It is not easy to undertake an objective evaluation of one year of Narendra Modi government because the forces that tried desperately to thwart his rise to power as PM have become hyper-active in recent months in trashing his regime. The anti BJP fauj of intellectuals as well as media men and women patronized by the Congress and Left parties had never really made peace with Modi occupying the PM’s chair. In the wake of his spectacular victory, for a brief while they had perforce moderated their hostility to him. But their knives are out once again and the Congress-Left combine has been desperately trying to tar Modi government in negative hues. The positive achievements of Modi government are systematically down played while even minor lapses are blown out of all proportion in order to put a stamp of failure on Modi government. Fortunately for Modi, the credentials of the Congress-left combine are rather dismal. A Rahul Gandhi taking cheap pot-shots at Modi may give orgasmic delights to professional Modi-baiters but the response of people at large is “chhaj to bole so bole, chhanani kya bole jisme 72 chhed hain”(a case of pot calling the kettle black). Therefore, among the janata at large, his approval ratings are still fairly high. Despite very modest performance in the delivery of his promises, people are still hopeful about Modi and consider him the best available choice as PM with all other options getting far lower rating. But the warning signals are also loud and clear that disenchantment is lurking right round the corner.
Here is an illustrative example of the kind of negativity generated by pro-Congress media. It is well known among media circles that both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi used to frequently disappear from the country to undisclosed foreign destinations. Their trips abroad were literally treated as state secrets. Even RTI queries failed to elicit any information on their many secret jaunts. And yet no one in the media or among the chatterati made any fuss about it. By contrast, the 18 odd countries Modi has visited on official trips in one year have been made objects of attack and derision. This despite the fact that none of the trips were pleasure jaunts and the PM did not take even one day off during this entire year. Moreover, each of the trips yielded significant gains either by way of major defence deals or foreign investments or sorting out geo political security related issues. His pro-active foreign policy is a much needed course correction from the rudderless policy of UPA days. But the impression sought to be created by Modi opponents is that he is a Non Resident PM and his foreign trips are meant for self promotion.
Similarly, Modi has faced endless flak for certain light hearted critical comments he made while addressing NRIs abroad about the previous scam ridden Congress regime, though without naming any political party or person. However, the very same politicians, media persons and intellectuals who expressed outrage at the impropriety of Modi’s potshots at the UPA regime on foreign soil were active in a vitriolic international campaign against Modi that included branding him a mass murderer even though not a single F.I.R had been registered against him. Worse still, they appealed to the US and other foreign governments to deny Modi visas to visit those countries as Gujarat Chief Minister. Never before has a ruling party at the Centre used its clout to humiliate and defame a popularly elected chief minister of a rival party in the international arena that too when even the Supreme Court appointed SIT had exonerated him. But that gross impropriety was widely approved by the same people who cannot stomach even mild banter by Modi against the previous UPA government.
The most absurd charge levelled against Modi is that he is a capitalist crony. It is a well-established fact that crony capitalism thrived under the socialist minded regimes of the Congress which ruled for nearly six decades. Ambani or Adani are not Modi creations. They came into being and acquired clout under Congress rule. What do his opponents expect Modi to do? Shoot them? As pointed out by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar in The Times of India (May 24, 2015), “When Modi was elected on May 15 last year, the sensex was at 27,159. Today it is up only marginally at 27,957. So much for the supposed Modi sell out to business! Easily the biggest gainers have been small to medium companies. Clearly Adani Enterprises has been outperformed by dozens of other stocks. Dhirubhai Ambani was a notorious Congress crony and master manipulator. It’s somewhat ridiculous for his companies to be called BJP cronies by Rahul.”
Despite all these stories about favouritism to Adani in Gujarat the fact is that Modi created an overall business friendly eco-system. Even small scale industry thrived. People from many other states who went and invested in Gujarat prospered fast. Adani’s growth ought not to be an issue if others are also allowed due space to thrive. However, it was indeed not appropriate of Modi to personally preside over Adani signing mining contracts in Australia. But as Aiyar points out for “fear of being accused of cronyism, Modi leaned on the State Bank of India to mothball a proposed big loan for Adani’s Australian coal project. Far from encouraging cronyism, the general complaint of industrialists is that Modi is now totally inaccessible. He addresses only policy matters, not individual projects. To quote Aiyar again; Industrialists can no more negotiate clearances and policy changes at private meetings, nor influence appointments of bank chairmen or get inconvenient bureaucrats transferred. (TOI, May 17, 2015)
Never before has any prime minister of India faced such a hostile intellectual class and such a large segment of leaders within his own party is all desperate to see him fail. In this negatively surcharged environment created with the help of hysterical anchors on 24x7 news channels and large sections of Modi averse print media, it is hard to be sure whether one’s assessment is objective and unbiased.
All I can say in the defense of the following critique is that this is not the product of pathological aversion to either BJP or Narendra Modi. In fact, this is the critique of a well wisher who is deeply desirous of seeing Modi government succeed, because I am convinced that despite many weaknesses, he has many of the essential qualities that are required of a leader to confront the key challenges facing India today. More importantly, India cannot afford to have one more failed regime given that we occupy the bottom rungs in our human development index and are falling behind even neighboring Bangladesh.
