A year ago, I called Narendra Modi’s government first year in office as “a big disappointment” (http://www.thehinduchronicle.com/2015/05/modi-s-one-year-a-big-disappointment/). Today, two years after he assumed office, the disappointment has only increased, as the government has failed to perform on almost every front.
The failure is because of a variety of factors. The first is the ruling dispensation’s conviction in its own cunning and capabilities—in that order. Politicians in India, often in other democracies, believe that they can fool all the people all the time; but Bharatiya Janata Party leaders hold this belief with considerable fervor. Make promises, forget them, and hope that everybody else too will be equally forgetful—that is the game.
So far, they have played it very well. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, BJP grandees used to offer the excuse that since their party did not have absolute majority and had to rely on its allies, it could not implement the three contentious items on its agenda—the Ram Temple, the uniform civil code, and the abrogation of Article 370.
But the saffron party got an absolute majority in 2014. What would it do now about the three core issues, party president Amit Shah was asked last year on the Modi regime’s first anniversary. He said, “BJP is running the Central government as part of the National Democratic Alliance. As per the Constitution, we need 370 to address our core issues. Please read the Constitution.’’ A classic case of chicanery and shifting goalposts.
When asked about bringing back black money and giving it to the people, he called it an election gimmick. Achhe din? What’s that, he said, we are working towards making India vishwaguru, whatever it means. The message is: forget old promises, the core issues. Why get distracted by ‘divisive’ matters? Just get focused on development. So, there is silence from the government on day-to-day hearing in the Ram Temple case in the Supreme Court. In the recent Saira Banu case, too, it has not come up clearly for the implementation of the uniform civil code. Similarly, Article 370 is not on the radar.
Having forgotten old promises, the BJP has come up with new ones: smart cities, though nobody knows what they are; housing for all by 2022; doubling of farmers’ income by 2022; health for all; and long is the list of new pledges. The BJP government seems convinced that it can fool all the people all the time.
On the economic front, the government is fooling itself rather than the people. Instead of unleashing bold reforms, which were the need of the hour to boost investor interest and improve the business environment, it has decided to introduce incremental change. The Budgets presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the main votary of incrementalism, have been pedestrian at best. He has persisted with the policies of the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
Even the worst legacies of the UPA have been allowed to continue, the most conspicuous of them being retrospective taxation. By refusing to raise income-tax slabs, the BJP has also cheated its main constituency, the middle class.
While campaigning for the 2014 general elections, Modi gave the impression that he stood for limited government. ‘Maximum governance-minimum government’ was a prominent slogan. He also famously said that the business of government is not business. Evidently, that was also a ‘chunavi jumla’ (poll promise, not to be taken seriously). On Tuesday, his government cleared a revival package for Hindustan Fertilizer Corporation Ltd (HFCL), which included a waiver of loans over Rs 9,000 crore.
One would have expected a self-proclaimed post-Nehruvian regime to discard a most deleterious feature of the socialist era, the public sector, to be dumped to the dustbin of history; Modi has decided to use the taxpayer’s money to revive it instead. In comparison, Vajpayee, who is widely believed to be an admirer of Nehru, was much more radical; he sold even profitable public sector undertakings.
On the whole, Modi seems to be of the view that political philosophy is of no consequence; what really matters is the efficiency and honesty of the top man; and since Modi himself is efficient, diligent, and honest, little else is required. The content and contours of the existing policies, most of which reek of socialism, do not make much difference; if properly and sincerely implemented, they can do wonders. This is the reason that price controls, most perilously in the pharmaceuticals sector, continue. Government response to high inflation is also antediluvian—action against ‘profiteers’ and ‘hoarders,’ a price stabilization fund, et al.
Unsurprisingly, not many are investing in India. So, though the growth rate remains in the vicinity of 7.5 per cent, employment generation has been sluggish. It needs to be mentioned that the annualized growth rate during UPA rule was above 7.5 per cent, but it did not create adequate jobs; this is a big reason for the UPA’s defeat in 2014.
A good thing about Modi government is that it is not doing harm to the economy, or at least not as much harm as the UPA was doing. This is because the BJP government is… well, the BJP government. This may sound tautological, even ludicrous, but this is true. Since the commies and fellow-travelers hate the saffron party, they don’t swarm Lutyens’ Delhi as they do when the Congress is in power. This saves the government, and the country, the depredations of the Jean Drezes, the Aruna Roys, the Medha Patkars, etc. The Finance Ministry does not dread the prospect of unending demands on the exchequer because of the formulation of one populist scheme after the other.
Even the populist schemes, like life and crop insurance, that the Modi regime has announced don’t burden the taxpayer much. This is a big positive.
There are, however, hardly any positives in the domains of internal security, national defence, and foreign policy. Pakistan remains intransigent in its support to jihad (and now it has the support of China as well in this regard); during UPA rule, there were blasts in public places; now jihadists have the temerity to attack our airbase. There is no perceptible improvement in defence preparedness, though it is indisputable that private sector participation has increased. Government efforts may result in good result, but at present it is work in progress.
As for foreign policy, Modi has to realize that diplomacy is more than event management. Our neighbors like Nepal and Sri Lanka are leaning towards China, which anyway doesn’t give a damn about us. We don’t figure in the US’s scheme of things. We have no say in the affairs of Afghanistan, despite the good work we have been doing over there. Modi’s only meaningful initiative was recent—in Iran—but it is to be seen how it unfolds.
All that macho talk about surgical strikes, smoking out terrorists, bringing Dawood Ibrahim to justice, etc., has proved to be claptrap. There are media reports, which have not been convincingly refuted, that a BJP minister in the Maharashtra government has links with Dawood. Nor has there been any action against that leader. So much for the BJP’s nationalism.
The party, however, expects hyper-nationalism from others. Its assault on civil liberties and freedom of expression continues, be it the frequent use of sedition law, the desire to continue the draconian Section 66A, or the proposed legislation on maps of India.
After two years, the Modi government looks bad. It has failed to deliver on all fronts, most spectacularly in the economy. Incrementalism has been a disaster, so it should be discarded right away—along with its champion, Jaitley. Unless such drastic course correction is carried out, there would be little hope for Modi in 2019.