Bache Din

The Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment en­ters the last leg of its term

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Ashish Me­hta

When it comes to naren­dra Modi and, by ex­ten­sion, his four years at the helm so far, peo­ple tend to re­act sharply, putting ob­jec­tiv­ity aside. Yet, one ob­jec­tive state­ment that can be made as his gov­ern­ment en­ters its fi­nal year is: Modi as prime min­is­ter has proved both his crit­ics and sup­port­ers wrong – to an ex­tent. nei­ther are his achieve­ments any­where near what his fans had hoped in 2014, nor do the fail­ures come close to his crit­ics’ night­mares. The promised new in­dia is not so new, achchhe din feel no dif­fer­ent from pre­vi­ous days. Yet, the buzz on both sides is that some­thing is chang­ing dras­ti­cally. in his trade­mark way, Modi has made all at­tempts to keep up the tempo of

One day Modi is ad­dress­ing an elec­tion rally, another day he’s launch­ing an acronymned scheme, the third day he’s off on a foreign trip, and back again, he video-con­fer­ences with bu­reau­crats to re­view key projects, and on a free day, he coins yet another slo­gan.

happenings. one day he is ad­dress­ing an elec­tion rally. The PMS of the past usu­ally didn’t bother about rou­tine elec­tions, whereas Modi, in his hands-on way has taken charge of (and credit or blame for the re­sult of) ev­ery state elec­tion and ev­ery by-elec­tion. The next day he is launch­ing yet another acronymed scheme, even if many of them are re­fur­bished ver­sions of long-ex­ist­ing ones. The third day he is off on yet another foreign trip. While his foreign-pol­icy ini­tia­tives to­wards the im­me­di­ate neigh­bour­hood can be open to crit­i­cism, he has largely raised in­dia’s im­age on the global stage – more so when it comes to the big pow­ers, as he has cho­sen to build a per­sonal rap­port with their lead­ers. The next day he is head­ing a video-con­fer­ence of bu­reau­crats re­view­ing the progress of key projects. in be­tween, he finds time to take to the so­cial me­dia or ad­dress the na­tion in­for­mally through ra­dio pro­grammes and set­ting the so­cial agenda. When the day is free, he coins yet another slo­gan – the only sub­ject for which congress pres­i­dent rahul Gandhi gave him an A+ in his ‘re­port card’.

Those who see him from close quar­ters say his en­vi­able en­ergy lev­els have re­mained as high as ever as he en­ters the make-or-break fifth year. That is no mean achieve­ment: far younger lead­ers – from ra­jiv Gandhi to Barack obama – looked fa­tigued within four years of be­ing at the top. Amit Shah, BJP pres­i­dent and the first-among-equals when it comes to the PM’S col­leagues, is match­ing him up on the en­ergy quo­tient. so do most of the key min­is­ters, and the party cadre.

Yet, sloth is build­ing up, in the gov­ern­ment and in the party. The gov­ern­ment is com­ing round to ad­mit­ting that it can­not de­liver on all the ex­pec­ta­tions it trig­gered with its his­toric and mas­sive man­date, not within this sys­tem. The party is learning to live with un­cer­tainty af­ter an out­break of ex­u­ber­ance where it went to polls only to win.

This was not the fifth year they had en­vi­sioned in 2014. In a way, the In­dian voter’s five-year itch is a well known phe­nom­e­non, and ev­ery PM has faced it. The only ex­cep­tion in re­cent decades was Man­mo­han singh who went on to win the se­cond term. oth­er­wise, ra­jiv Gandhi, PV narasimha rao and Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee have all seen their pop­u­lar­ity go­ing down in the fifth year. Blame it on the itch for change. Anti-in­cum­bency, in other words.