On the Plus Side
Let’s look at the plus side of Modi’s tenure first. There’s been no big ticket corruption, no scandal or scam as yet. Fixers, touts and wheeler-dealers that had acquired dangerous clout during the Sonia Gandhi regime, have been shut off from the corridors of power; powerful corporates can’t swing decisions in their favour on the basis of pay-offs.
Fiscal deficit is low as no corruption-friendly extravagant schemes have been announced. The system of cash transfers in welfare programmes has minimized the scope for siphoning off funds meant for the poor. The high priority accorded to financial inclusion through the massive outreach of Jan Dhan Yojana has the potential to be a game changer if most subsidies are directly transferred to these bank accounts. Along with it if the life insurance, the health insurance and old age pension schemes for the poor are earnestly operationalized, it would be a historic step in providing a measure of social security to the vulnerable masses in the unorganized sector.
It shows good intent that arms purchases will be done government to government thus cutting out middlemen. This in itself puts an end to the culture of kickbacks that had become endemic in defence purchases under previous government. Modi is far more serious about national security issues – something the UPA government had neglected sorely. The much neglected requirements of the Indian armed forces are being paid far more serious attention than under Congress regimes. The biggest achievement in this arena is that speedy approval of all those defence and other projects of strategic importance that have been pending for years. Opening up the defense and insurance sector to foreign participation up to 49 percent was also a much needed policy initiative. The bureaucracy is under close watch and has been put on a tighter leash that has ensured regular and timely attendance by sarkari babus.
The speed, efficiency and sensitivity with which Yemen, Kashmir and Nepal rescue operations were carried out got international recognition.
The willing acceptance of the 14th Finance Commission’s Recommendations regarding devolving more funds to the states is also credit worthy. The figure now stands at 42 percent of the total revenue collection up from earlier 32 percent. Core inflation down is down to 5 percent.
Modi’s foreign policy initiatives have enhanced India’s global stature. His resolve to sort out contentious border issues including with China through negotiations is appreciation worthy especially since BJP opponents created a misleading image that Modi would indulge in jingoistic aggression towards our neighbours. The passage of the Bangladesh Land Accord Bill is a historic step aimed at transferring enclaves with a clear demarcation of territory – thus putting an end to an old irritant and misery for citizens trapped in those enclaves.
Good amount of transparency has been brought into coal and spectrum auctions which have consequently improved the government’s fiscal health. Power sector reforms are leading to increase in coal production, as well as power capacity and generation. The decision that revenue realized through coal auctions shall go to states is also a major step in strengthening the spirit of cooperative federalism. .The replacement of the imperious Planning Commission with Niti Ayog in order to promote federalism in decision making vis a vis states is a major paradigm shift and demonstrates good intent. However, it’s not yet clear that its working effectively towards that end.
MUDRA bank aimed at providing finance to 5.7 crore small entrepreneurs is likely to give fillip to “Make in India” mission, provided other supportive reforms including end to the tyranny of inspector raj are put in place. The Ministry of Transport has already speeded up road construction and is likely to improve its performance in the coming year.
For the first time we witness a PM give personal attention to important social issues like cleanliness and the need to combat female feticide.
Super High Expectations Vs Performance
However, any evaluation of Modi’s tenure as PM is inevitably coloured by the super high expectations he raised during the election campaign as well as his track record as Gujarat chief minister. On that score, there is a glaring gap between Modi’s promise and performance as PM. What made Modi a cult figure in Gujarat is that from day one set aside third world standards for Gujarat and instead aspired towards international standards be it in construction of roads, power supply, agricultural productivity or setting up industrial zones.As chief minister Modi acquired the reputation for having a very sharp focus about what needed to be done and he had a clear road map on how to go about it. Before a project was announced resource allocation and time frame for execution was clearly laid out. He was known to pick the right man for the right job and he was admired for not having favourites. No official or minister could claim such proximity to him as to “influence” his decisions. Everybody talked admiringly about how he was a great listener & was easily accessible not just to officials but also ordinary citizens. I met numerous people-farmers, fishermen, and students etc who narrated incidents of how their requests for meeting were easily granted. If someone left a phone message with his office, he/she would often get a call back within hours. Even junior officers posted in the district could get an appointment without much ado. He was constantly travelling to different parts of the state & had direct contact with diverse sections of society. He had weekly meetings with his MLAs – on a pre fixed day so that they could bring their concerns to his notice on a regular basis. But he did not let them interfere in the execution of government programs and projects. They were not even allowed to come and meet officials in the Secretariat. This kept them on a tight leash. The same held good for his Cabinet colleagues. The Cabinet met every single week on a set day to thrash out issues and decide matters. But once a decision was taken, Modi saw to it that no minister was allowed to interfere in its execution.
He gave his bureaucrats a free hand in executing projects once decisions had been taken through mutual consultations and monitored their performance very closely, which left much less scope for corruption. Gujarat had his personal stamp in every field with a clear command control structure established in the CMO.
