NDA: Hits and Misses
As he completes three years at the helm, Narendra Modi is on the cusp of joining India’s pantheon of great leaders
An assessment of how India has fared in the three years of the Narendra Modi government
MEN, IT IS SAID, MAKE HISTORY—not the other way round. To do that, every leader of a country searches for what the popular film Kung Fu Panda called the Dragon Scroll—the key to limitless power. As he completes three years at the helm of the world’s largest democracy, Narendra Damodardas Modi has firmly established himself as a maximum leader. Especially after leading the ruling BJP to a spectacular victory in the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. The man from Gujarat with humble beginnings is not just making history but is also seen as India’s future—at least for the next election.
SO, HAS MODI FOUND the Dragon Scroll midway through his tenure—the secret sauce that has enabled him to regain the aura of invincibility? And what does he need to do in the coming years to sustain that force to make India a vibrant and prosperous nation and take his place in the pantheon of leaders of modern India? Each of India’s great leaders came with their own answers and solutions. Mahatma Gandhi searched long and hard for the wellspring of India that if tapped could drive a nation and its people to greater heights. After many experiments, Gandhi condensed that power to what he called the twins—truth and nonviolence—which he described as the mightiest force in the world, infinitely superior even to the force of an atom bomb. And he harnessed that with the clarion call of ‘Quit India’ that resonated across a suffering, colonised country.
Jawaharlal Nehru believed the reason for India’s subjugation was that “the spirit of adventure and a rational spirit of inquiry had given way to a narrow orthodoxy, taboos and a blind idolatry… like a sluggish stream moving slowly through the accumulations of dead centuries”. To reinvigorate India, Nehru harnessed what he called the desire among Indians “for synthesis between the old and the new. It was this urge and desire that kept India going and enabled us to absorb new ideas while retaining much of the old.” Nehru believed that if India had to march ahead, she not only had to take the best from the past but radically change her approach so that she could absorb the ideas of the present and build a new future.
When Indira Gandhi became prime minister, she was initially dismissed as a goongi gudiya (dumb doll). She would soon prove her detractors wrong and emerge as possibly the strongest and most decisive leader India has ever had. Among those who honed her thinking was P.N. Haksar, a man of towering intellect, who convinced her that what mattered most was strength. He cited to her the historian L.V. Namier’s analysis: “The weight of an argument greatly depends on him who uses it: that of the strong has force and carries conviction; that of the weak if unanswerable, is called a quibble and apt to cause annoyance.” Among the decisions Indira Gandhi is remembered for is the 1971 IndoPak war and India’s first nuclear test in 1974.
When he became prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, apart from his enthralling oratory and tenderness of heart, mastered the art of getting to the core of a major issue without allowing the multiplicity of arguments to confound him. There was a simplicity and directness to his thinking that enabled speedy decisionmaking. Vajpayee believed in the ancient concept of shakti which holds that every individual possesses a kinetic energy that can be tapped to regain a nation’s greatness. Soon after he ordered India’s nuclear tests in 1998, Vajpayee said, “The greatest meaning of these tests is that they have given India shakti, they have given India strength and they have given India selfconfidence.”
Before Vajpayee, there was P.V. Narasimha Rao, who dismantled the Licence Raj and ushered in major economic reforms in 1991—a prime minister of great intellect who brought deep thought and gravitas to the decisions he took. Then there was Rajiv Gandhi, a techsavvy leader who understood what young India aspired for and triggered the first digital wave, apart from establishing
Modi abhors routine and is always searching for the big, ambitious and challenging idea that would radically change India
India as a regional superpower. More recently, Manmohan Singh showed steel by going ahead with the IndoUS nuclear deal and compassion by focusing on propoor programmes, including enlarging the rural employment guarantee scheme and institutionalising Aadhaar before he lost his way in his second term.
MODI CAUGHT THE IMAGINATION of the Indian electorate with his promise of a decisive and clean government that would focus on development. It propelled him to power with a clear majority—the first for an Indian government in 25 years. Union minister for railways Suresh Prabhu likens Narendra Modi’s triumph in 2014 to a Twenty20 match: the UPA had bowled and fielded so badly in its second term that when Team Modi took charge in 2014 it was like India being down 300 runs. It meant that to stave off defeat, Modi and his ballebaaz had to come out blazing and hit every other ball for a boundary—a tough ask.
Perhaps a railway metaphor might have been more appropriate to describe the transition. In its final years of governance, UPA had run out of steam and derailed India. There was a steep economic downturn, a disastrous policy paralysis and the stench of corruption was omnipresent. Modi and his team had to not only put the economy back on track, but fit his train with doubleheaded engines to speed up development.
When Modi took over as prime minister, he termed himself an outsider and new to Delhi’s snooty power circles. He was no greenhorn, though, either to politics or administration. Those who know him well believe Modi has both a sense of destiny and history. Early in his life, he answered an inner calling by giving up family and friends and embracing a nomadic and ascetic lifestyle. He explored the spiritual and societal dimensions of life and developed a construct of his own that would guide all his actions including when he became politically powerful. As an RSS pracharak, Modi spent years touring the country extensively, building an understanding of the key issues that needed to be tackled.
Then in his first tenure as chief minister he learnt the hard lessons of politics after the 2002 Gujarat riots. It taught him resilience, the need to firmly put down anarchy of any kind and focus on temporal issues such as roti, kapda, makaan and bijli, sadak, paani. Also to reach out and communicate directly with people, which made him social mediasavvy and an inspiring public speaker.