But this term en­tered the psepho­log­i­cal lex­i­con of in­dia only in 1989 – to ex­plain ra­jiv’s down­fall. Jawa­har­lal nehru did not lose a gen­eral elec­tion, and indira Gandhi had her ups and downs but for rea­sons other than plain anti-in­cum­bency. in an ide­l­ogy-neu­tral sense, Modi, over the four years, has been more of a leader in the nehru-indira mould than in the ra­jiv-rao-va­j­payee league. Will he be able to seal his mem­ber­ship of the au­gust club by this time next year? There is no doubt that a sub­stan­tial sec­tion of vot­ers con­tinue to ad­mire his lead­er­ship, and he is on the top of the po­lit­i­cal charts with a huge gap be­tween him and the near­est ri­val. But his pop­u­lar­ity is not as high as it used to be, ac­cord­ing to a bunch of opin­ion polls. one of them, ‘lokniti-csds-abp news Mood of the na­tion sur­vey’, of May 24, has 39 per­cent re­spon­dents in favour of giv­ing the NDA gov­ern­ment a se­cond chance, and 47 per­cent against the idea.

How do we make sense of this boomerang curve of the gov­ern­ment’s rap­port with peo­ple?

There would be many an­swers; here’s one of them: the hype and hys­te­ria of 2014 with tall promises and un­nat­u­ral ex­pec­ta­tions, es­pe­cially in the spheres of econ­omy and pol­i­tics.

Econ­omy

The one area where most peo­ple had high hopes from Modi is the area where his per­for­mance is open to in­ter­pre­ta­tions at best and an out­right fail­ure at worst.

in 2014, the congress-led UPA was a sink­ing ship as much due to a plethora of scams as due to an eco­nomic slump – caused by pol­icy paral­y­sis and marked by lower GDP growth and job­less­ness. Modi as chief min­is­ter had kept the Gu­jarat econ­omy charged up and at the front of in­dia’s states, and he was ex­pected to do the same for the na­tional econ­omy. it seems now that the skills needed to man­age a state econ­omy is only a small sub­set of the skills needed to man­age a na­tional econ­omy: one in­volves only in­dus­trial in­vest­ments and a frac­tion of taxes, whereas the other in­volves the whole macro-econ­omy.

Thus, the GDP growth rate – the ar­guably bot­tom line of eco­nomic per­for­mance – did turn up af­ter Modi took charge, but it hov­ered be­low 7.5 per­cent and showed no in­cli­na­tion to inch to­wards the promised dou­ble digit. in­deed, the po­lit­i­cally ben­e­fi­cial but eco­nom­i­cally con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion of de­mon­eti­sa­tion left the GDP growth rate into a freefall for full five quar­ters run­ning. On the job cre­ation front, the of­fi­cial num­ber-crunch­ers have been try­ing hard to beat the data into sub­mis­sion,

and yet ground re­al­ity in­di­cates some­thing else: put tellingly into the PM’S com­ments about job op­por­tu­ni­ties in pakoda-sell­ing.

As for de­mon­eti­sa­tion, more than half the peo­ple seemed ea­ger in novem­ber 2016 to be­lieve in the move’s pur­ported causes and ben­e­fits even if they kept chang­ing over the next three months. But when, go­ing by head­lines, there is no dis­cernible change in the phe­nom­e­non of black money and new cur­rency notes too have spawned fakes, de­mon­eti­sa­tion does not look to have served any pur­pose other than win­ning Ut­tar Pradesh. Af­ter the much-de­layed rbi data, show­ing the re­turn of more than 99 per­cent cash into the bank­ing sys­tem, there has been no of­fi­cial word of ex­pla­na­tion. The ar­gu­ment has now shifted to the rise in tax col­lec­tion fig­ures which un­for­tu­nately are not even half as dra­matic as the demo de­ci­sion. Most peo­ple have moved on, largely for­get­ting the pain they went through for what crit­ics termed a bizarre fiat, but those who have lost their liveli­hoods may have dif­fer­ent thoughts.

The shift to goods and ser­vices tax (GST) should be one achieve­ment this gov­ern­ment would be proud of. op­posed by the BJP when the congress pro­posed it – on spe­cific grounds, this was one of those points on the na­tional agenda which the gov­ern­ment pushed ahead, risk­ing its rap­port with the trade and busi­ness class. And it rightly claimed credit for it, with larger-than-life Modi cutouts and na­tion­al­ist slo­gans. The ini­tial hic­cups in im­ple­men­ta­tion, how­ever, turned the tide. in elec­tion­bound Gu­jarat, the PM’S home state, traders were on warpath, and the PM in his elec­tion speeches had to con­cede that the GST was a de­ci­sion pushed by all par­ties, and the cen­tre was only “a 30th part of the GST coun­cil”.