Even though as CM his opponents both within and outside the party did point to his authoritarian ways and his penchant for excessive self projection while totally overshadowing his political colleagues and systematic marginalization of those who posed a challenge to his unquestioned authority but the model of responsive governance and economic development he provided in Gujarat effectively countered his critics.The systemic innovations brought about by Modi dramatically improved the delivery system. Hence his popularity among citizens soared high. Therefore, none of his political colleagues dare raise the banner of revolt.
Modi as PM—a Different Persona?
However, Modi as PM appears to have evolved a somewhat different persona from what he was as CM. The most noteworthy difference is that he has built a cocoon around himself and has become highly inaccessible even for his party colleagues leading to a great deal of resentment within the BJP rank and file. His popularity rating is much higher today than among his party workers and colleagues. Some of it may be due to the much enhanced scope of his responsibilities. But a good part of it appears to be an inexplicable desire to distance himself from his old associates and supporters while relying excessively on the one and only Arun Jaitley who seems to have become larger than life power centre as well as Modi’s gatekeeper who appears to control people’s access to Modi. All those old associates of Modi who are not on good terms with Jaitley have been shut out completely. Their repeated requests for appointments have not even received a response, leave alone result in a meeting. Many key decisions, including some very harmful ones clearly have a Jaitley stamp. Many in BJP think Jaitley holds a veto power over Modi in important matters. He is the only one who had let it be known in advance that he was going to be Finance Minister when Modi came to power. He was not only rewarded with the portfolio of his choice but also an additional charge of Defense Ministry when Modi announced his first cabinet. This despite the fact that Jaitley lacks knowledge of finance. In fact, his Minister of State, Jayant Sinha is far more deserving of the job.
The excessive dependence on Arun Jaitley is attributed to Modi’s lack of confidence in handling the power elite of Lutyens Delhi whereas Jaitley has all his life mastering this art and very little else. This is evident from the fact that Jaitley is always presides over Modi’s interactions with the media. In fact, the three recent interactions of the PM with senior journalists were strangely enough all hosted by Jaitley at his house. It is as though the PM needs Jailtley’s guiding hand in dealing with the media at home though he does very well without using Jaitley’s services on his foreign tours.
This kind of dependence has led to all manners of speculation and vicious rumours within the BJP itself because as Gujarat CM Modi had acquired the reputation of allowing no one to claim such influence or power over him. The PM needs to remember that people voted Modi government to power; Jaitley lost even his own seat. Therefore his being projected as the most vocal and authoritative face of the government sends a very wrong message. People want to see Modi in command which he is in his foreign policy initiatives. But at home turf he has yielded so much power to his confidante and friend that it he appears to be what Sonia Gandhi was to Manmohan Singh.
Modi’s Cabinet Colleagues
It is noteworthy that much of the criticism of Modi government is on account of the flip flop of the finance ministry – whether with regard to recovery of black money in foreign shores or in the matter of retroactive taxation or the unwillingness to loosen the inspector raj. It has seriously shaken investor confidence. That is why "Make in India" mission has failed to take off thus far. Industrial production, exports and bank credit are all in a dismal state. Real estate sector is in deep gloom. Stock markets have also lost initial euphoria. Even while Modi goes wooing foreign capital, Indian industrialists at home are feeling disappointed because their problems are not getting sorted out. The system of single window clearance for investors has not yet been set up. On the other hand, the pernicious Inspector-Raid-Raj is sought to be strengthened in the name of tracking black money.
There is gloom even among corporates because they don’t yet see the BJP government chalk a new course on the economic front. Many in the BJP attribute it to the fact that Chidambaram is still influencing finance ministry decisions through his close buddy and confidante Arun Jaitley who has not only retained key officers from among the Chidambaram team but also assigned them key portfolios. Chidambaram himself has boasted to media on more than one occasion that the Modi government is dutifully following most of his policies while the mistakes are Jaitley’s own. The inability to make a bold and clean break from disastrous policies and wisdom of the UPA government is costing Modi much goodwill. If Indian businessmen don’t consider India investment worthy, there is no way foreign investors will put their faith in India. And if that doesn’t happen, Modi will not be able to deliver on his promise of creating crores of new jobs every year.
An even more controversial appointment is that of Smriti Irani as HRD minister defied comprehension. Her daily shenanigans and all too visible incompetence for the job has done far more damage to Modi’s image than anything else thus far. Her daily shenanigans have made the HRD ministry an object of derision and butt of jokes. If Modi fails to fix the tragic mess that is the education sector of India today, he is not likely to succeed on other fronts either. He cannot fix the health sector without educating good doctors and nurses nor bring vibrancy into the industrial sector or produce good engineers bureaucrats, police officers, policy makers or even defence personnel without serious over haul of the education sector.
The appointments of Jaitley and Irani have caused a deep upset even within his party because on the one hand he rode rough shod over party hierarchy by side lining most of the senior leaders. On the other hand, he gave some of the weightiest portfolios to those who have never won an election in their life. Therefore, even first time MPs like Meenakshi Lekhi are raging at Modi for denying them a ministerial berth. Ordinarily if a person without a solid political base becomes a first time MP, the person is elated. But here even young first timers are outraged because the PM has neither gone for seniority nor for merit barring in few appointments. Mahohar Parrikar as Defence Minister, Suresh Prabhu as Railway Minister, Nitin Gadkari as Transport Minister, Piyush Goyal as Power Miniser and Jayant Sinha and Nirmala Sitharaman as Ministers of State are among the few who convey a sense of competence. Unfortunately, a credible face like Harsh Vardhan was unceremoniously removed as Health Minister even though he had a clean image and competence in that field. It makes no sense that the barely literate Sadhavi Niranjana has been made a MOS but Arun Shourie left out.
