Modi’s India: Year Two

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By M Saeed Khalid[*]

 

Narendra Modi is well into the second year of his term as prime minister of India. The memory of the hot summer day when he went to greet his mother after winning the election in May 2014, before taking over as India’s premier is fading. Since then, the euphoria of a massive victory by the followers of Hindutva has been tempered by on ground developments. To begin, Modi’s  promise of transforming the country into an economic powerhouse  has hit the rock of a centuries old mindset and has also become subject to a genuine concern about the risk of making the rich richer.

 

A reality check is in order to measure the success or failure of the fifteen month old Modi sarkar after his Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP succeeded in seeing off the ten-year old Congress-led coalition in the 2014 general election. Few had anticipated that the secular and liberal mother party would suffer its worst defeat ever, handing the Hindu nationalists a stunning victory.

 

In a country known for hero worship, the Modi mystique played a key role in his march to nationwide success. A major segment of the electorate was fascinated by Modi’s Gujarat model unaware that the success story could not be replicated at the national level by words alone. Yet, voters were repeatedly told about great strides made by the western state under thirteen years of Modi’s rule.

 

The Gujarat model was packaged into a tremendous lobbying tool in the 2014 election. The origins were traced to a speedy recovery of an economy shattered by natural disasters like an earthquake and recurring drought, floods and cyclone. Modi, as chief minister, was credited to have brought about the recovery in a span of three years.

 

The Gujarat model was all encompassing as it aimed at rapid progress in agriculture, industry and services while paying full attention to essential social needs in education and health. From his election as chief minister in October 2001 to his triumphal arrival in Delhi in May 2014, Modi managed to have a deep personal imprint on the development of his home state to become the longest serving chief minister of Gujarat.

 

Modi’s critics, blame him for a dismal record of human development in the state. He has been portrayed as business friendly but as prime minister, Modi is under increasing scrutiny regarding whether he is also people friendly.

 

Gujarat was no better than other Indian states in the poor quality of governance and high degree of corruption. Modi, with his hands-on approach was able to change that situation and went on to win one election after the other, forcing every other region of India to take note. His determination to take his work ethic to the national level played some role in his increasing popularity within the party to earn a nomination for the prime minister’s job.

 

A short biography of Modi carried by ‘Maps of India’ highlights how Modi rose to become the darling of corporate India.

Modi frequently refers to his P2G2 (Pro-people good governance) formula to substantiate his claims on holistic development. Some observers highlighted that Gujarat had been able to improve its agricultural output despite being a semi-arid state. The credit was given to the Gujarat government’s measures to scale up groundwater projects and initiatives to increase the use of micro-irrigation.

India Inc. overwhelmingly supported Narendra Modi as the next PM. Reason? They sought a strong leadership with a clear road-map and actionable plans ready for execution. Indian business leaders from Ratan Tata to Mukesh Ambani were convinced that for India to come out of its Gross Domestic Paralysis, a visionary and decisive leadership was essential. Empirical evidence suggested that Gujarat had been able to position itself as a lucrative destination for investment. Under his aegis, according to a political commentator, the level of corruption receded and technology parks saw the light of the day. His iconic call for “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance” frequently struck the chord with the masses. (Maps of India)
The Gujarat model had one disadvantage. It evoked memories of Modi’s terrible record of encouraging communal violence against the Muslim minority. He managed to escape criminal prosecution but Indians and the world at large felt that Modi had allowed, if not encouraged, the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the state in 2002. The strongest reaction came from Washington in the form of a ban on Modi’s travel to the United States.

 

The BJP’s election manifesto in 2014 encompassed issues ranging from economic growth to social sector problems.

 

Some highlights of the manifesto are reproduced.

 

– BJP proposed to lower inflation by taking steps such as; special courts to stop hoarding and black marketing, setting up a Price Stabilisation Fund, evolving a single ‘National Agriculture Market, leveraging on technology to disseminate real time data, area specific crops and vegetables linked to food habits of the people.

– High priority to be accorded to job creation and opportunities for entrepreneurship by taking steps such as labour-intensive manufacturing, focus on traditional employment bases of agriculture, upgrade of infrastructure and housing, steps for self-employment opportunities.

 – To eliminate the scope of corruption, greater emphasis to be placed on technology enabled e-Governance. Apart from that public awareness, policy-driven governance and simplification of the tax regime were cited as solutions to the problem of corruption.

 – To make centre-state relations smoother. “Team India shall not be limited to the Prime Minister led team sitting in Delhi, but will also include Chief Ministers and other functionaries as equal partners.”

 – A People-Public-Private Partnership (PPPP) model to involve the people in Governance as functionaries and facilitators.

