A curious phenomenon is at play in India where the economy is under repair but sentiment in some quarters is doggedly behind the curve. Just as this government completes its 14th month in power and enters its teens so to say, a section of people are reporting the moody blues. The gloom is unwarranted. A period of foundational work is under way. Without the basics right, the chances of a durable recovery are unlikely. But still, it may be pertinent to analyse the government a bit more to explain it better.
It is no secret that the BJP inherited an economy that was not in any ripping shape. The structural adjustments that were required far exceeded any impressions of the new regime. In spite of a secure mandate, which came as a reaction to the UPA’s political decimation for its profligate ways and a flair for graft, this government has had to negotiate an economic miracle and deal with the legislative challenges of being in minority in the Upper House, all at the same time. The transition from a short-term, populist, electorally tinted policy making to a more reformist, progressive and sustainable regime called for a paradigmatic shift in effecting government business and transactions. It is only thus that the spectrum and coal auctions became shining examples.
Bridging pragmatic politics and good governance requires deft handling, and this government has responded with agility to any fissures found between perception and realities. When the promise of “bringing back” black money started looking like a veritable Damocles’ Sword, the government invoked legislation to isolate offenders. Although these measures were seen as a dampener by local business and industry, which could put more discretion in the hands of the bureaucracy and led to doubts about ease of doing business and a possible witch hunt, it bit the bullet knowing that these actions were politically expedient and critical to stave off the cries of crony capitalism, a perception that lingered as legacy of the UPA regime.
The implicit principle this government has followed is that if the fundamentals are strong, the results can only be positive.
The criticism of the incremental approach that the Finance Minister is accused of taking, instead of preferring big bang theories is not based on an understanding of what this government inherited, but a fantastic expectation removed from both, our economic situation and global realities. This government did not have the luxury of dealing with issues serially — on the one hand the frailties of the banking system, on the other, the pressures of reclaiming GDP growth, currency stability, controlling CAD, enhancing exports, rationalising social spend — and yet, it has delivered some concrete results. The integration of social spends and reorganisation of schemes under Jan Dhan is a tactile example of limiting leakages and delivering to target, while providing access to health and financial security at a scale unprecedented in the years since Independence.
It is true that volatile swings are reported in manufacturing and industrial production data and that growth has vacillated quarter to quarter, but these are hardly the evidence of anything endemic. More importantly, every time one set of numbers is furnished as proof of stagnation or negative growth in any sector, an equally opposite strong result in another dislodges the petition. The implicit principle this government has followed is simply that if the fundamentals are strong, the results can only be positive, time being the only variable.
To those who confuse labels with ideas, Make in India, Digital India, Clean India and Skill India may look like eponymous gaming apps, but they are well thought out initiatives juxtaposed to create a matrix of interdependent progress among these sectors. This is a break from the past, and perhaps the first time that the government has outlined an overarching grand design in the background of these schemes. To the trained eye, the larger plan is to align policy to scheme and scheme to scheme in a pattern that lifts up each sector in a co-adjuvant mode, in a play of interconnected impulses of growth and momentum.
On the other hand, legislative challenges have persisted for the government due to a mismatch in its numerical strength in both Houses of Parliament. Although the NDA has initiated a number of legislative measures to support its thrust on reform, the Insurance and Coal and Mines Bills being major achievements, the GST Bill and the Land Acquisition Bill are being seen as litmus tests of whether the government will be able to push through a reformist agenda. Unfair as it may be to over emphasise the LAB, it has nevertheless been politically made out to be the lynchpin of the government’s efforts to set systemic correction on its way.
The politicisation of the LAB and the growing fears that GST might become a similar lab rat for the opposition that enjoys an advantage in the Upper House are developments that may look like casting a shadow on the efforts of the government, but in reality they are a mirage; there are enough parliamentary mechanisms for the government to push through these reforms, should push come to shove. It can also show creative thinking, like it is now doing by passing the buck — and the bulk — of decision making to states to short circuit a mulish Congress.
In many ways, a strong mandate creates its own complications. The problems of the NDA might appear to be magnified, but that is only because the opposition is muscled out of the equation and creates a chorus of dissonance that emanates out of its psychological paranoia. We can be sure that it will only take some deft handling of the many fissures and fractures that a diverse polity like India offers to be able to make way for the agenda the government has drafted. The government is braced for oppositional chest beating on the flimsiest of grounds or the occasional burst of media-inspired frenzy on issues and is aware that some errors of judgement may indeed occur, but it is equally sure that no distraction must be succumbed to and that its development agenda should control the narrative just so that the government is not derailed from its objectives.
Things augur well for the government. It has shown purposeful consistency in exercising its thrust. The message it is sending is that flippant distractions will not be entertained: The focus of this regime will remain on improving the fundamentals of the economy, the emphasis will continue on building a reputation for good governance, corruption free and clean administration. All states will be taken along in the spirit of federal equity; all sections will be treated fairly and equitably. Security of the country is non-negotiable and national interest will drive our foreign and trade policy.
Those who have expressed impatience with this regime in spite of the outlined psychographic of this government, must ask themselves if they are not indeed expressing dormant angst against the stasis created by governance of the years preceding the NDA. Because, even a casual reading of the atmospherics the Prime Minister’s exertions have created, at home and abroad, will temper the views of anyone who is showing signs of adolescent obduracy — particularly if they happen to be in opposition.
Sanjay Kaul is spokesperson for the BJP. He can be reached at email@example.com