Alice had amnesia in Wonderland
Two years after assuming power, the Modi government is yet to fulfil some of its key promises. Is it time for the janta maaf nahin karegi memes to make a comeback?
Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi
James C. Scott’s groundbreaking magnum opus, Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed, explores how across dozens of different domains ranging from agriculture to town planning, census-taking to waste management, a pattern of failure keeps recurring. According to Scott, this pattern is most common in top-down economies where the authoritarian high modernistic leadership style prevails. The leadership style can be best described as follows. Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city. Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works. Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations. Come up with an idealised blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like. Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality. Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary. Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly.
It’s not hard to miss that this is an apropos description of how Prime Minister Narendra Modi operates. Take the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), for example. According to the data available on the PMJDY website, Indian banks have opened 7.25 crore accounts with a balance of Rs 5,611.2 crore. Of these, about 5.48 crore accounts, or 75 per cent, have zero balance, the data shows. What this also means is that these account holders are not going to get the promised insurance cover and overdraft facility. Had the state- owned banks not been compelled by Modi’s vision to open bank accounts indiscriminately, the banks would have probably got the required time to sort out procedural complexities. Indeed, the ‘Know Your Customer’ (KYC) norms would not have been compromised and as a result duplicate accounts and zero balance accounts would have been fewer. Business correspondents of banks would have gotten enough time to impart financial literacy to the intended beneficiaries.
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Certainly, the Jan Dhan Yojana is a stark example of a promise fulfilled which is ultimately a pyrrhic victory. Every aspiring politician who seeks to gain power knows that the key to winning elections is to make lofty promises. Sometimes those promises can be bizarre. Porn star Mary Carey ran for governor of California in 2003 on a platform that included taxing breast implants, encouraging citizens to trade their guns for porn, and installing webcams in the governor’s mansion (so voters could “see their government at work”). Predictably, she did not win.
Sometimes, the promises can be lofty and provide a sense of hope that change really is around the corner. Barack Obama promised that he would lift America out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, wind down the war in Iraq and sign a universal healthcare Bill. He became the president. In many ways, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had modelled his general election campaign on the campaign run by Obama. Many called it a ‘presidential’ campaign. Modi was seen as the great emancipator, the messiah who would bring deliverance to a country stalled by years of misrule. In the days post his victory, even members of the opposition party were swept in by the inflated euphoria surrounding his coming to power. Shashi Tharoor wrote a glowing article titled ‘Modi 2.0’ which articulated how Modi had transformed into a statesman of sorts.
In the celebration to mark two years in power, the PM claimed Rs 15,000 crore were saved by plugging subsidy leakages, 3 crore LPG connections were given to poor families, 1.65 crore lakh fake ration cards were deleted and India is the fastest growing economy in the world. The actual reality is different: savings were roughly Rs 143 crore, only 60 lakh connections were added till April 2016, 66 lakh fake ration cards were eliminated over the past three years and India is the fourth fastest economy in the world
Two years later, the sheen has worn off. While BJP president Amit Shah touts the achievements of the Modi government in his report card, the common man fantasises about dal chawal given that arhar dal now costs Rs180 plus, a kilo. So the million-dollar question remains: How many of its poll promises has the Modi government fulfilled? We take a look at the promises of the Modi campaign—now all but forgotten.
Job creation: While Modi, in the run-up to the elections, had promised that he would create 100 million (10 crore) jobs in the manufacturing sector by 2022, and approximately 20 million (2 crore) jobs per year, the data begs to differ. For one thing, the unemployment situation is becoming increasingly acute as demographic transition pulls young people into the workforce at an accelerated pace. Labour Bureau data has revealed that new jobs in eight major sectors of the economy fell to a six-year low of 1.35 lakh in 2015 compared to 4.21 lakh such jobs in 2014 and 4.19 lakh jobs in 2013. The data, based on eight sectors (textiles, leather, metals, automobiles, gems and jewellery, transport, IT/BPO and handloom/powerloom), showed a startling 68 per cent drop in employment generation between 2014 and 2015. One of the BJP advertisements in the 2014 general election declared: ‘Yuvaon ko berozgar rakhne walon, janta maaf nahi karegi’. (You who have kept the youth unemployed, the people will not forgive you). That advertisement seems pretty ironic now.
