debroy in it are a reassuring augury.
Its most significant dimension is the expanded role of states and disbursement of a major share of economic resources to them. That the media did not enthuse over this bold commitment by the prime minister they accused of dictatorial instincts is ample proof of their lack of integrity and intellectual bankruptcy.
A much more interesting debate, hinted at by one solitary critic of the current government, would have been to seriously debate the efficacy of this democratisation in helping development and governance. But the prime minister deserves full credit for this courageous policy measure since it represents an act of faith in the people of the country to manage their own affairs and his personal self-abeyance in the power to impose.
Of the two issues that most clearly underline the determination of the incumbent government to press ahead are the rail and subsequent national budget. Only the utterly churlish critic would fail to recognise in them the wide ranging attempt to transform India and its economy.
The rail budget finally broke away from a tradition of primarily playing to the gallery and has sought to make India’s railways the magnificent centrepiece of a transport network and the basis of wider positive economic impact. The issue of private partnership took cognisance of political and parochial ability to oppose change, but managed to balance it with clever infusion of private investment and participation as partners. It will likely become the single most important legacy of a government that is alleged to have done too little so far. India is apparently full of those who would derail the country for petty political mileage, refusing to acknowledge achievement and give credit where it is due.
The general budget
The Finance Minister’s recent budget was a masterly exercise of unavoidable compromise and the elucidation of possibilities within the constraints of democratic recalcitrance. The combination of reform and incentives for economic growth and deterring of tax evasion addressed many of the issues that had remained without policy action for several years.
The gods must have willed it too because the collapse of petroleum prices gave much welcome breathing space to various options that would have been otherwise difficult to adopt. Some policy options that deserved greater stress were perhaps not fully articulated in the presentation by the FM but were in fact clearly addressed. Foremost among them is the need for a generalised retreat of state-sponsored economic activity, with its low productivity, high cost and misuse of scarce resources. This aspect of a failed past legacy needs to be by-passed decisively and quickly.
An assortment of urgent policy choices has been seized by the BJP-led government, but successes have been uneven. Narendra Modi’s instinct for fair play over GST brought success that had hitherto been proving elusive.
Labour market reform has made a shaky start and will not be easy to achieve, but remains paramount despite the shrill opposition of crass vested interests. They will fight their corner on this issue regardless of consequences for the economy.
In other areas such as power and commerce, significant strides have been made without fuss. Legislative impediments to entrepreneurial activity and investment have been reduced by the admirable Minister of Commerce, Nirmala Sitharaman, who has introduced a raft of changes.
Planning and supply issues in power generation and distribution are being addressed with great dispatch by the power minister. Few who heard Nitin Gadkari’s plans for road transport and ports at the World Hindu Congress in November 2014 could have failed to be inspired by his enthusiasm and innovative thinking.
Woes of the Land Acquisition Bill
However, the stormy passage of the land acquisition bill (LAB) through parliament has been the most dismaying episode of the recent past.
Without the passage of the LAB economic policy, growth and employment creation and, with it, India, are sunk. India’s political Opposition knows it only too well and is determined to ensure its failure.It highlights a variation of the scorched earth policy commitments it left behind before the general election of May 2014.
The LAB and the economic growth it promises would seal their fate in the 2019 general elections and thewretched creatures are sparing no effort to thwart it. The overwhelming numbers who really matter in agriculture are the landless and smallholders and it is they who most need to move into higher productivity industry to escape poverty. This is how it happened everywhere else.
The reaching out by Narendra Modi to state governments, regardless of their political loyalties, has been admirable statesmanlike conduct. It also underlines his astute calculation that economic growth and good governance cannot be achieved by the Centre alone and it is their responsibility as well.
In this context, the Make in India objective is dependent on how individual states respond to it. It is of course a reworked version of what has long been known as import substitution, which is also the process by which the input-output matrix of a country gets filled up. It is not new, but implicitly focuses on the critical question of production costs distorted by decades of policy error and misaligned pricing that need correction. India has comparative advantage in manufacturing, which adjusted prices will confirm.
The BJP-PDP Alliance and Delhi setback
Joining hands with the PDP in J&K is also justifiable because it brings the state, which has been alienated for more than 25 years, back into the mainstream of Indian society. To imagine this experience will be untroubled, without setbacks and embarrassing events, is juvenile.
