Friday, May 27, 2016

Two Years of Narendra Modi - There is no competitor

Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh at Saharanpur Rally in Uttar Pradesh on May 26, 2016 (Courtesy: Indian Express)
The Narendra Modi government has completed two years in government. 2014 general elections were a watershed moment in several ways, and it is safe to assume that posterity will look back at the year as a defining moment in terms of a pre-Modi era and a Modi-era of politics in India. Just like melting ice cream, we are seeing our political and business start-up scenes exhibiting several over-hyped duds and sparse successes melting down. However, comparisons apart, there are a few observations about the Modi government and the politics in general that one can notice. These observations pertain to the overall political scenario as well as the general economic environment that seems to be shaping up (though repeating it seems history all over again).

1. It is certain that Narendra Modi will become the Prime Minister even in 2019. There is tremendous energy in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has been seen only in the days of the Ram Mandir agitation of the 1980s. On top of that, the party seems to be going on the offensive on consolidating its ever growing clout of the party. Much of this has to do with the personality cult of Narendra Modi, and not the party itself. A cursory chat with the blue collar workers of India will only reveal increasing admiration for the man and his multiple social benefit schemes, even if they do not seem to be reaching all of the intended recipients. What adds to the benefit of the BJP is the absolute disarray of the other parties in the Opposition, which seems to be combating a new skeleton a day tumbling out of its closets. An embattled All India Congress Committee (AICC) and its insipid leadership is repeatedly managing to score own goals and look like a bunch of arrogant losers, reminiscent of BJP post the 2004 defeat. All efforts to create a Third, Fourth and Fifth front are absolutely hilarious for reasons explained here. Additionally, Prime Ministerial ambitions of limited success political startups like Arvind Kejriwal and expansionary plans of faltering SMEs ala Nitish Kumar are receiving much ridicule for failure to demonstrate any will to govern their administrative territories. All of this only adds to one simple fact - any number of Prashant Kishores cannot do jack to dislodge Narendra Modi till 2024.

2. There is an effort to federalize India’s economic growth . Approval of state level amendments of land acquisition and labour laws, encouragement of state leaders’ meets with foreign investors and governments and conscious efforts to give more money to the states to enable investment in infrastructure clearly indicates that the government broadly thinks that the best thing to do is to not have the Centre take the tough, touchy policy decisions. The Centre will play the role of an enabler instead by working in an incremental fashion like repealing bad laws and ensuring increased spending on infrastructure. Another interesting trend is the creation of a social security net in the form of financial inclusion and targeted benefits linked to the resultant bank accounts. Despite claims of budget cuts and underutilized funds, one can see that social sector spending has in fact increased across all states in India on a net basis, buoyed by increased transfer of funds to states. This is particularly telling when one sees the increased rural spending in India. The message of Centre not pursuing ‘big bang’ reforms has been more than loudly spoken when Modi deftly questions the definition of the term ‘big bang’ reform in his interview with the Wall Street Journal. As a result of this and much more, economic growth in India will continue to remain concentrated in the same states that have been in the past engines of India’s economic growth. However, getting the Goods and Services Tax (GST) through is will be the most significant reform step (though not the most important reform step) that this government can ensure for the country’s benefit.

3. The best performance of the government continues to remain in ministries that are directly linked to infrastructure - the bijli, sadak, pani ministries of India. Piyush Goyal, Nitin Gadkari, Suresh Prabhu and Uma Bharti are proving to be impressive performers in the Central government, while the BJP/NDA states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh are topping it up by pursuing the big bang reforms that everyone keeps talking about. This has led to the creation of an economic ‘A’ shape of sorts, with its apex in Delhi. These are also states where on politics and policy one can not differentiate much between the BJP and Congress; however the difference can certainly be seen in the ability to deliver, leading to consolidation of BJP and increasing obsolescence of the Congress. There is also an increasing trend of dissociation between local and national level politics that one sees emerging, as seen from results in several state elections. National leadership or policy making matters little to the voter, who is seeking to nominate people who can clean the drain outside their houses. Increasing localization of politics, which the Congress has failed to realize, has also added to making it absolutely irrelevant in many states, and its not the BJP but the regional parties that are ensuring that the slogan of Congress-mukt Bharat becomes a reality.

4. The government’s foreign policy direction is one of economic interests solely, with the belief that economics can and must be the cornerstone of diplomatic relations between nations. Engaging multiple adversaries simultaneously (US, China, Russia, ASEAN, Iran, Saudi Arabia) has been achieved with moderate success by this government; however, the foreign policy mandarins still seem clueless when it comes to engaging with two immediate challenges - Pakistan and Nepal - that lie in the vicinity with conviction or creativity, while relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have seen significant improvement. The government’s ability to completely de-link domestic politics from foreign policy is a refreshing change that was not seen for over a decade and a half now.


Though gazing into the crystal ball only shows more fog, one can reasonably say that there is still time for Achche Din, as there are many more successes that need to be scripted by the government when compared to the promises that the government made. The foundations are being laid for the good times to arrive; and the way things are, 2018 will see a very different India. However, repeated targeting of Modi will not help to burnish his image in any way; in fact, he is moving from strength to strength politically, consolidating his position in the Centre in a way few can perceive. It is Narendra Modi all the way; and there is no competitor in sight who can match his stature and aura as of now.

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