Modi's one year: What happened to ‘good times’?

While agrarian distress has made life miserable for the farmers, the economy too is crumbling. One year on, the ‘achhe din’ are yet to show up

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

An old-timer at Parliament’s Central Hall worriedly called this writer to say he had never before seen the popularity of any ruling party and its leader plummet so rapidly. “No MP from even the ruling party has a good word to say about this government. I wonder how it will complete its term when it is so unpopular,” he stated.

Astounding, but true! The BJP, led by an articulate and aggressive leader, Narendra Modi, won a simple majority and defied those who were predicting yet another coalition government at the Centre. Modi proved he had the stamina and the appeal to overturn a trend of the past 30 years—of voters giving a fractured mandate.  

The new government launched with a bang. Modi wanted to clean up India and revive the moribund manufacturing sector through his ‘Make in India’ campaign. He unequivocally conveyed a message that he had little patience for sloth and stragglers and he wanted to deliver on the promises that he had made during his election campaign. Bureaucrats were instructed to reach their offices at 9 am and were discouraged from leaving office for a game of golf or even lunch with a friend. So they plodded on all day long, waiting to get a call from the PM’s Office to make a presentation on what they thought needed to be done to improve productivity in their department. Scores of presentations were indeed made in front of an alert and enquiring PM. And then many of these bureaucrats waited for a follow-up. Needless to say, several were disappointed.

Perhaps those presentations the PM sought were meant to help him gauge the difference in interacting with an official at the Centre as compared to his experience in Gujarat. In all his official interactions, whether with US President Barack Obama or, more recently, with the journalists from Time, he has stated that he was surprised at how different it was to work in the Central government. He stated this critically and claimed it took him some time to learn how the system works in Delhi. It seems it took too long!

The net result was that all the work came to a standstill. There were complaints that files that went to the PMO never returned. Some said these files numbered 6,000. Until they were cleared, no decisions could be taken. Not just bureaucrats, the ministers, too, were clueless. Delhi was rife with reports about how ministers had no work or clout. A minister’s office, contacted by a reporter, baldly stated that since he had little to do he rarely came to the office. There are ministers who have been upbraided for non-performance and who have wondered why they have been pulled up as they have not been given much work or functional freedom. One hapless minister was asked to draft a national policy in two days. He sought help from chambers of commerce who readily obliged. The draft policy was submitted to the PMO, but nothing came of it.

The example of an extremely competent External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, is on hand to show how shabbily ministers are being treated. Swaraj spent more time in Delhi when her job was redefined by Modi. By the time he completes one year in office, Modi will have travelled to 19 countries and spent 58 days abroad. As a commentator colourfully stated, “Modi has been away from Delhi as many days as Rahul Gandhi when he went missing.”

Modi has invested substantially in foreign policy. His neighbourhood initiative drew much praise. He invited SAARC heads of state for his swearing-in and followed it up with trips to Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka —countries that Congress PMs had not visited in a long time. Then he visited Japan and extracted a promise from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a $20 billion investment. Later, he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping, taking him to Ahmedabad and giving a new spin to “hometown diplomacy”. Xi’s trip was botched up as, around the same time, about 1,000-odd unwanted Chinese visitors or intruders waving banners came into what we perceive as our territory. Modi, under pressure from the RSS leadership, got so distracted that his plans to forge deeper ties with China were hit. There are reports that the two leaders were ready to announce a framework for settling the contentious border issue, but the intruders and the anti-China lobby in the strategic affairs community, the media and the RSS spoiled matters.

Modi’s trip to the US was choreographed like a carnival. He addressed a boisterous Indian diaspora crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York, and people back home in the same vein and drew thunderous applause. With fawning TV crews of Indian TV channels commandeered with the help of corporate houses, not a single contrary note floated out from the TV screens. Protesters were energetically blocked by the TV crews as well as friends of the BJP.

Modi spent time with President Obama—this was the first of the three meetings they had in quick succession. Obama agreed to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. And what a trip that turned out to be! Modi took pains to put the programme together, planning everything down to the last detail—including his suit with his name all over it. The suit became a national scandal. This incident tarred his reputation to the extent that he was no longer seen as a person with a humble background, but a person who hung around the rich and famous. He found it difficult to live down the episode and eventually auctioned the suit in Gujarat, where someone was willing to bid the moon for it. That did not save him, though, from getting a serious thrashing in the Delhi Assembly elections where he aggressively sought votes. The Aam Aadmi Party won 67 out of 70 seats, leaving nothing for the Congress and crumbs for Modi and his party. 