Pol­icy paral­y­sis has given way to pol­icy proac­tive­ness but the num­ber of large-scale projects stalled at the end of the congress regime has not come down and the in­vest­ments in them re­main in freeze. That, plus the stricter pru­den­tial norms in­tro­duced by the then rbi gov­er­nor raghu­ram ra­jan cou­pled with the gov­ern­ment’s vig­i­lant ac­tion,

has brought on the great bank­ing cri­sis. strictly speak­ing, it is not the Modi gov­ern­ment’s do­ing: the bank­ing-cor­po­rate nexus that turns the busi­ness loan into an NPA is a re­sult of the years of bad habits of all stake­hold­ers. But the econ­omy is not ca­pa­ble to ab­sorb this shocker as it is try­ing to come out of the pre­vi­ous two shocks of demo and GST. over the next year, de­spite the gov­ern­ment’s best in­ten­tions, the bank­ing cri­sis is go­ing to snow­ball – and can lead to an avalanche.

The in­fla­tion fig­ures, con­trary to pop­u­lar per­cep­tion, are well un­der con­trol. so is the fis­cal deficit – a praise­wor­thy achieve­ment for an al­legedly pop­ulist gov­ern­ment. But the mid­dle-class re­sent­ment at the ris­ing petrol/diesel prices and their in­fla­tion­ary im­pact is a chal­lenge for a re­formist gov­ern­ment that should not take the easy way out. What stings the mid­dle class more than the price is Modi’s and his col­leagues’ crit­i­cism of the petrol price rise dur­ing the pre­vi­ous regime. This is rem­i­nis­cent of the run­away in­fla­tion in dal/pulses – against the back­ground of BJP lead­ers’ take on the mat­ter five years pre­vi­ously.

The Modi gov­ern­ment’s re­port card on the eco­nomic front is not ex­actly worse than that of the UPA ii, but those tall promises – of dou­ble-digit growth and strength­en­ing ru­pee-dol­lar rate, not to men­tion ₹15 lakh in your ac­count by bring­ing back black money hoarded abroad – have made some in the mid­dle-class feel short-changed.

Pol­i­tics

Year 2014 was an ex­cep­tion, giv­ing Modi all the aces in his hand. Man­mo­han singh had two terms, and a third would have been nearly a statistical im­pos­si­bil­ity. it helped that the ri­val claimants were in dis­ar­ray. The top post was up for grabs, and who­ever was the BJP’S prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date stood the best chance. To Modi’s credit, no other can­di­date – from his party or else­where – could have in­spired high hopes in peo­ple re­sult­ing in the rare out­right ma­jor­ity for one party.

over the course of the four years, broadly speak­ing, Modi’s elec­toral for­tunes have not fal­tered. Aided by shah, he has her­alded a new age in in­dian pol­i­tics. With their cor­po­rate-style strate­gies, the BJP has turned not only into the self-claimed largest party in the world but also a war ma­chine per­pet­u­ally in the elec­tion mode. They are the first to make use of new poll tac­tics, us­ing so­cial me­dia and data­bases. They are like those crick­eters who fight for ev­ery run and do not give up till the last ball.

The re­sult is that the BJP has won nearly all key state polls (ex­cept Delhi and Bi­har), made his­tory in the most cru­cial state (Ut­tar Pradesh), ex­panded its foot­print to states where it had never dreamed of win­ning (As­sam), and man­aged to be in power with right al­liances some other states (Goa). Kar­nataka, with near-ma­jor­ity, should not be seen as an ex­cep­tion. it re­mains to be seen if it is able to re­tain power in the three strongholds go­ing to polls this year: ra­jasthan, Mad­hya Pradesh and ch­hat­tis­garh. it will have to com­bat long anti-in­cum­bency, and it may lose at least one state, if not two. on the whole, Modi the PM has been elec­torally as suc­cess­ful as nehru and indira, if not more, with a panin­dian ap­peal.