Bringing back black money: One of the most popular promises made by Modi in the run-up to the elections was that he would bring back all the black money stashed away in Swiss banks. This was a difficult promise to keep to begin with. Getting back black money is not as simple as ordering a pizza from Domino’s. Be that as it may, the government has not made any serious effort to investigate the sophisticated structures which keep black money hidden. Its attempt to implement a reasonable disclosure law has so far raised only Rs 446 crore. Even Baba Ramdev, who was behind bringing the issue to the fore a few years ago, does not seem too interested anymore. Given that he has created a Rs 2,000 crore Ayurvedic Fsat Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) empire, recovering illegal lucre from abroad may not interest Ramdev much.
Smart Cities: Modi had promised to create 200 ‘smart cities’ if he came to power. Two years since, the smart cities project seems like Alice had amnesia in Wonderland. A classic case of drawing the curtains, putting the gramophone on, and pretending that a stalled train is moving. While Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu builds castles in the air, residents of the existing ‘scruffy’ cities run out of water on a regular basis, while power blackouts and infinite traffic jams are a recurring feature in daily lives, and sundry goons, murderers and rapists routinely call the shots. Rather than upgrading creaky infrastructure like roads and ensuring that garbage is not floating on the roads come monsoon, we can have tall skyscrapers from where the rich denizens of our country can look down and complain about the slums spoiling the grand view. Rather than smart cities, can the government do something about deteriorating air quality, poor sanitation and overstretched public transport facilities in the cities which already exist?
Take the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. According to its website, Indian banks have opened 7.25 crore accounts with a balance of Rs 5,611.2 crore. Of these, about 5.48 crore accounts, or 75 per cent, have zero balance. What this also means is that these account holders are not going to get the promised insurance cover and overdraft facility
Reviving the manufacturing sector: India’s manufacturing sector has been languishing for a while. This is problematic to say the least, as India’s manufacturing sector has to be the sponge which absorbs those looking to move away from agriculture. In response to this, Modi unveiled a giant lion made of shiny metal parts and exhorted everyone to ‘Make in India’. To make investment in home-grown manufacturing more attractive the Modi government tried to push through the Land Acquisition Act after diluting most of its key safeguards. This backfired and the Bill got stalled. Acquiring land for greenfield projects remains as difficult as ever.
Electricity supply, which is critical to large-scale manufacturing, remains poor and utterly unreliable. The ‘Make in India’ initiative has also conveniently ignored the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) – that is, those with plant and machinery less than Rs 10 crore in manufacturing or Rs 5 crore in services. The MSME sector accounts for a substantial 45 per cent of our industrial production. The right thing to do would have been to simplify the tax structure for MSMEs. Given Modi’s ‘event management’ fetish for all things big, this has not happened.
Even corporations looking to invest in India have been hamstrung by a lack of key factors. Any investor looking to set up a manufacturing base needs reliable and high-quality raw material suppliers, a blue-collar workforce tailored to its industry, stable finance and experienced managerial expertise that can run supply chains, product development, shop-floor management, latest machinery, largescale marketing and other complex tasks associated with modern production. In the absence of all of these vital factors, many investors have chosen to invest in other emerging economies instead. Ever since the ‘Make in India’ programme was unveiled, exports have collapsed, capacity utilisation has remained low and industrial production has only grown sparingly. The success of the ‘Make in India’ programme can be gauged by the fact that the much hyped ‘Statue of Unity’ of Sardar Patel worth Rs 3,000 crore is currently being spruced up in China.
‘I am known to be a Hindutva leader. My image does not permit to say so, but I dare to say. My real thought is -- Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya (first toilets, then temples).’ Two years later, and many crores spent on the ad campaign of ‘Swacch Bharat’, manual scavenging continues unhindered with thousands still engaged in clearing human excreta
Alleviate the agrarian crisis: In the run-up to the elections, the BJP had promised that if elected to power it would ensure that farmers would earn a ‘minimum of 50 per cent profits over the cost of production’. This was a promise that the BJP went back on as soon as it came to power, claiming that such a thing was not feasible. The government also falsely claims that the Rs 38,500 crore given to NREGA in this budget is the highest ever. Truth: the allocation was roughly Rs 40,000 crore in 2006 when it was, in fact, a smaller programme. The current Budget also saw a monumental Rs 5,51,000 crore written off in corporate income tax, excise and customs duties. As always, mainly for the benefit of the rich. While around 350 million farmers reel under the drought which is plaguing the countryside and struggle to cope with the mounting debt, Modi and his team of loyalists are having a gala time congratulating themselves and celebrating two years of being in power. After all, image management is more important than doing any real work. As Marie Antoinette would say, “Let them eat cake.”
