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SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN | 25 MAY, 2015

Acche Din One Year Later: MISSING, A MIND THAT RESPECTS DIVERSITY

One of the many demonstrations across India against attacks on minorities during the past one year


THE CITIZEN brings to you a review of one year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is the third article in the series with senior journalist and columnist Sukumar Muralidharan analysing the performance of PM Modi and his government on the domestic front.

NEW DELHI: Close to the one-year mark, Prime Minister Narendra Modi encountered the kind of social media firestorm that his inner circle had in earlier contexts been adept at orchestrating. Only this time, he was not in control.

Strident oratory that rode on undercurrents of popular disaffection got Modi the ultimate political prize. Underlying his quest for glory was the backing of the business lobbies, extended in both the financial and moral sense, and reflected in his high-voltage campaign and the fawning media coverage that created a mood of anticipation for a saviour.

For somebody so voluble on the campaign trail, Modi has shown a curious diffidence since taking office. His interventions in parliament have been few and slogans such as “Make in India” aside, his policy articulation strangely muted. What has emerged instead, is a politician who seemingly lives in perennial nostalgia for the campaign.

If the promise of better days that won Modi rich dividends in the domestic arena is proving hard to fulfil, the next best thing seemingly is to remind overseas constituencies – vicarious patriots still enraptured by his image – of how bad things were before he came along.

Modi managed a few expeditions into that territory without serious damage. The mood changed on recent visits to China and South Korea. For two days, #ModiInsultsIndia was the trending mood on the social media after yet again he played on the theme of how his arrival had restored pride in an Indian identity till then sunk in mortification. The time for tall talk had clearly ended, even for his most devoted followers.

Modi assumed the premiership without having served a day in either house of parliament, his credentials built on the tenuous foundation of the “Gujarat model” of growth. Steeped in an entrepreneurial and mercantile culture for centuries, the western state had done better than the national average during an unprecedented boom in the Indian economy.

Then there was another windfall for Gujarat during Modi’s chief ministerial tenure. By the time he came to the helm, the struggles over the Narmada river projects had subsided or been suppressed. Triumphalism prevailed as the page was turned on the human costs and memories of how different constituencies respond to giant projects, banished.

Modi won appreciation from business lobbies in 2008, with his alacrity in delivering land for Tata Motors’ now struggling car factory in Gujarat. That was an administrative coup involving the gift-wrapping of large tracts of irrigated land for the Tata enterprise. Despite early resistance, consent was won from landowners by a generous payout partly funded by the state government, and a hint of coercion to break down recalcitrance.

Land takeover remained contentious and on the larger terrain, the BJP felt compelled to go along with the UPA government’s initiative to restore some autonomy to the farmer. It was just 2013 that a law was adopted with cross-party support, making the informed consent of a substantial majority of the affected farmers and a social impact assessment, essential preconditions for large-scale land acquisition. Yet, a sweeping amendment – indeed evisceration – of the law was among the Modi government’s first legislative priorities once it assumed office at the centre.

Few seemed willing to sign up for this replication of the Gujarat model. The amendments passed the Lok Sabha riding on the BJP’s abandonment of recently affirmed convictions. But the Congress and other opposition parties were quick to pounce at the first sign of the government floundering to overcome a numerical deficit in the Rajya Sabha.

An aversion for democratic debate on developmental priorities was then quickly manifest, with Modi’s loyal foghorn, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, questioning an indirectly elected upper chamber’s power to thwart the lower house.

Along with the favourable global environment, the willingness to engage with the up and down sides of large projects had also gone missing. A single-minded focus on enhancing investments, unmindful of human costs, is unlikely to survive for long in an encounter with Indian political realities. That moment of awakening has come with frustrating clarity, bringing with it a dangerous proclivity to label all dissent as “anti-national”.

Modi’s arrival in office was followed by a global slide in oil prices, relieving a potential source of stress in the economic domain. But the turbulence that has since engulfed the Arab world has an ominous ring to it.

A far greater threat looms on the rural agrarian frontier. Unseasonal rains have played havoc with the winter crop in large parts of the country and farm incomes thrown into a state of uncertainty. Even as the prospect of a poor monsoon looms, the official response has been to launch a twenty-four hour channel for the farmer. That unsubtle affirmation that the “medium is the message” suggests nothing so strongly as a longing for the campaign trail.

Despite his evident disdain, Modi has been unprepared to risk the political costs of a cutback in the national rural employment guarantee scheme (NREGS) launched by the UPA. Instead, his government has mounted an assault by stealth. Jaitley’s first Union Budget sought political mileage by increasing the NREGS outlay while also implementing Finance Commission recommendations on larger devolution to the states.

Effectively, this delayed affirmation of support threw the NREGS to the tender mercies of state governments, subject to pressures emanating from budgetary stringencies and the rivalries of localism. The oversight mechanism that existed in the Planning Commission has meanwhile been dismantled and supplanted by a body of uncertain provenance, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) which at this time conveys nothing but a puerile fascination for catchy acronyms.

Rhetorical stimuli which worked wonders on the stock markets during Modi’s campaign, have since failed to achieve much. Official forecasts insist that India’s growth rate will be among the world’s highest in the first full year since his government took office. But April’s corporate results suggest a significant shrinkage in revenue and profit growth, with key sectors such as real estate and automobiles, still under the shadow of the debt-financed binge of the five-year boom that began in 2003.

The finance sector has turned in good results, but danger signals are evident in the rising incidence of stressed assets in banking. The RBI has been at pains to dispel fears about an imminent financial crisis, but sees no cure other than economic growth. With growth stymied by the heavy debt burden, this suggests nothing so much as a low-level equilibrium trap that the Modi government is clueless about resolving.

A similar disorientation is evident in the policy domain. In December 2012, when the UPA government introduced a policy permitting foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail trade, the BJP was among the most vociferous in protest. Yet, just ahead of the one-year mark, the Ministry of Commerce issued a policy statement signalling that it would stick with the UPA norms.

As angry rumbles emerged from ideological masters in the RSS, Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman indicated a possible course reversal. And then Jaitley capped the confusion, stating with characteristic conviction that conveyed nothing that UPA policy would continue to hold the field, though the world should know that the BJP opposed FDI in retail.

That seemed fair summation of the Modi government’s year: a conspicuous absence of serious thinking and a willingness to strut around in finery borrowed from the UPA, which the BJP disdained while in opposition.

Key welfare schemes have been chopped and changed as part of an ostensible effort at rationalisation, which has left a vacuum in implementation and caused deep consternation within even Modi’s cabinet.

Continuing default continues meanwhile, to be the story with major administrative appointments. The government sent the head of the defence research organisation packing in December in ostensible quest of fresh blood for a vital strategic sector. The post has remained unfilled since. The offices of vigilance and information commissioners have been vacant for months together, with the processes for selection yet to be initiated.

Ideological conformity was once the irreducible condition for appointments to key positions in a BJP-controlled dispensation. Personal loyalty to the supreme leader has now been added as a further requirement. And as Modi seeks to gather all the reins of control into his hands, his first year in office stands testimony to the impossibility of governing India without a mind that recognises and respects complexity.

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