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2 years on, Modi struggles to realize India’s dreams

  • In India
  • 00:00, 12 Jun
  • By Sudhir Vyas

New York: India’s Bharatiya Janata Party government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marked its second anniversary in office this month. While it is too early to assess its overall performance, the overwhelming sentiment across India so far is one of disappointment.

The BJP rode to power on a wave of expectations after a decade in opposition to the United Progressive Alliance government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress party.  Support for the BJP was so strong, in fact, that the party became the first in 30 years to win a majority in the Lok Sabha.

Early enthusiasm for the BJP government was based on the perceived contrast with its predecessor. Here, at last, was a strong single-party government led by a decisive “man of action,” rather than a fractious coalition led by a reticent octogenarian, who was often unfairly caricatured as uncertain and vacillating.

Since the election, Modi has energetically strutted the global stage, touting his government as more hospitable to investors and urging foreign manufacturers to “Make in India.” Yet his foreign travels have achieved little, beyond improving his personal standing, which had suffered considerably following accusations that, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had been at least negligent as more than a thousand people were killed in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom.

Modi’s domestic performance has also been underwhelming. Although his speeches and sound bites continue to impress fans of his Hindi oratory, the gap between rhetoric and reality widens by the week.

Indeed, despite speaking eloquently of tolerance and accommodation, Modi has remained largely silent in the face of hate speech by BJP ministers and MPs that is alienating India’s non-Hindu minorities. The BJP may preach development, but it is practicing bigotry — a contradiction that Modi could resolve only by repudiating the forces that helped ensure his electoral victory.

Likewise, Modi has not kept his vow of “minimum government, maximum governance”; on the contrary, he has created the most centralized, top-down, bureaucracy-driven, personality-cult-dominated central government since Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule in the mid-1970s. Those who decried the alleged “paralysis in decision-making” under Modi’s excessively democratic, consultative and consensual predecessor are now faced with a different kind of paralysis, as files pile up in Modi’s office, the only place where decisions are made.

Senior positions — including two on the indispensable three-member independent election commission — stand vacant, leaving vital institutions unable to function effectively. Despite his talk about transparency and accountability, Modi has failed to appoint a central information commissioner, vigilance commissioner or lokpal (the ombudsman who has jurisdiction over all corruption cases involving MPs and central government employees).

With Modi too busy to keep up with all of the decisions he — and only he — can make, the government is adrift. In some cases, it is pursuing blatantly contradictory approaches.

Consider economic policy. Although Modi has declared that “the government has no business to be in business,” he has failed to question his government’s ownership and control of airlines and hotels. Indeed, privatization of major public sector behemoths is no longer mentioned.

Furthermore, labor market liberalization, once considered indispensable to attract investors and promote industrial growth, is on the back burner. Optimistic talk of reform has been replaced by officially articulated respect for “graduated incrementalism.”

Likewise, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who once derided “tax terrorism,” has unleashed the taxman on entirely new categories of victims, including the foreign institutional investors Modi is trying to attract. Unsurprisingly, investor sentiment, which perked up during Modi’s campaign, has dampened considerably.

Modi’s government has also revealed a fine talent for announcing grandiose schemes and failing to finance them. Worse, budgets for health, education, sanitation and women’s security — all major talking points of the BJP’s election campaign — have been cut.

None of this has been lost on the public. India’s farmers, for example, are up in arms, because the land acquisition law passed by the previous government has been gutted through a series of amendments imposed by fiat (which are now, however, running into legislative resistance).

More generally, voters are not impressed by Modi’s transformation from the chai-wallah (tea-seller) of the election campaign, who had sacrificed domestic bliss to serve the nation, into an omnipresent, gaudily attired celebrity hobnobbing with other boldface names. The nadir was reached in January, when Modi received U.S. President Barack Obama — “my friend Barack“— in a pinstripe suit with his own name embossed in gold on every stripe. The public, appalled by this display, promptly humiliated the BJP in polls for the Delhi Assembly, which the party had nearly won the previous year. Needless to say, the opposition, flattened electorally is back on its feet.

Two years on, and even Modi's supporters in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state, are beginning to wonder if the prime minister will be able to achieve half of what he has pledged — whether the target is a clean-up of the polluted Ganges or the revival of Indian manufacturing.

"Modi's a realist," says one retired banker in Varanasi, "but he hasn't achieved anything yet. People say he needs more time."

Higher up the Ganges in Kanpur, the industrial city once known as the Manchester of India, business leaders say the erratic supply of electricity has improved slightly. But there are few new jobs for the 1 million or so young Indians who enter the workforce each month: lack of power, the difficulty of acquiring land, restrictive labor laws and constant interference by bureaucratic and corrupt government inspectors have made sure of that.

"Definitely his vision is perfectly OK," I.M. Rohatgi, who runs an education business and heads the Merchants' Chamber of Uttar Pradesh, says of Modi. "But the implementation is taking time."

P. Chidambaram, a Congress leader and former finance minister, says the government is "on a dangerous path" of promoting polarization, while the BJP's Arun Shourie, a disenchanted former confidant of Modi, laments the "intimidation and silencing" of the government's critics.

Yet the principal complaint about Modi is not that he is a domineering Hindu puritan but that he has failed to do much for economic development. "His concept of development is a few large, shining and conspicuous projects," says Shourie, referring to such Modi-led campaigns as "Make in India" and "Digital India". Or, as Chidambaram puts it: "Where are the jobs?"

Modi also faces intense resistance to change from Indian bureaucrats and is undermined by ineffective cabinet ministers he seems unwilling to sack. He sometimes finds his initiatives blocked by state governments — such as that of Uttar Pradesh — controlled by parties other than the BJP. Banks are constrained from new lending by a mountain of bad loans for infrastructure and industry dating back to previous administrations.

Priyankar Upadhyaya, a political scientist at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, says Modi "desperately" wants economic development and finds himself stuck in a "trap of expectations" set by hopeful voters." He knows that in 2019 [the year of the next general election] people are going to look at these issues."

Modi has already been distracted from government by state elections, including one next year in Uttar Pradesh, whose 200 million inhabitants make it politically the most important in the union. "I think he really wants to bring about change," says Prof Upadhyaya. "But the problem is that the system on which he depends is mired with issues."

"India, for any government or administration is not so easy to govern."