Increased public spending on education to 6 percent and rejuvenating the higher education system: While the previous ruling regime had earmarked Rs 27,000 crore for education, the ruling dispensation has slashed the education budget to Rs 22,000 crore. The net GDP spend on education remains a measly 3.9 percent. Primary schools across the country face a dearth of almost 9 lakh primary school teachers.
The government’s commitment to high quality education is shown by the fact that it has a ‘Yale graduate’, Smriti Irani, in charge of the Union HRD ministry. Her alleged Bachelor’s degrees are also a subject of much national speculation. Under Irani, the government has launched many laudable initiatives in the past two years. Most recently, she unveiled a proposal to study Sanskrit in IITs. After all, Sanskrit is the only Indian language which can compete with C++, Python and JAVA in the global marketplace. She also launched a special ‘serial’ targeting Rohith Vemula with a series of letters, which literally led the Dalit PhD scholar to commit suicide. Vemula’s friends call it “institutional murder”.
Many campuses are in crisis, university autonomy and intellectual freedom is being attacked, JNU and Delhi University are being hounded, history textbooks are being rewritten, BR Ambedkar and Subhas Chandra Bose, who were staunchly opposed to the RSS, are being turned into party mascots, Vedic studies are being promoted. The likes of Dinanath Batra, who pushed the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus, is a rockstar of the current regime, among others like Gajendra Chauhan, etc. There has also been an emphasion of scientific achievements during Vedic times such as Ganesha’s alleged head transplant through plastic surgery, as the PM himself claimed. Outspoken academics such as Kancha Ilaiah are being reined in by being accused of hurting religious sentiments. Not sure if this is what Modi meant when he talked about rejuvenating the higher education system.
Social Justice and Empowerment: ‘Sabka saath sabka vikaas’ was one of the much touted slogans during the publicity blitzkrieg unleashed by Modi’s PR machinery during the 2014 elections. Perhaps, what Modi meant was ‘Kiska saath, Kiska Vikaas’.
In this regard, the BJP had made many lofty promises in its manifesto. It had vowed to eliminate the scourge of manual scavenging if it came to power. Said Modi in October 2013, “I am known to be a Hindutva leader. My image does not permit to say so, but I dare to say. My real thought is — Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya (first toilets, then temples).”
Two years later, and many crores spent on the ad campaign of ‘Swachch Bharat’, manual scavenging continues unhindered with thousands still engaged in clearing human excreta. Given Modi’s initial views as an RSS swayamsevak on how manual scavenging is a “spiritual occupation”, it’s not surprising that not much action has been taken in this regard.
Ever since the ‘Make in India’ programme was unveiled, exports have collapsed, capacity utilisation has remained low and industrial production has only grown sparingly. The success of the ‘Make in India’ programme can be gauged by the fact that the much hyped ‘Statue of Unity’ of Sardar Patel worth Rs 3,000 crore is currently being spruced up in China
Religious minorities have also been similarly ‘empowered’ during the past two years. Just ask Mohammad Akhlaq’s family, or the two cattle traders who were hanged in Latehar, Gujarat, by yet another Gau Raksha Samiti. Campaigns such as ‘Ghar Wapsi’ were another ‘notable step’ in the same direction. Under the Ghar Wapsi scheme musician AR Rahman was encouraged to return to the Hindu fold. Meanwhile, Sadhvi Pragya and her Hindutva buddies, accused of serial bomb blasts and killings across the country, and jailed with evidence, have been let off the hook by the National Investigation Agency on the ground that she could be innocent.
Clean Ganga: Last year, an IAS officer was caught urinating at the Triveni Sangam in Allahabad while wearing a T-shirt with the slogan of Clean Ganga. Sums up the progress made so far regarding a river which is no more a river but a toxic, dirty, sewage drain in most parts of the country, especially Varanasi, Modi’s constituency.
While the entire Modi government suffers from collective amnesia about the promises they made, the capacity for hyperbole has not gone down one bit. In the celebration to mark two years in power, the prime minister claimed a number of things which do not stand up to scrutiny. He claimed that Rs 15,000 crore was saved by plugging subsidy leakages, more than 3 crore LPG connections were given to poor families, 1.65 crore lakh fake ration cards were deleted from the government database and that India is the fastest growing economy in the world. The actual reality is different: savings were roughly Rs 143 crore, only 60 lakh connections were added till April 2016, 66 lakh fake ration cards were eliminated over the past three years and India is the fourth fastest growing economy in the world.
Surely, talk comes cheap. Even as PR.