It may be emphatically argued that the release of a militant, responsible for organising violent protests, is a part of the process of making peace and healing. Unfortunately, instead of confidently affirming the universal phenomenon, from South Africa to Northern Ireland and many other parts of the world, of forgiveness and taking risks with such individuals, the government became unnecessarily defensive.
The setback in the Delhi elections for the BJP highlights the perversities of democratic politics and the malign influence the media can exercise over outcomes. T
That a dismal and dishonest bunch of opportunists have been chosen to rule Delhi, whose signature tune is deception, blackmail, disinformation and voodoo public finance, is a problem for the electorate, not the BJP.
In retrospect, tactical errors in the campaign should be recognised and lessons learnt, but no cardinal moral lapse can be attributed to the BJP owing to them. Yet the BJP must consider if the trade off between political expediency and principled clarity should not be pondered with much greater care.
Only the future will tell if a divided electorate will choose deadlock despite itself electing a governing dispensation in the hope of better times. There is no magic formula merely because rightness and good sense suggest that the BJP and its leaders should now be given the opportunity to actually govern. The sheer obstructionist malice of the Rajya Sabha merely underlines the reality that the framers of the Indian Constitution were appallingly misled about what would transpire in the name of a division of powers.
Charges of communalism
It can be unambiguously affirmed that the political impact of the new BJP-led government has been singularly benign. All the accusations of it giving a green light to communal misconduct by so-called ‘fringe Hindus’, insinuating they are Narendra Modi’s real support base, are disgraceful slander.
The hysterical misreporting of alleged attacks on churches and, most egregious of all, an alleged huge spurt in rape cases since Modi came to power,are lies prompted by malevolent opponents, within India and abroad.
The suspected attacks on churches are an orchestrated campaign of slander and disinformation being repeated ad nauseum. It should lead to legal action against the media outlets involved by the regulator for incitement to hatred and potential violence. Narendra Modi has bent over backwards to reassure all communities that he represents all Indians and rejecting it without well grounded reasons is pure bad faith.
Investigate vested media houses
Yet, the mainstream media in India is not merely trying to influence the agenda of the incumbent BJP-led government, but trying to make governing the country impossible. Their agenda is to stall governing the country by inciting public revolt and prepare the ground for the next general elections, if not somehow engineer downfall of the government earlier.
The media truly echoes the Orange Revolutions spawned by NATO countries to overthrow governments in Europe and misuse such protest movementselsewhere as well for foreign policy goals. The ongoing unprecedented incitement to public disorder requires a considered policy response since the objective of significant media houses is to subvert not just the government, but the country itself.
That many media outlets are foreign-owned and their journalists themselves take bribes make it an issue justifying use of the full force of the law. Its agenda is to portray the country as descending into lawlessness, with an epidemic of attacks against its minority population and their places of worship.
In virtually every instance, attempts are made to implicate supposedly ‘fringe Hindus’ and then hold Narendra Modi personally responsible for their alleged criminality. There is a not-so subliminal message that he is the voice of these ‘fringe Hindus’. And incidents imputed to ‘fringe Hindus’ are invariably turning out to be false.
The response of government has been inept and the conciliatory gesture of the Prime Minister personally phoning the Delhi Police Commissioner was ill-advised, however well-meaning.
The fact of the matter is that entire sections of the media are out for his blood. It once exhibited unspoken disappointment that he survived an assassination attempt and will continue to harangue him, not because there are issues for which he should be answerable, but their determination to make governing impossible for him.
Firm action to expose a hostile media is now overdue and their many acts of illegality cannot be held in suspended animation when editors and owners should be in judicial custody.
Modi cannot afford to fail
Narendra Modi cannot afford to fail. He embodies a final opportunity to turn India’s potential advance into reality. Policies to promote economic growth will be the underpinning of social justice. Contrary to the naysayers, growth must be the priority.
They have had plenty of opportunity and demonstrated the error of zero productivity redistribution, although with ample welcome leakage for beneficiaries who ultimately patronise them. Targeted redistribution cannot and is not being rescinded since there are many who would not survive at all without them. But the balance between them is critical and throwing money at the electorate, in the hope of cornering votes, the actuality misrepresented as necessary redistribution, has failed dismally.
Now the godfather of the phenomenon of throwing money at people for electoral gain is speaking mournfully about the need to educate the labour force if growth is to occur. Such are the ironies of the most privileged seeking even more social gratification. Society must be cleansed of such hypocrisy that enjoys unlimited, free first class travel on the national airline of a country in which dire poverty has continued to rule over countless centuries.
Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for over two decades.