Obama, during his Town Hall meeting in Delhi, underlined the imperative of India remaining inclusive and cited Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. It did not need the help of edit page writers and talking heads to interpret whom Obama was directing his lessons on the Constitution at. He repeated them again when he returned to Washington. Since then, though, he has tried to mollify Modi by writing a 166-word bio for Time.

Modi made another high-visibility trip to Australia where, again, he struck up a good relationship with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and returned with a uranium deal. Earlier this year, he visited Germany, France and Canada— trips that burnished his credentials as a leader of the emerging world. He also bought, off the shelf, Rafale fighter jets —a deal that had been delayed for years. He conveyed to the rich world that he can take decisions. In Canada, again he managed to get more uranium and a promise from pension funds to invest in India.

While everyone appreciates the energy he has brought to India’s foreign policy engagements, it is in the realm of the economy that his leadership is proving to be less than adequate. His ‘Make in India’ programme was to integrate his foreign policy initiative with creating a manufacturing base in India, but it has not happened. On the contrary, just the opposite has happened. Buying Rafale fighters off the shelf without any promise of indigenisation or promising an easy loan to Adani to buy a mining lease in Australia – there is nothing anywhere that promotes manufacturing. Worse, it is rapidly faltering.

Economic indices have been in the negative zone. The only exciting figure is that of GDP, which is around 7+.  This high GDP growth has been helped by the revision of the base year in the calculation by the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO). Economists associated with the government are embarrassed by the figures. Even the Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanium, questioned them and faithfully put his reservations in the Economic Survey that was tabled before the Union Budget. Even the IMF is sending a team to ascertain as to how the GDP figures were arrived at.

While these figures may tempt foreign investors looking for an economy which appears better than other geographies, people in India aren’t enthused. This is despite the fact that fuel prices have become less than 50 per cent of what prevailed when the UPA was in power, leading to dampening of inflation. There is growing resentment in the countryside. Wages have not been paid for those who were enrolled in MGNREGA work or the rural employment guarantee scheme for months. Unseasonal rains have destroyed crops and deepened farm distress, leading to farmer suicides. Even areas that had better social security nets like UP and Rajasthan are seeing a spike in farmers committing suicide. If the monsoon fails, as is being predicted by the met department, it could seriously aggravate the crisis rapidly unfolding in rural areas. 

There was a great deal of excitement in industry when Modi came to power. They thought that if anyone knew how the economy had to be revived, it was him. One year of NDA rule and the business class is bleeding. Foreign investors are also looking elsewhere due to the unpredictability of the tax regime. Dubbing it tax terrorism, many of these investors say they cannot fathom what the income tax officials want.

Though the NDA has not seen any major corruption scandal, there are misgivings about the auction of coal blocks and even spectrum. The Supreme Court too wants to know whether the State is better off auctioning or by using the other method.

Many in the corporate sector have been antagonised by the manner in which Delhi Police has raided the offices of all corporate houses, allegedly on the issue of stealing confidential documents from the government. Termed Leakgate, this has caused a scare among bureaucrats, many of whom are lobbying to be repatriated back to their state cadres.

Worse has been the impact on the BJP itself. A senior leader says the organisation is limited to Modi and party chief Amit Shah. In an interview, Arun Shourie, former editor, ex-minister and confidant of Modi, levelled similar charges of how the BJP is confined to three people – adding Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his targetted arc. Shourie rubbished all the tall claims by the BJP about its achievements since coming
to power.

The news from the states is also not edifying. The BJP, that had seemed invincible, has begun to slide. Parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal seem to be reclaiming lost ground. The only people who are getting noisier are the religious extremists who sense the BJP’s being in power as an opportunity to put the minorities on the defensive. Churches have been vandalised and Muslims have been roughed up. Obama was cognisant of what could go wrong with the India story if these atavistic forces are allowed to run amok. The US government’s International Religious Freedom Report is indicative of how the NDA government is perceived abroad. And pressure on NGOs from government agencies is building an impression of a government impatient with dissent. 

All this appears to indicate tough times ahead for someone who promised good times!  

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2015