There is, how­ever, another way of look­ing at things. All-im­por­tant Gu­jarat, for ex­am­ple, proved con­sid­er­ably dif­fi­cult and was won by merely seven seats above the mid-way mark. Vic­to­ries in Haryana, Ma­ha­rash­tra, Hi­machal Pradesh, Ut­tarak­hand, As­sam and Tripura can be seen as an anti-in­cum­bency vote or the re­volv­ing-door choice. losses are not small either: Delhi, Bi­har, Pun­jab, Ker­ala, Tamil nadu and West Ben­gal (not to men­tion states like Goa, where the party’s per­for­mance was poor though it man­aged to be in power in al­liance). For a party that came to power at the cen­tre with a stun­ning ma­jor­ity, wins are on par but the losses stand out. Ex­pla­na­tions may dif­fer from state to state, but a pat­tern to them is that when­ever a lo­cal force other than the long-term sta­tus-quo-ist party (mostly congress but also CPM) chal­lenges Modi, he does not seem as in­vin­ci­ble as he oth­er­wise does. Also, where the re­gional par­ties are on a strong wicket, the BJP re­mains help­less.

More­over, peo­ple vote dif­fer­ently in state elec­tions and na­tional elec­tions. The BJP has lost all but six of the 23 by-elec­tions to the lok sabha since 2014 [polling for four more was un­der way at the time of this writ­ing]. it has lost all six this year (in­clud­ing in UP and Ra­jasthan) and all five last year. The last by-poll it won was in 2016, around the midterm point.

What can be the ex­pla­na­tion for such mixed elec­toral for­tunes? As with the econ­omy, has it to do with those promises to keep? Modi once was an un­apolo­getic Hin­dutva leader (in the eyes of his sup­port­ers) – a com­mu­nally di­vi­sive fig­ure (go­ing by his crit­ics). But that was in his early years in Gu­jarat. By 2014, he had fash­ioned him­self into a

leader who did not need to re­sort to ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism to win elec­tions; his ‘devel­op­ment’ track record was suf­fi­cient. He ar­rived to the gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign, promis­ing to take every­body along. ‘sab Ka saath sab Ka Vikas’ was an un­am­bigu­ously in­clu­sive slo­gan. con­sid­er­ing the in­dian con­sti­tu­tion alone as the holy book was a praise­wor­thy state­ment of in­tent. There in­deed were soft sym­bols of Hin­dutva – the call of Ganga Maiya, for one – but they were not al­to­gether threat­en­ing.

As prime min­is­ter, he has re­frained from mak­ing any re­mark that should be a cause of con­cern for the mi­nori­ties. in this re­gard, his track record is bet­ter than that of Va­j­payee, sec­u­lars’ favourite BJP leader. The same, how­ever, can­not be said of a sub­stan­tial num­ber of his cabi­net col­leagues, who be­ing his cabi­net col­leagues do not fall un­der the def­i­ni­tion of the fringe either. And that’s con­sid­er­ing only words. As for deeds, there have been acts of com­mis­sions and omis­sions that have broad­ened the his­tor­i­cal di­vides. As Hin­dutva foot-sol­diers re­sorted to crimes and mis­de­meanours un­der the garb of sub­stance-free sym­bolic Gau­rak­sha and sim­i­lar planks, the lead­er­ship chose not to re­strain them. The re­sult is the per­cep­tion of ris­ing in­tol­er­ance, to the ex­tent that the tri­colour has been spot­ted on the body of a lynch­ing ac­cused in Dadri and in the protest to save a rape ac­cused in Kathua.

The fail­ures need to be equally blamed on the op­po­si­tion, es­pe­cially the congress which has shown no signs of learning from its worst de­feat and the left­ists who are obliv­i­ous to the ques­tion of their rel­e­vance. The two do not get as much credit as they de­serve for Modi’s in­vin­ci­bil­ity and pop­u­lar­ity.

it may be sur­vival in­stinct that has united the op­po­si­tion lead­ers against Modi, but it is the deep­en­ing of such so­cial di­vi­sions – not only of re­li­gion and com­mu­nity but also of caste – that is mak­ing the new op­po­si­tion dif­fer­ent from its 2014 ver­sion. Af­ter the sp and the BSP united against the BJP, an­a­lysts have looked at the UP re­sults and said the duo would have eas­ily de­feated Modi in the state. in 2019, they are likely to be to­gether.

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