Modi needs to remember that his stature as a tall leader depends on the stature of his chosen colleagues. By packing his Cabinet with political and intellectual dwarfs, he diminishes his own stature. Modi’s hero Mahatma Gandhi acquired the status of a political giant because he commanded the allegiance of numerous tall leaders like Sardar Patel. Conversely, the many pygmies and misfits in Modi’s Cabinet have put a serious question mark on Modi’s leadership qualities since the hallmark of good leadership is picking the best available talent as part of your team.
Even if Modi can’t do without his favourites, the least he owed the visibly incompetent among his Cabinet colleagues is to provide them with best possible team of advisors to meet the many complex challenges of their assigned jobs. For this he may have to scout for talent outside the party fold. There is no way he can micro manage each ministry and yet deliver good governance.
The lacklustre performance of several other ministries is being widely attributed to the excessive centralization of power in the PMO. BJP insiders as well as bureaucrats say virtually every file has to be cleared by the PMO because the PM wants to keep a close watch on his ministerial colleagues. This is leading to a logjam in decision-making. Modi’s well-wishers attribute it to his desire to curb corruption but his critics say this is because Modi is a control freak. It is hard to say whether this is part of malicious propaganda by his innumerable opponents within his party or reflects the actual state of affairs.
It would be revealing to make a list of Modi’s cabinet colleagues who have neither been heard nor seen in this last year. There are many in key portfolios whose names have not even been registered by the general public or even media professionals.As a test case, I asked nearly 50 well educated people whether they could name the Minister for Agriculture. Not once could do so. That in itself indicates the kind of negative presence the minister Radha Mohan Singh has established.
Shutting off Access to own Support Base
The most puzzling aspect of Modi’s new persona is the manner in which he shut out key groups and individuals who played a vital role in his bid to become PM. The popular upsurge that led to Narendra Modi’s grand victory in 2014 in large part was made possible because lakhs of non BJP volunteers became self appointed campaigners for Modi and put their heart and soul into combating through social media and word of mouth, the negative profile of Modi built by the mainstream media.
Several groups like Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) Mission 272, Friends of BJP came into being at the initiative of highly qualified professionals who put their high flying careers on hold to work to catapult Modi to PM's chair. They attracted countless highly committed volunteers -- many of them from the corporate world -- who gave several months of their time and energy to secure Modi's victory. No political party in India has ever attracted the kind of talent and razor sharp brains as did Modi during the run up to the May 2014 elections. They more than made up for the lack of BJP’s “intellectual fire power” by taking on with great aplomb the enormous might of the “left secular” intellectuals who till then had successfully painted Modi in a demonic light. Majority of such people wanted no personal rewards, expected no quid pro quo, simply because they already had high flying careers. Their only motivation was to contribute towards making India a country we could all be proud of. Congress tried hiring some bright brains but they were no match to the zeal and commitment of the brain power that flocked to Modi.
Similarly, Baba Ramdev’s army of volunteers, the highly professional brigade of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living and a host of spiritual gurus with mass followings worked tirelessly to take Modi’s message far and wide thus making a major contribution to his victory. The rank and file of BJP and RSS workers too were charged with unusual energy to work for Modi even though many of the senior BJP leaders did all they could to thwart Modi’s chances.
Even during the election campaign, BJP satraps seemed visibly upset at this new volunteer corp that arose spontaneously. Far from welcoming them within its fold, all manners of hurdles were placed in their functioning. But these volunteers continued with zeal because of their trust in Modi. I had assumed (and even tweeted about it) that Modi would infuse new life, into BJP and also his government by using this entire force creatively.
But after winning the historic election, Modi cut them all off from day one as though he was loathe to admit his debt to them. For instance, though his oath taking ceremony was not the routine affair in Durbar Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan, his party workers and volunteers of groups like Mission 272 plus CAG, or even key ground level workers of BJP were not given access to the ceremony. He preferred to surround himself with corporate big-wigs, Bollywood starlets, and socialites of various hues. That sent a very negative message to all those who had worked for him tirelessly at their own cost. Similarly, the likes of Baba Ramdev who had vowed not to return to his ashram till he had assured Modi's victory were not seen occupying pride of place in that gathering. This came as a real dampener for BJP, RSS, cadre as well as various citizens groups that had worked for Modi tirelessly. It would have been far more appropriate for Mod to have organized his swearing-in at Ramlila Maidan (the way Kejriwal did) and allowed lakhs of his supporters to celebrate the victory.
Many of these volunteers expressed their anguish even to a rank outsider like me saying they felt terribly let down by the fact that Modi did not even show the courtesy of acknowledging their role or saying thank you to them. Even though in his first address to BJP MP's Modi talked with great fervor about the sacrifices made by previous generations of Jan Sangh stalwarts and ordinary BJP workers but all the non BJP teams who worked for him in this election didn’t find even a passing mention. These volunteer groups were wound up without as much as a formal closure and all those who hoped to be part of Modi’s endeavour to build India were left completely rudderless.