 – Administrative reforms will include; digitization of government records, opening up government to draw expertise from the industry, academia and society into the services. BJP said that the hallmarks of its governance model would be; People-centric, Policy driven, Time bound delivery, Minimum Government, Maximum Governance.

 

The BJP manifesto reiterated the party’s stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. It also repeated the intention to take up with all stakeholders the abrogation of Article 370 guaranteeing Jammu & Kashmir a special status. Steps to be taken to return Kashmiri Pandits to the land of their ancestors with full dignity and security.

 

The BJP vowed to deal with insurgency with a firm hand and revive the anti-terror mechanism “dismantled by the Congress” and put in place swift and fair trial of terror-related cases.

 

The manifesto laid particular emphasis on greater coordination with states and ensuring their fiscal autonomy. State governments were to be involved in promotion of foreign trade and commerce.

 

References to foreign policy were carefully worded. The party promised to be guided by pragmatism and doctrines of mutually beneficial and interlocking relationships. It stood for pursuing friendly relationships with neighbours and at the same time not hesitating from taking a strong stand when required. The pending fencing work along India-Bangladesh and India-Myanmar would be completed.

 

The Congress leader Sonia Gandhi unveiled an elaborate election manifesto but the voters were willing to give the Modi-led BJP a mandate to replace the ten-year-old Congress-led coalition with a lackluster performance. The BJP came up with catchy slogans like “ less government, more governance”. It also attacked the ruling coalition for failing to stem corruption that was undermining India’s ambition of rapid development. Analysts felt that compared to Congress promises for economic reforms, the BJP’s vision for the industry and infrastructure sector made an appealing election promise.

 

The BJP’s landslide election victory was attributed to a strong wave of anti-incumbent sentiment among Indian voters. Still, the results gave the BJP a victory beyond all expectations and handed the Congress a crushing defeat. The BJP, on its own won a majority in the Lok Sabha by winning 282 of the 543 seats while its allies captured 54 more seats. The Congress won only 44 seats and its allies of the United Progressive Alliance 14 more. It must however be noted that the first past the post system of polling gives the leading party a huge majority. Thus the BJP captured 52% seats in the lower house with 31% of the popular vote. The result enabled the BJP and its partners in the National Democratic Alliance to form the largest majority government since 1984.

 

After a year in office, reviews about Modi team’s performance are mixed. The Economic Times writes that personally, he enjoys the reputation of being a workaholic and an introvert. To some, Modi has worked to change his image from that of a Hindu nationalist to that of a sincere administrator. However, the critics call him a self-centered autocrat who does not care for the BJP.

 

Modi has always paid great attention to public relations and image building as essential ingredients of success in politics. He created his own interactive web page to reach out to the people. He resorted to the same medium to plaster his achievements in the first year of his premiership.

 

Among the claims of success were the government’s record on parameters such as index of industrial production, growth in power generation, number of transmission lines, coal production figures and the country’s foreign exchange reserves. The Indian Express notes for example, that the PM’s statistics show that his administration has achieved 8.4% growth in electricity generation compared to 6% growth under the Congress-led UPA.

 

In terms of new roads, the Modi government claims to have built 7,980 kilometres of roads and highways in the last one year compared to 3,621 kilometres during 2013-14. On the cleanliness front, the Modi government says it has built more than 58 lakh toilets in 2014-15 compared to 49 lakh toilets. – See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/narendra-modi-sarkaars-one-year-report-card-scores-itself-high/#sthash.v6FufbuI.dpuf

 

Modi claims that his visits abroad with the message “Make in India” have generated tremendous gains. Then there was the claim that India’s story had become credible under him. Unabated corruption and indecision had paralysed the previous government.

In a TV interview, Modi enumerated various steps taken for the poor and common people. These included:

 

– a social security scheme for the poor and old

– facilitation of banking and financing

– provision of toilets in all schools

– improvement of health facilities

– development of the railways.

 

The Indian media has credited Modi’s team for major successes in: legislation on greater direct foreign investment in insurance; spectrum and coal mine auctions; decontrol of diesel prices; and payment of cooking gas subsidy into consumer’s bank accounts.

But the big-ticket reforms – the Goods and Services Tax and land acquisition bills are still stuck in the works.

 

For a comprehensive success, course correction is recommended. The government is advised to distance itself from the cacophony of discordant sectarian noises coming from its own party or the larger Sangh Parivar. To get key bills passed, Modi will have to personally reach out to many opposition leaders especially the Congress to contain the damage done by past arrogance and triumphalism after May 2014 (Forbes India).

