In 100 days, Modi unpacks slowly
The new PM, starting to deliver on electoral promises, fuels both hope and skepticism
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
How long are 100 days in power? Long enough to understand the intent and purpose of a party that seemed fired up to replace the lazy, clueless, corrupt and burnt-out UPA government. Some 450 public meetings in which he raised 700-odd issues provided ample hints about what Narendra Modi would do when he came to power. And the most important change he sought to bring about was to restore the power and influence of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that had been devalued by his listless predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who found it difficult to live down the criticism that he was controlled by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
No one would have any doubt about the primacy and robustness that has been restored to the PMO. Although Manmohan’s 10-year stint is open to interpretation as to whether he was a success or a failure due to his manifest reticence and inherent decency, the truth is that there is so much that could have been accomplished by him if he — an intellectual — had also been vested with political authority. He tried to run the government through the strength of his ideas alone, without bad-mouthing or being rough with anyone. But people like K Natwar Singh, when he was in the government, were openly disrespectful of Manmohan. In Modi’s Cabinet, no one can really think of acting tough with him. Just look at the plight of LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi who tried to outwit him.
Modi belongs to that tribe of politicians, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, who believe that the PMO has the power to transform the destiny of the nation. Despite the fact that India has a Parliamentary form of democracy, votes are sought on the performance of the Prime Minister and not so much of the party. So, in some ways, elections are always fought Presidential-style. To his immense credit, Modi read the mood and the expectations of the people correctly and also their desire for a leader who could deliver in difficult times. The issue of lay-offs, slowdown and policy paralysis was blamed on a weak leader and Modi presented himself as a killer app who could change people’s lives if they downloaded him as their PM. It was a simplistic view based on ceteris paribus that appealed to the gullible, who were mesmerised by the theatre of his speech and presentation and the promise of acche din (good times). In simple terms, acche din meant lowering of the rate of food inflation, revival of growth and, consequently, of the job market.
Modi interpreted the mandate as one to behave as a tough, no-nonsense leader—replicating a model of governance that he had fine tuned in Gujarat where other ministers meant little and the CM had the final authority. This was a departure from the consensual, democratic functioning witnessed in the country in the past 20 years since coalitions began to run India. In Gujarat, the bureaucrats get importance over the elected representatives. Most people know few ministers from Modi’s Cabinet other than Amit Shah or Saurabh Patel.
Although the Central government is supposed to be different from a State’s, as it comprises powerful regional leaders, Gujarat was duplicated. Secretaries were asked to make presentations directly to the Prime Minister and encouraged to reach out directly to him, bypassing their ministers. To reinforce the authority of the PMO, pictures showed ministers standing like errant schoolchildren in front of a disciplinarian teacher — Modi. There was astute myth-building around the PM as the keeper of morals and watchdog of the grubby, moneymaking political class. His promise to not “take money nor allow anyone” to do so came to define his big brother supervision of his ministers and bureaucrats. Rumours of ministers being pulled up for having dinner with businessmen or dressing inappropriately for meetings began to gain currency.
However, the penny dropped when Home Minister Rajnath Singh, incensed by rumours that his son had been pulled up by the PM for inappropriate behaviour, went to the media, saying he had taken up the issue with the PM and party president Amit Shah. By choosing to seek a clarification from the PMO and the party president, Rajnath did something vital — he conveyed to those who chose rumour and myth as an instrument to facilitate control over people and institutions for improving governance that it was the wrong path. The PMO and Shah promptly denied the reports and reiterated their respect for Rajnath. A few days later, he was designated Cabinet number two.
This is a watershed event in the evolving terms of discourse between the PM and his Cabinet colleagues who are slowly venting their reservations about his authoritarian ways. Will the RSS step in or will Modi, aware that the mandate was for him, pay little heed to them? Much of how the government functions will depend on how this matter is resolved. All will be fine as long as Modi’s popularity is high and people can feel the gains of quick decision-making.
As of now, the promise of good times remains unrealised. Although the economy in the last quarter logged 5.7 per cent growth — a point higher than the earlier quarter — there is plenty of distance to cover. In trying to put this growth in perspective, former UPA finance minister P Chidambaram took credit for his policy interventions such as reduction of credit account deficit (CAD) to less than 2 per cent. Fiscal deficit is worryingly on the higher side. Jobs haven’t picked up as yet despite the pink press seeing green shoots all over the ravaged desert-like landscape. Inflation has not softened and the poor monsoon is threatening to rob whatever gains the economy may have made due to past government interventions. The looming power crisis is also daunting as there is little coal for thermal power plants. The country could go through another blackout if this is not sorted out.
On the foreign policy front, Modi is on a steep learning curve. After stunning the region and many sceptics with his decision to invite SAARC leaders for his swearing-in, he followed it up with quick trips to Bhutan and Nepal. He raised hopes of easing tensions with Pakistan by giving the go-ahead for Secretary-level talks, but decided to cancel them when he found that the Kashmiri separatists were supping with the Pakistan High Commissioner. It is not clear when the talks will get the green signal again.
Modi produced fantastic optics during his trip to Japan where he pledged fast-track clearance for Japanese companies. He also promised their participation in smart cities and bullet train projects—two of his pet themes. Next, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in Delhi to take partnership with India to the next level. The forthcoming trip to the US will decide many aspects about the direction of Modi’s foreign policy concerns. How he will countenance the happenings in the Middle East or Afghanistan will depend largely on what kind of relationship he strikes up with US President Barack Obama.
These 100 days of Modi are also 100 days of how the BJP and RSS view the secular character of the nation. In this short while, those perceived to be with the earlier regime have been eased out. History is being reinterpreted and many institutions are under pressure to align with the ruling ideology. The media, too, is under immense pressure to ease out voices hostile to this government. So feeble has been the response of the existing institutions and the chattering classes to these changes that there is little clue about what was destroyed in the 11,000 files by the Home Ministry. And these are just the first 100 days of the many summers to follow.