Despite its inner party chaos AAP has established the Delhi Dialogues Commission for institutionalizing regular interaction with its volunteers and ordinary citizens. By contrast, PM Modi and party president Amit Shah have become inaccessible not just to their non party army of volunteers but also local leaders of BJP.
The manner in which Modi has decided to cocoon himself contrasts sharply with how Sonia Gandhi built a power base for herself starting from total scepticism about her suitability for the top job. One of the first things she did after UPS’s assumption of power in 2004 was to co-opt several high profile do-gooders as her personal courtiers by creating a high powered National Advisory Council. With this one stroke she managed to tie most of the NGO leaders as well as left-leaning academics and intellectuals to her apron strings. She sought out the likes of Amartya Sen as advisors and in turn a large body of intellectual became willing courtiers.
They became intoxicated by their proximity to the UPA High Command and felt they had high stakes in this government. This entire spectrum became the most effective weapons in Congress Party’s battle against the BJP. Even though the NAC was an unconstitutional body, none of the leftist intellectuals or activists objected because she made them stakeholders in the government. They also helped create a halo for Sonia Gandhi as someone who was pro-poor, pro-minorities, pro all good causes. Even though the Congress ran a scam ridden government, the leftist NGOs and intellectuals remained Sonia’s firm allies. By contrast, far from creating new allies, Modi has studiously distanced himself from old allies like Arun Shourie, the Jethmalanis and numerous others who stood by him. And who has he surrounded himself with? Nameless, faceless bureaucrats and a couple of political favourites who are themselves light weights.
We are told that Amit Shah has been meeting senior members of the teams that led the party’s social media campaign during the general elections to figure out ways to counter BJP’s losing edge on social media as well as improve the performance of party spokespersons in TV debates: “Look at the pinstripe suit controversy about the PM…we didn’t have a team to defend us,” said a senior party leader. (The Indian Express, March 31, 2015).
BJP high command better understand that far from readiness to ably defend BJP, most of its well wishers are sulking at Modi’s use and throw attitude. The kind of social media warriors that had once flocked to Modi can’t be hired for money. Even BJP stalwarts who are not part of the government are complaining about “arrogance” and “inaccessibility” of Team Modi. The rank and file of BJP is highly disgruntled and feel their leaders have become too smug and arrogant and they don’t get a hearing even on legitimate issues.
The first response of citizens to arrogance of their rulers is despondency and sulk—which is what has happened to BJP cadre and supporters. But it takes only a few sparks to turn that despondency to rage, as the Congress party discovered to its dismay in May 2014.
The Prime Minister is seen on TV either touring abroad or receiving foreign heads of state, corporate honchos, or meeting socialites and film stars. In the last several months one has never once seen him interacting with ordinary citizens. He only addresses them when he goes electioneering. But that is a one way communication which doesn’t allow for the kind of rapport he once had with party workers and non BJP volunteers. For instance when Modi launched his Swachh Bharat campaign, with much fanfare, he announced famous cricket stars, corporate leaders, Bollywood & TV actors and other celebrities as brand ambassadors. All of these worthies can at best indulge in token gestures. But to be really effective he needed to enthuse and mobilize BJP municipal councilors and party cadres to take charge of their respective neighborhoods or villages. But all we witnessed was farcical photo-ops by Delhi BJP leaders without any involvement of rank and file. Had he not unceremoniously dumped CAG, Friends of BJP and scores of other teams of volunteers who were ready and keen to play a creative role in transforming India under his leadership, today Modi could have counted on a massive force of dedicated and talented citizens to make the Clean India campaign a much greater success than it seems to have proved thus far.
It’s no better with other ministers in the Cabinet. They too are neither accessible nor reaching out to people. While Amit Shah’s achievement of enrolling 11 crore members of BJP is indeed laudable, these new recruits don’t seem to have the kind of motivation, energy and talent that the spontaneously emerged Modi support groups attracted.
The astounding defeat meted out by Delhi voters to BJP in the Delhi election is a sure sign of demoralization of BJP cadre and noticeable erosion of non BJP support base. The PM had announced with much aplomb that he would be accessible and that people should send him their inputs for improving governance. But many who have taken that invitation seriously tell me that they never even get an acknowledgement, leave alone any serious follow up. Letters to the PM by eminent citizens or requests for appointment are also not answered. Nor is the PM communicating effectively to the people through the media. Its Jaitley who seems to be the PM’s talking face most of the time.
