At a critical crossroads

PM Modi, a year later, is at that turning point in history from where he can bring about a substantial transformation in the way India is governed

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Ajay Singh | May 21, 2015




There are no available templates which can make it easy to analyse the first-year performance of the Narendra Modi government. It cannot be compared with previous governments. The regimes of Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao were the products of political tragedies in which the nation was too benumbed and shocked to take stock in a year’s time. Indira Gandhi’s regime is in too distant a past when socialism was the reigning ideology. The ideologically proximate regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee had its first year marked by the stress of coalition as J Jayalalithaa’s tantrums peaked, followed by a limited war with Pakistan on Kargil. Manmohan Singh’s first year as a nominated prime minister can hardly be taken as a benchmark for a leader like Modi who set his own terms to become the prime minister.

Modi is a unique phenomenon probably comparable only to the yardsticks he set as Gujarat chief minister in 2001. He was sworn in as chief minister as there were serious charges of indiscretion against the kin of the then chief minister Keshubhai Patel and his ministry. The stories about Modi’s sterling role in relief and rehabilitation of the Kutch earthquake victims assumed mythical proportions even though he had been practically exiled from Gujarat. On the other hand, the Keshubhai Patel government was mired in a serious controversy over tardy relief and rehabilitation work in the region. In this scenario, Modi emerged as a successor to Patel.

He was tentative, cautious and inept at statecraft till Godhra and its aftermath rocked the state. He evolved as a powerful leader in the wake of crises that marred his debut in the politics of governance. Modi made mistakes but learned quickly from them. In the 2002 elections he charted a distinctly different course for himself and emerged more charismatic than any national leader in his state. That one year was indeed critical in shaping what he is today.
It is an unfortunate coincidence that the earthquake that catapulted him as chief minister dogged him in his first year as prime minister – though this time it was in Nepal. Modi’s quick response earned him international appreciation. In one year’s time as Gujarat chief minister, Modi had realised that he needed to market Gujarat to his national audience. He harped on “Gujarat and its five crore people” – a carefully crafted phrase to bring out the
distinctness of his state and his style of governance.

As the prime minister of the country, he has followed the same trajectory with regard to the international audience. His swearing-in ceremony was a coup of sorts for diplomacy in the subcontinent when he invited the heads of the states/governments of the SAARC nations including Pakistan. As he completes his first year in power at the centre, Modi would have visited 18 countries (the latest being China, South Korea and Mongolia) to showcase a new and emerging India in the international fora.

Though in a year’s time as chief minister, Modi had come up with the idea of ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ to project the state as friendly to development and market economy, he was equally cautious of its negative fallout. One of his predecessors, Chiman Patel, was no less business-friendly than Modi but had earned the epithet of ‘Chiman chor’ as his regime reeked of corruption. Modi cultivated an image of a tough, no-nonsense and incorruptible administrator. He mobilised his state machinery to have regular interface with rural masses, particularly dalits and tribals, by organising melas and camps to neutralise the possibility of social discontent.

In this context it did not come as a surprise that after rubbing shoulders with the world’s most powerful man, Barack Obama, and feted by fans at Madison Square Garden in New York, Modi picked up the broom to clean the streets of Delhi the day after his return and launched the Swachh Bharat campaign. His indefatigable zeal surprised even his party. A senior office-bearer remarked that it is very difficult to keep pace with his energy level and imagination. “By the time you figure out what he meant by Achchhe Din, he throws fresh phrases wrapped in riddles for the party to work on,” he pointed out. “It is good that he constantly shakes the party out of complacency,” he said in grudging admiration.

Perhaps, few leaders in Indian politics have internalised Plato’s greatest worry about democracy that masses are moved by emotion instead of reason and citizens would “live from day to day indulging in the pleasure of the moment”. Modi’s campaigns like Make in India, Skill India, Swachh Bharat, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and finally the Jan Dhan Yojana are curious combinations of short-term and long-term strategies. He conjures up a dream of a vibrant, prosperous and powerful India in which marginalised sections are also stakeholders. In India that has the world’s largest population of youth, such politics of aspiration would be electorally more attractive than the old socialist rhetoric that glamourises the poor and poverty.