Modi then evolved the Gujarat model of governance and was lauded for his integrated approach to development coupled with decisive and strong leadership. BJP president Amit Shah, who has worked with Modi for over 30 years, believes that the prime minister made no changes in his style or ethics when he came to Delhi. “Narendrabhai’s success is a byproduct of his natural abilities and efforts,” Shah says.
In Delhi, Modi signalled that he did not believe in repetitive administrative work or governance. Those who know him well say he abhors routine and repetition and is always searching for the big, ambitious and challenging idea that would radically change society and inspire the nation. Modi is also not averse to taking big risks even if they may affect his political fortunes. Once he decides to act on an issue he does so with boldness and confidence preferring nonconventional solutions and an element of surprise. In the midst of his government’s demonetisation drive, he told india today in an interview in January, “If you act with clarity and with the purest of motives, the results will be there for everyone to see. I seek no personal benefits from this, only the greater good.”
Contrary to the criticism that Modi is autocratic and that all major decisions are taken by the PMO, his colleagues point out that the prime minister is a very good listener and wants them to always come up with grand ideas that can be implemented. Finance minister Arun Jaitley, who has also been a cabinet minister in previous NDA governments, says Modi is extremely energetic and has the ability to work 18 to 20 hours nonstop. According to Jaitley, Modi always comes wellbriefed on every subject, ensures that he has multiple sources of information and is willing to spend time discussing all the proposals in depth while having the calibre and vision to focus on the things that are important. Modi’s governance in the past three years is guided by his belief that, as he puts it, “India is standing at a watershed moment, on the cusp of actualising its inherent potential as a developed nation and a global leader.” There are four clear areas of focus in his tenure so far: empowering people, especially the poor, improving delivery and minimising corruption, making states rather than the Centre the key drivers of economic growth and building the infrastructure to catapult India into the league of developed nations. The welter of programmes that he has launched is designed to fulfil these aims. In all these, the prime minister would like to be seen more as a social reformer than an economic one. His is a ‘people first’ approach.
Modi is clear that India cannot achieve development without the poor benefitting from economic growth. He is deeply concerned that even as India celebrates 70 years of Independence, there are millions who still do not have enough to eat, water to drink, no toilets or pucca houses. And facilities such as schools, healthcare centres and roads remain pathetic. So Swachh Bharat was launched as a signature programme to provide toilets to those who do not have them. It has touched the lives of millions, especially women
Modi is clear India cannot achieve development without the poor benefitting from economic growth. His initiatives focus on their welfare
who face the embarrassment of defecating in the open. The schemes to provide gas connections, crop insurance for farmers, electricity to all villages and rural households are all designed to uplift the poor. There are also clever political calculations for Modi becoming the messiah of the garib and farmers. He has taken a leaf out of Indira Gandhi’s book to overcome the constraints of caste and communal vote banks by focusing on the poor.
The second major area that Modi is focusing on is minimising corruption and improving delivery of services. Shah points out that every action of his is done according to a plan. The 270 million Jan Dhan accounts that were opened enabled the government to effectively implement the Direct Benefit Transfer of depositing subsidies into respective accounts. Enhancing the Aadhaar programme ensured that the funds went directly to beneficiaries and reduced pilferage. Then came the frontal assault on black money through the drastic measure of demonetisation of high-value notes.
While the outcome of demonetisation is still being hotly debated, it has already resulted in the expansion of the number of income-tax payers by 30 per cent and created a financial trail that would enable the government to crack down on big offenders. By relentlessly pursuing the absconding Vijay Mallya, the government is out to prove that even the high and mighty are not above the law. On issues such as postings and transfers, Modi has reduced discretionary powers and focused on ensuring that merit prevails. And by putting a tight leash on his ministers and officials, he has ensured that there are no major charges of corruption levelled against his government.
THE THIRD MAJOR AREA of focus has been to empower state governments to boost economic growth rather than centralise development initiatives. So apart from devolution of funds to the states, the major structural change the Modi government has effected is to introduce the Goods and Services Tax that will make it easier for industry to do business across states and improve tax compliance. On the fourth thrust area of infrastructure, there are major initiatives to expand the road, rail and shipping networks to boost connectivity and economic growth. There are now moves to disinvest in loss-making public sector units, with Air India at number one on the list.
In the following pages, our staffers have analysed all the major sectors and critically evaluated the Modi government’s performance. While in some sectors like transport and energy, the government is doing extremely well, in other critical areas such as education and health, it has been found wanting. The government needs to focus hard on
Contrary to the criticism that Modi is autocratic, his colleagues say the PM is a good listener and wants them to come up with grand ideas that can work
The government needs to focus hard on creating jobs for the millions in the remaining two years of its tenure and implement the numerous schemes
creating jobs for the millions in the remaining two years of its tenure. It is also important that Modi and his team implement the numerous schemes and programmes that have been launched. To the prime minister’s credit, he personally monitors all the initiatives and pushes both his ministers and top bureaucrats hard. As Prabhu says, he has the ability to see through these from idea to implementation and also its cross-sectoral benefits.
So, has Modi discovered the secret of the Dragon Scroll? In the movie, Po the panda finds out that when opened, the scroll has a blank golden surface that reflects his image. The larger message is that the secret to limitless power lies in oneself and not in any mantra. Modi’s entire thrust in these three years has been to empower the millions across India so that they become the force that will transform the country.
By 2022, when the country completes 75 years of Independence, Modi wants to usher in a New India that “will be powered by the strength of each and every citizen, an India driven by innovation, hard work and creativity, an India characterised by peace, unity and brotherhood, an India free from corruption, terrorism, black money and dirt.” Like the panda, Modi has discovered that the secret of the Secret Sauce is that there is no secret. All it requires is for all of us in India to believe that we can do it—together.