Inadequate Response to Agrarian Crisis
Similarly, his response to the agrarian crisis on account of untimely rains and hail storm has been far from energetic. As farm policy expert Ashok Gulati has pointed out, in this day and age of technology you can use satellite imagery and drones to assess crop damage and get the computerized data for each farm within hours. This can be easily tied up with Aadhar card system to reach speedy compensation to farmers. This job should not have been left to the corruption-friendly and inefficient patwari system. The relief money should have reached the farmers with the same speed with which the PM responded to the Nepal disaster. At a personal level too, it was important for Modi to be seen interacting with farmers and coming up with innovative schemes that gave them hope. But his avoiding to do so is both puzzling and disappointing. No doubt, the agrarian crisis has been inherited from the previous Congress regimes. In Gujarat, Modi gave the highest priority to rejuvenating agriculture. But as PM one doesn’t see in him that sense of urgency about reviving the health of farm sector. Thus far, there is very little sign of Modi government introducing noteworthy changes in farm policy that need to be brought in on war footing. The amount of money (Rs 5000 crore) earmarked for irrigation is a fraction of the Rs 50,000 crore required for the job. The promise of making India a unified market for farm produce has not yet been honoured. None of the business deals made by Modi in foreign countries he visited pertain to agriculture. No major initiative in research and development for farm sector has taken off. India has a lot to learn from China on this account because the Chinese economic growth miracle has been built on the foundation of liberalisation and massive investment in the farm sector. Modi used the same formula with great success in Gujarat.
As Gujarat chief minister he put an extraordinary amount of time, energy and thought into bringing new vibrancy and prosperity into the farm sector by investing heavily into water harvesting, drip irrigation, soil health cards, reaching the best of seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and other inputs to farmers’ doorstep. The state bureaucracy and agricultural scientists were mobilized to serve the farm sector in a pro active manner. The markets for agricultural produce were reformed and numerous incentives provided to farmers to undertake new experiments. Modi himself interacted extensively with the farmers throughout the year but especially during Krishi Utsavs. He had his ear to the ground and personal live contact with farmers so that he responded with speed to the problems and challenges faced by them.
Not surprising to the farm sector grew at 9-10 percent per annum during Modi’s tenure as CM of Gujarat whereas in the rest of the country it was stagnating at 2-3 percent growth. Even though Modi’s critics tried to project him as someone who only served corporate interests, farmers in Gujarat saw in him a caring friend and well-wisher.
It is a mystery why as PM he has made no attempt to engage with farm leaders directly. That space has been ably occupied by Sonia Gandhi and other opposition leaders. His one way communication on this issue through his “Mann ki Baat” radio program is not a substitute for direct two-way engagement.
The Land Acquisition Bill Stalemate
It’s a great puzzle why the Modi government has gone about tying to amend the Land Acquisition Act, 2013 in such a ham handed manner. In the process it has managed to infuse new life into the Opposition parties which were in total disarray after. Congress can now piously claim that they were the real defenders of farmers whereas Modi government wants to snatch away their only asset in the interest of corporates. Modi has gifted them a difficult convenient issue to tar him with an anti poor and pro rich brush.
In his defense PM Modi says that many of the opposition ruled chief ministers had approached him to bring about certain urgently required amendments to this law. If that was the case, the road to reform was easy and simple. In the spirit of his own slogan of “cooperative federalism”, all he needed to do was to set up a committee of chief ministers, headed by a non BJP chief minister to present him a list of consensually agreed upon amendments. In that case, no major party could have opposed the proposed changes. Land is in any case a state subject and chief ministers are most affected if they cannot invite industrial investments or undertake development projects. Most states have in any case brought about the required amendments to the draconian and colonial minded 1894 Land Acquisition Act. Those states that are serious about industrialization, as for example Gujarat, have been able to acquire land without too much trouble. The chief ministers would have gladly helped the government in fine tuning the land law had he made them take the lead.
It is beyond comprehension why instead the PM chose the confrontational route by bringing in an Ordinance. Another instance of Jaitley wisdom? Leave alone build a cross party consensus, even within PM’s own Parivar, there is stiff resistance to the amendments with prominent voices within the RSS and the farmers front of the BJP—the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh—openly opposing the Ordinance. If he can’t carry his own political family with him, how does he expect to carry the opposition with him?
PM Modi’s inept handling of Land acquisition laws contrasts sharply with the way as chief minister he handled with great dexterity the issue of land acquisition for industrial purposes and infra structure projects in Gujarat. To begin with, the state government did not go about forcibly acquiring land and came to be known for devising the best land policy in the country. The Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation, negotiates the terms of sale directly with the farmers instead of forcibly taking over their land. Moreover farmers are paid far higher than the market price. In most instances industrialists have negotiated land prices directly with the farmers without requiring help from the state. This is largely because Gujarat government during Modi’s tenure as CM encouraged setting up of industries in the desert region and on unproductive lands by providing world class infra structure – well built all weather roads, 24x7 power supply, assured water and related requirements along with tax concessions in those regions.
In such regions land was available for a song because it was unproductive and in large parts barren. Therefore, farmers were only too glad to sell it. But as industries started coming up in such areas, the land prices shot up dramatically and made subsistence farmers wealthy overnight. That is why there were very few instances of farmer resistance to giving lands for industries. But within months of becoming prime minister, Modi is widely perceived as being “anti-farmer” on account of the rough and uncaring manner in which he tried to push through amendments to the Land Acquisition Act.