Though Modi seems to be acting on too many fronts and engaging in constant dialogue with the masses through social media, radio and public appearances, there is a lingering fear among a section of his colleagues and intelligentsia that he is afflicted by the Peter Principle – “one rises to the level of one’s incompetence”. His verbosity has been gradually losing its sheen and substance. In the process, Modi’s one year is seen as long on promises and raising expectations and short on delivery. The mismatch between hopes and delivery has unnerved even BJP veterans, Modi’s own colleagues and senior leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP. A senior functionary of the RSS told Governance Now that Modi’s propensity to open multiple fronts at the same time and his image of a recalcitrant leader are the cause of worry for the Hindutva family. “As prime minister, you have to have an all-embracing persona like Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s,” he pointed out.

But Modi seems to have transcended Vajpayee in every sense of the term. And it began with his decision to dismantle the planning commission, a Nehruvian legacy which even Vajpayee cherished so much. Vajpayee was enamoured of Nehru while Modi rejects the Nehruvian paradigm and finds himself ideologically closer to Sardar Patel, India’s first home minister, whose tallest statue in the world he is set to build on an island in the Narmada river in Gujarat.

Modi has been facing flak from the likes of Arun Shourie who was critical of the government’s drift from the core areas of governance. And this criticism is not without merit, if one looks at vacancies that have not been filled at senior levels of the government (see box). Many public sector banks which are critical for the economy remain headless. It would have been easy to comprehend the complexity of governance if there was a method in this madness. Apparently this ad-hocism has overstretched the resources of the government to cover new areas. For instance, the Jan Dhan Yojana, the world’s most ambitious financial inclusion programme, could succeed because of the dedicated push from the public sector banks. The minimal participation of the private sector banks in this scheme is a telling commentary on the Indian private sector’s abdication of social responsibility. Similarly, Modi’s Make in India is largely pegged on support of the public sector rather than the private sector which is still hesitant. Apparently all this flies in the face of Modi’s promise of “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance”. By all indications, the government seems to be stretching in every direction.

How will it gel with the spirit of “cooperative and competitive federalism” unleashed by Modi? With the more devolution of funds to the states, the centre is left with meagre resources to implement its schemes. The states would have a fair degree of financial autonomy to tailor their own developmental and social welfare schemes. This is in consonance with the progressive thinking of evolving competing models of governance among the states. But this has already raised serious problems among the states which were given generous assistance by the centre to overcome their handicaps. For instance, the chief ministers of the seven states of the northeast are up against the new formula for devolution of funds. They find “cooperative federalism” detrimental to their hilly, troubled region where central assistance was the lifeline. Bihar and Odisha have also been crying foul on the issue.
If one compares his stint as Gujarat chief minister, Modi made a wobbly start but soon steered the statecraft steadily. He began as prime minister on a very confident note and made impressive marks on diplomacy and social security issues. His move to extend pension to marginalised sections of society and cover them under medical insurance would probably be the biggest feather in his cap. Similarly his insistence on the land acquisition bill is apparently motivated by his desire to launch big infrastructure projects in the country on the lines of the Gujarat model. In his 12-year stint as chief minister, Modi substantially transformed the infrastructure of Gujarat primarily because of his ability to goad the bureaucracy into functioning on his line of thinking. Can he replicate that model at the national level given his constraints in running his writ through an inefficient bureaucracy and hostile state governments?

In all possibility, Modi shares the agony of his friend and US president Barack Obama who once commented, “We live and do business in the information age, but the last major reorganisation of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV.” In the Indian context, the reform in the structure of governance even predates black-and-white TV and substantially retains its colonial features. Like in his stint as chief minister, Modi in his first year as prime minister has not shown any sign of radically altering the structure of governance. When Arun Shourie pointed out (in an interview to Karan Thapar on Headlines Today) that the quality of the officers holding the fort in the Modi regime had gone down, he was merely echoing the sentiments of certain experts of governance and administration. In Gujarat also, Modi never donned the mantle of the radical reformist of governance.
But Modi’s fascination for adaptation of technology for governance is expected to be the key to future reforms in the administration. The government’s major push for building infrastructure and connectivity promises to upend the old structure of governance by giving popular thrust from below. In the age of information technology, transparency and democratisation of information would sound the death knell for the traditional bureaucracy, which thrives on opaqueness and secrecy. Modi is poised at a critical crossroads of history from where he can bring about a substantial transformation in the way India is governed. Unlike Gujarat where he had a free rein, he is constrained by several handicaps as prime minister. But unlike Gujarat where he could get away by blaming others for failures, he does not have any escape route as prime minister. One year is indeed too short a period to evaluate the ground reality against the hope of an epochal change that Modi has engendered among people. Even that hope is not a small achievement.

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