Modi: Unassailable at three

 Modi, Modi at three, Raisina Dialogue, Raisina
Photolabs@ORF

Three years ago, when Modi’s BJP entered Parliament in May 2014, with a never majority, the “realtors of Raisina” (policy wonks and public intellectuals in Delhi) were full of doubt about whether a country bumpkin from Gujarat could navigate the gilded and suave avenues of Lutyen’s Delhi – that part of the city, designed by the British for themselves in the 1930s, where todays rich and powerful elite lives and conspires in self-interest.

True to his Gujarati heritage and much like Gujarati emigrants to the west have done for ages, Modi made no effort to integrate or ingratiate himself into the elite. He cut his own lonely, furrow going around the established elite. Over time the furrow deepened into a moat which effectively encircled and confined Delhi’s elite to gossiping amongst themselves. Admittedly, his was an easier task than what confronted Gujarati emigrants overseas. But the tactic employed was the same. First, entrench yourself in the eco system – get a job or start a small business; next, deepen your control on resources – build up capital and develop local relationships and finally look for gaps to fill – do what the lazy locals will never do.

There were initial hiccups. The BJP – essentially a north Indian, middle class party till then – first tried the babu approach of distinguishing itself from the previous government by rejecting even the good things the UPA had done – like NREGA and Aadhar. But Gujarati pragmatism and performance orientation won. The approach changed to building on what existed and exponentially expanding the scale and ambition of projects and policies, to shock and awe the public into abject Modi bhakts (followers). Nothing it seemed was impossible.

Three years on, the mood within the party is upbeat – not surprising after the massive electoral victories in Uttar Pradesh and then in the Delhi municipal elections. In sharp contrast to Trump, Modi’s popularity ratings beat those of his party. The inanities of the BJP’s rant on protecting cows rather than Dalits or projecting Hindu populism rather than political equality and security for the minorities is attributed by the common person to vested interests in the party – vigilantes who use the party’s hard line as a business or “God men” who use the saffron they wear to encroach on government land. Prime Minister Modi stands tall above this desperate fray for the crumbs of political power.

Detractors and cynics say it is hype which is keeping Modi in the stratosphere. This is lazy analysis. There are three reasons why Modi has embedded himself into the public mind as the harbinger of a better future.

First, being of humble origins he feels the pulse of the people and responds to it. Demonetisation was a temporary set-back for the economy and cost workers their wages or their jobs. But, they saw it as a plan to punish the corrupt and applauded the effort. Modi did not just rest on the laurel of public acclaim. He has successfully pushed the tax bureaucracy to unearth black money and investigate shady deals. Is this sufficient to end corruption? Clearly not. But it is sufficient to establish Modi’s credibility as having the gumption to take on the corrupt, rich and make them pay for their sins.

Second, the expansion of social insurance schemes for the poor; progressive expansion of crop insurance; the 200 million Jan Dhan accounts opened; the switch to the direct transfer of benefits for the poor to their accounts; kick -starting the moribund highways program; the proposals to reform agriculture by legalising the leasing out of land; freedom for farmers to market produce outside the clunky and corrupt, public sector Agricultural Marketing System; the boost in coal production by whipping the public sector Coal India; making Indian Rail more efficient with better services; the improved functioning of government offices – all serve to illustrate positive change.

Lastly, the Modi government’s biggest achievement has been to stabilise the economy. Wasteful public spending has been restrained by fiscal discipline; the growth momentum has been maintained and consumer price inflation kept low within the targeted 5 percent per year. New institutional mechanisms are in place now, with the Reserve Bank of India specifically charged to deal with the bad loans of public sector banks amounting to over 12 percent of their average assets.

Critics of the government point to the unfulfilled promises on new jobs and the linked poor performance of industry and exports; lack of performance on the promised recovery of black money stored overseas and the continuing civil unrest at home in Kashmir and in the tribal belt, even though the BJP is now in power, directly or in an alliance, in these states. To be sure domestic violence – not least the violence injected by self-proclaimed vigilante groups- is worrisome. The poor performance in exports is partly a function of a strong Rupee which makes exports uncompetitive but keeps imports, particularly oil, cheap – thereby restraining inflation. High domestic interest rates protect small savings, particularly of pensioners; restrain the creation of yet another realty driven bubble economy and dissuades gold-plated, bank financed, industrial investment.

Trade-offs between economic priorities are always contentious. The key is to evidence why government acts in a certain way and who benefits. Mere rhetoric will not do. It is here that the Modi government falters because of its irrational stand against spelling out how the outcomes of its policies benefit minorities. Consider that, ironically, the Modi’s BJP has probably helped more poor Muslims and Dalits than ever before via financial inclusion, higher allocations for NREGA and the new crop and social insurance schemes. Yet, the government does not highlight this. Nor does it share the data, whilst defending its track record on inclusion, which many regard as its Achilles heel. Talking, in an evidenced manner, about one’s achievements, especially when it can silence critics, is good. Try it.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Sanjeev Ahluwalia