Message from BJP’s Humiliating Defeat in Delhi
The crushing defeat meted out to BJP in Delhi was the first serious wake up call that PM Modi could not take his popular support for granted. This has been followed by similar drubbing in several UP by-elections. The Delhi fiasco was easily avoidable had BJP not failed to initiate even the most basic changes needed to make Delhi feel the beginnings of “acchhe din” instead of smugly counting on the “Modi wave”. Those nine months should have been used in plucking the low hanging fruits in order to win over Delhi votes. For instance, Modi could easily have motivated BJP municipal councilors to put all their energy into making Delhi a role model for Swacchh Bharat within six months. Likewise he could have pushed them to curb corruption and bring efficiency in the MCD’s functioning. But apart from some municipal councillors doing the silly nautanki of holding the broom for the benefit of news cameras, we did not witness the slightest improvement in municipal governance. Hence the backlash.
Another low hanging fruit was to replicate in Delhi the major reforms in policing that were put in place in Surat by Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana within a record 4-5 months. The cutting-edge technology put to use by Asthana in order to bring about efficiency and accountability are visible on the ground with CCTV cameras covering the entire city backed by a 24x7 high-tech monitoring centre. The system brought down crime rate without fudging figures. Its replication in Delhi would have assured Delhi citizens that Modi is serious in delivering on his oft repeated promise of bringing greater security and safety for women. The government could have also easily improved lighting on the city streets and other public spaces to act as a deterrent for criminals. All this could be executed without any hitch since Delhi was under Lt Governor’s rule and the LG is directly responsible to the Union Home Minister.
To top it all candidates were announced at the last minute and a political novice from outside imposed as a CM candidate. Was it smugness that made Modi neglect Delhi before the crucial Assembly elections? On the other side AAP was out campaigning door to door for months on end while BJP cadre was either sulking or sitting complascently at home. No wonder the Delhi electorate gave Modi a resounding defeat to drive home the message that they should not be taken for granted.
Neglect on Administrative Reforms
Modi had promised far reaching administrative reforms and bring synergy between different ministries by breaking silos. He did this well in Gujarat. But as PM even baby steps have not been taken in this direction. For instance, Ministries of Agriculture, Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Irrigation and Food Processing should have been clubbed under one ministry with dedicated teams of experts for each of these areas working in close coordination. Similarly HRD ministry should have been merged with Ministries of Culture and Skill Development. But nothing of the sort happened. The systemic reforms needed to bring vibrancy into economy and service delivery to people’s doorstep, as in Gujarat, have yet to take off. As far as police and judicial reforms are concerned, we haven’t yet witnessed even modest steps in that direction even though Modi knows from the Gujarat experience that improvements in the law and order situation and dispute resolution system are crucial to reviving economic health.
On the Corruption Front
Even though as PM Modi has definitely succeeded in curbing big ticket corruption and scams that emanate at the ministerial level by keeping a close watch on his cabinet colleagues and bureaucrats, however, for the ordinary citizen his daily interaction with government machinery is still riddled with harassment and extortion. To be fair to Modi as PM he cannot possibly keep a watch over municipal or thana level officials. But people do expect from Modi government a total overhaul of system of governance from top to bottom. For that we have to have more patience. However, going slow on high profile cases such as Robert Vadra land deals or the National Herald case involving Sonia Gandhi sends a very negative message.
Here are two telling examples that raise serious misgivings about BJP government’s credentials with regard to corruption by big wigs of the previous regime. The PM had let it be known that Ashok Khemka, the IAS officer who risked his life and career in exposing Robert Vadra’s fraudulent land deals in Haryana, would be brought in to the PMO. But Arun Jaitley allegedly put his foot down and got that decision cancelled. Worse still, the charge sheet filed against Khemka by the Congress government has not been withdrawn by the new BJP govt in Haryana. What’s more, he has been humiliated further with a punishment posting where he has no work, no staff and not even proper office space.
Similarly, the PM had promised that justice would be done to Sanjay Shrivastav, the Income Tax Commissioner who caught the Chidambram-NDTV hawala scam. He too was hounded out of his job by Chidambram with numerous false cases filed against him when UPA was in power. Here too Mr Jaitley has ensured that even his charge sheet has not been withdrawn. He continues to be on “compulsory wait”. The rules permit an officer to draw his salary while on “compulsory-wait” but Shrivastav continues to be deprived of his posting and salary since April 2013.
Khemka and Srivastav are not just two wronged individuals but both became symbols of movement to curb corruption. If BJP government continues to persecute them, despite the PM’s public commitment to the contrary, it sends a very sorry message.
It is the same story with the promise regarding the return of black money stashed in foreign accounts. This was a major electoral promise of Modi but there is very little follow up required to fulfil that promise. The draconian law recently passed by the Lok Sabha to punish black money hoarders is a poor substitute for tracking the loot money already stolen out of India.
Modi’s erstwhile allies, Baba Ramdev and Ram Jethmalani are openly fuming at the blatant U-turns taken by the Finance Minister on the black money issue. Thus far they have lashed out only at Arun Jaitley. Instead of assuaging their fears, Modi has preferred to cut them off. This only confirms the doubts of sceptics that Jaitley has managed to steer the black money probe in the direction of protecting his friends in the Congress. This bodes ill for the Modi government. Another glaring example involves the massive scam exposed by three times BJP MP Kirti Azad in the management of the Delhi State Cricket Board while it was under the President-ship of Arun Jaitley. Leading cricketers have been pleading with Modi to take action on the basis of serious indictments by official inquiry reports. But the PM has chosen to stonewall that demand.