 

Modi’s prolonged quest for premiership had the enthusiastic backing of India’s big business, tired of the policy paralysis in the second term of the Congress-led alliance. It is therefore important to know what India Inc felt about the first year of Modi’s rule. According to a report in the Economic Times of India, “there was virtual unanimity that corruption at the top had declined dramatically”.

 

However, the business sentiment remains subdued as many business leaders feel a sense of drift. They complain of little access to top ministers and over-centralization at the Prime Minister’s Office. Once in office, Modi had to be sensitive to accusations of crony capitalism against him particularly by Rahul Gandhi. Even top industrialists have no access to Modi. To make matters worse, they have been advised not to speak against the government at business forums.

 

Modi reacted sharply to suggestions to change some bureaucrats. Stern messages were sent to some industrialists on his behalf saying he does not appreciate interference in running his administration. The Modi government has also discouraged lobbying for top posts like bank chairmen.

 

The head of a foreign bank acknowledged that “Modi is bringing a fundamental change in the paradigm of doing business in India. If he succeeds, connections will not matter. Industrialists will have to focus on their competence rather than manage connections.” (The Economic Times)

 

As chief minister, Modi went out of his way to woo tycoons like Tata to invest in Gujarat. He facilitated Gujarat’s own Adani to make massive investments in power and infrastructure sectors. As the chief executive of India, he is taking a more detached approach so as not to be seen as favoring individual entrepreneurs. Critics claim that as CM, Modi was proactive but as PM, he has become reactive. Some say that instead of helping to resolve pending problems of investors, the government is only looking at projects such as bullet trains.

 

One year at the helm, Modi has not been able to bring a radical change in the ease of doing business in India. The land bill for facilitating acquisition of land for business has been mired in controversy and could be put in cold storage because of opposition pressure, said a political leader. “Modi just doesn’t want to risk giving ammunition to the opposition before the Bihar elections,” he concluded.

 

The cumulative effect of these trends is that the corporate sector is now wary of investing in India, said a Mumbai based promoter. Congress leaders are relentless in their criticism of Modi government’s pro-rich policies. “Look at all the ordinances passed so far. They are all pro-rich. From the land ordinance to not increasing the minimum support price and reducing fertilizer imports – all this has crippled rural India”, said Digvijay Singh of the Congress.

 

Though big corruption has declined, said a Mumbai-based industrialist, the bureaucracy is scared and not taking decisions. Ministers are largely powerless because every file goes to the PM Office. Over-centralization is leading to policy paralysis. Some say that the prime minister is trying to do everything, he works 17-18 hours a day but there is no delegation of authority.

 

Modi toured abroad extensively to mobilize investments from multinationals and Indians residing abroad. He might have overestimated his persuasive powers in reaching the big wallets to spur India’s economic growth. There are factors in global economics which affect growth of economies like China and India and nobody has any control over them. However, Modi keeps a brave face and hopes, at least rhetorically, that he could woo new investments.

 

Modi convened a meeting of billionaires at his residence on 9 September, 2015 to assure them that India could withstand global turbulence and China’s slowdown, and asked them to open their wallets. Modi sees a chance to attract more foreign cash as money flows out of China. Observers said that India’s capacity for economic growth could attract foreign manufacturers but indebted domestic firms are pushing for rate cuts and protection.

 

The government’s chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian told the gathering, which included India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani that the economy was healthy and could withstand global market jitters and an expected hike in US lending rates. This may be a good effort at spin but the investors are not convinced.

 

A US investor, Jim Rogers, reflected the growing sentiment that Modi had not moved fast enough. “He ran a successful state and campaigned for two years, saying he knew what to do. He has been there 15 months…yet little has happened.” Rogers has already sold his Indian investments.

 

The latest downturn in global markets led foreign investors to unload a net $756 million worth of Indian shares. “Domestic demand is sluggish because of lack of demand and high cost of capital,” Jyotsna Suri, president of an industry group said after the meeting. The GDP growth rate has slipped from 8 to 7%. Strong growth is undermined by doubt about the quality of economic data and a slow recovery, with job losses in construction and a summer drought hitting consumer demand – Reuters.

 

Jammu and Kashmir

 

Narendra Modi’s first year in power was marked by extraordinary efforts to push the BJP as a coalition partner in the Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir. Following its huge victory in the national election, the BJP turned its attention to J&K, campaigning on the promise of development. Modi visited the territory to shore up the party’s campaign for the elections held in Nov-Dec. 2014.

 

Though the People’s Democratic Party of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed emerged as the leading party with 28 seats in the state assembly of 87, BJP finished second with 25 members. The National Conference and its former ally, the Congress were restricted to 15 and 12 seats respectively. The pro-freedom Kashmiri leaders called for a boycott of the election “being held under the power of gun.”

 

The elections proceeded with a large turn out as the Hurriyet and militant groups did not try to disrupt the polling. The elected chief minister, Mufti Syaeed was reported to have said, “If God forbid the Hurriyet and the militants tried to disrupt the elections these would not have been as participative…They(Pakistan) also allowed these elections to take place.”

 

The BJP made its intention to enter the coalition clear even though it has ideological differences with the Kashmiri parties particularly the design to remove Article 370 of the Indian constitution giving J&K an autonomous status. After two months of talks, the PDP and the BJP agreed to form a coalition with Mufti Sayeed becoming the chief minister and BJP’s Nirmal Kumar Singh as deputy chief minister for a full six-year term.

 

Modi attended the oath taking ceremony as the BJP became a coalition partner in J&K for the first time. Contentious issues like Article 370 have been deferred but not dropped. However, the two parties remain poles apart on a host of other issues. The BJP is more assertive when it comes to the Hindu-majority Jammu region. In the final analysis, the two parties represent the interests of their Muslim and Hindu constituents. Most Kashmiris feel that the tug of war between the ruling partners would jam the wheels of governance at some point (The Economic Times).

 

In a highly symbolic move the BJP ministers stayed away from the commemoration of the 1931 massacre of Muslim protestors by the Dogra raj, that was attended by the chief minister. So here are two parties in a marriage where one side’s rebel is the other’s hero. This problem is however not confined to Jammu and Kashmir. BJP extremists have been rubbing Muslims the wrong way with vengeance since their election victory in India.

 

Ideally, Modi would like to break free of the Hindutva diehards as he tries to consolidate his image as a leader of all Indians. But the forces that pushed to have Modi as prime ministerial nominee keep a close watch on his moves.

 

A three-day meeting between the RSS and the BJP to review the working of Modi government was held on 2-4 September, 2015. The wide-ranging agenda included several economic targets of the government which are treated as controversial or anti-people. The land acquisition bill opposed by farmers, greater foreign direct investment in banking, strategic sale of government assets were highlighted among the subjects marking ideological differences.

 

The latest religious census, which indicated a slight decline of Hindu population to below 80% and a marginal increase in Muslim population above 12% was discussed at the meeting. The RSS and the BJP also looked into the matter of low caste Hindus converting to other religions. The RSS spokesman asserted that upper caste Hindus, “through their lack of interaction with the weaker sections of the Hindu society were allowing the leaders of other religions to exploit them to change their religion.”

 

The RSS-BJP nexus is leaving no doubt about their aspiration to assert India’s Hinduness. This attitude can only lead to greater disharmony in a country as diverse as India. Secularism is not a matter of fashion unlike the Nehru jacket but a basic way of keeping Indians united. Injecting Hindutva into social moors can only bring more trouble. One recent example is the beef ban in Kashmir.

 

There was a complete shut down in the Indian held Kashmir on September 12, to protest against a high court decision to implement a 83-year old law banning beef in the state. The Hurriyat spokesman said the Kashmiris would reject the court order. “It will be very, very hard for government to impose this law here,” he asserted.

 

Indeed, Indian authorities have not enforced this law in Kashmir for nearly seven decades and the court verdict came after a petition was filed to get the law enforced. The court order at BJP’s behest could lead to further protests as the Kashmiris see the ban as a threat to religious identity. The PDP, senior partner of the ruling coalition in IHK is opposed to the BJP’s efforts to enforce the ban.

 

The BJP’s move to deprive the Muslims of beef is symptomatic of an overall plan to assert Hindutva. However, Kashmir being the only Muslim majority area, the issue can further mar the chances of any rapprochement with the Kashmiri people. It also reflects the BJP’s preference for strong arm tactics to control J&K rather than seeking a long term solution of the territorial dispute with Pakistan taking into consideration the aspirations of the Muslim majority.

 

There is a distinct possibility that the Kashmiris who have been ruthlessly oppressed by Indian forces for decades will only become more determined to resist Indian occupation and intensify their struggle in the period ahead. In a parallel development, Pakistan has made it clear that there is no likelihood of dialogue with India sans Kashmir. The BJP and their RSS mentors have the option of reviewing their policies or risk the worsening of tensions between the two countries.

 

This study has touched upon only some aspects of India under the rule of a staunch Hindu Nationalist. The situation is very different from the period of the previous BJP prime minister A B Vajpayee, who acted as a visionary and a peacemaker within and without India. Considering the diversity of faiths and politico-economic agendas in a huge country like India, the present flux leads to one basic question. Modi and India, which of the two will change the other in the remaining years of Modi’s five-year term?

[*] The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.