Another disappointment is the week-kneed fashion in which Modi has responded to motivated charges by the Christian community leaders ably assisted by “secular parties” that minorities are under attack and fear being crushed by the BJP government. Almost all the alleged attacks on churches and other Christian institutions have turned out to be cases of petty burglary or property disputes or random incidents involving some crackpot throwing a stone or two at a church. In one case, it was a case of short circuit leading to a minor fire in a West Delhi church. The culprits in the alleged rape of a nun in a West Bengal Convent turned out to be Bangladeshi miscreants. In one case, police said it was a case of self-inflicted damage. The hysteria built around these phoney cases is clearly part of a well orchestrated move to project Modi in devilish light both within the country and abroad. Instead of swiftly coming out with a well investigated white paper on the alleged attacks, Modi went into the defensive mode. Its mainly social media activists who exposed all this mischief by circulating the findings of police inquiry reports which the mainstream media deliberately underplayed. While it was indeed required that the foul mouthed loose canons like Sadhavi Niranjana be firmly disciplined, Modi government should have also communicated to mischief mongers among the Christian community that hysteria and phobia created on the basis of false allegations would not be tolerated.
Likewise, on the Ghar Wapsi issue while farcical attempts at reconversion by fringe Hindu groups needed to be checked with a firm hand, BJP developed cold feet in asserting its original eminently reasonable position that either all conversions be banned or else Hindu groups be allowed the same freedom to win over converts that Christians and Muslims routinely exercise. This contentious issue cannot be resolved using the phony secular-prism of the Congress or Left parties.
Finally, BJP’s capitulation in dealing with the PDP in Kashmir has come as a jolt to its own core constituency. While Modi’s willingness and ability to craft a coalition with a Muslim majority party like PDP, displayed great maturity and political astuteness, but committing in their Common Minimum Program, that the secessionist Hurriyat would be included in consultations as an integral stakeholder while seeking a permanent solution to Kashmir problem is a big blunder. This amounts to yielding far more ground to Pak-backed secessionists and bestowing them far greater credibility than even the flip flop prone Congress Party ever did. No democracy can afford to make self proclaimed proven terrorists stakeholders in its decision making. Also, the BJP negotiators surprisingly accepted the position of a junior partner vis a vis PDP when it came to power sharing in the Cabinet though their vote share was much larger than the PDP share and the number of seats nearly the same. This too has annoyed BJP rank and file in the Jammu region. On the other hand, the active engagement expected of the PM in putting J&K on fast track mode of economic development hasn’t happened.
Finally, the government’s inability to fill in key posts such as that of CVC, CIC gives his opponents a very strong handle against Modi. Apart from these high profile vacancies, hundreds of positions lie vacant especially under the HRD ministry despite a full year of NDA in power. It strengthens the popular prejudice that BJP doesn’t have talented people under its umbrella and therefore, has failed to replace Congress loyalists. Consequently, Modi government is unable to undertake the much needed course correction in many key areas. By contrast when Congress comes to power, it doesn’t take more than a day or two to post its own people in all key positions. Modi could easily have made up for talent deficit within his own party by recruiting new people from the enormous talent pool that gravitated towards him in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. Someone like Prashant Kishore who gave up his high flying career to work for Modi starting 2011 and founded CAG in 2013 among other initiatives should have been included in the government solely on the strength of his enormous talent and contribution. But Modi is supposed to have cast him aside rudely as he did with numerous others who worked for him. In this one year, Modi has lost numerous valuable friends without gaining any new allies.
Even from within the BJP pool keeping out the likes of Arun Shourie is giving the impression that wants to surround himself with those who can never dare script their own role but will dutifully read out the script assigned to them. It’s unfortunate that BJP has not yet developed the tradition of nurturing high worth intellectuals and academics. Nor has it learnt to embrace talent from outside, something the Congress party does very ably. It has not done so even in states where it has been in power for sufficiently long periods. Even Modi failed to do so in Gujarat even though as CM he paid far more attention to the education sector than he is doing as PM. They will continue to suffer from talent deficit if they don’t pay serious attention to this domain.
As all survey reports have shown Modi deservingly remains the most popular leader and people’s first choice as PM. But many of Modi's well wishers are sounding alarming bells that his governments performance doesn’t match its rhetoric.
Barring perhaps, Jawahar Lal Nehru, no other politician in India has fired the imagination of the aspirational India as did Modi. Even the appeal of Jay Prakash Narayan was far more limited despite his promise of “total revolution.” VP Singh also rode to power on the strength of popular sentiment but his promises were very modest just as his overall vision was far from inspirational. When he failed not too many people shed any tears for him.
But people put serious trust in Modi’s promise of total transformation of power structures and harnessing of its youth power in order to lead India towards occupying a pride of place in the comity of nations. But “Aspirational India” that Modi appealed to is also “Impatient India” and if frustrated can easily become “Unforgiving India” as was demonstrated by the unprecedented drubbing given to BJP in the 2015 state assembly elections of Delhi.
First published in two parts in swarajyamag.com on June 6-7, 2015: