Both India as well as the Opposition parties (and Congress in particular) have gained from the passage of the GST Bill, the latter because passage was in August 2016 rather than in 2014 or early 2015. After Parliament’s approval, there will be a year of adjustment, including getting the measure ratified by enough state Assemblies so that it forms part of the Constitution of India. Once the full parameters are drawn up and implemented, what follows will be two years of painful reconfiguration before the economy exhibits the benefits of what is indeed a reform that in its scale compares with the changes in the industrial licensing policy that were made by then Industries Minister (and concurrently Prime Minister) Narasimha Rao in 1992. In contrast, the UPA oversaw a flood of imports into India, especially from Europe, a continent that received special treatment during the Manmohan decade, and which policy helped lead to the severe financial strains the country began showing from the close of 2007 onwards, when the ill effects of a “Foreigner First” policy framework began to course through the economy. The 2009 Lok Sabha polls were won by the Congress party and its allies because the effects of their toxic governance had not yet begun to manifest themselves in the way they did by 2011. And had Narendra Modi been the PM candidate of the BJP in 2009, that party may not have secured a majority on its own, but would certainly have emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha.
By the close of 2012, the Congress president had become a liability for her party. The Congress would have seen its seat tally cross into three digits in 2014 had Rahul Gandhi got installed that year as the PM in place of Manmohan. The latter was seen as obedient to the point of servitude to Sonia Gandhi, and visibly ineffective in managing “his” team. However, once defeated, the Congress appears to have re-discovered its thinking cap, for example, by (a) ensuring that the GST Bill got passed so late into Modi’s term that its political benefits would accrue to the combination winning the 2019 polls, rather than to the existing government, and (b) demanding lower GST rates while the BJP constantly hints at high rates. Once the Modi government increases GST rates, the ruling party will lose a substantial portion of public sympathy, while the Congress will gain due to its call for an 18% cap.
If Sonia Gandhi became toxic to most voters by 2012, Narendra Modi concurrently emerged not merely as the most credible anti-Sonia politician, but also as the most potent antidote to the policies that Sonia Gandhi’s government was following. By the start of 2013, most voters accepted as fact the BJP’s incessant cry of the UPA government being a collection of the corrupt. However, since coming into office on 26 May 2014, there has not even been an FIR filed against any senior member of the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, much less a prosecution. Even action against those ministers which had been initiated under the UPA appears to have slowed. This is being touted by the Congress as “proof” that the many BJP allegations made in the past of their misconduct were mere political hyperbole. Sonia Gandhi has indeed been having to face a spot of bother over National Herald, but that has been due to an individual acting in his private capacity and not the government. Had the newly installed Modi government launched prosecutions in 2014 itself of top all-India leaders of the Congress, the worst that could have happened was precisely what took place: Congress non-cooperation in Parliament.
Among Manmohan Singh’s handicaps during 2004-2009 was the perception that his party would lose in 2009. Had the official machinery believed then that the Congress would return to office for a second term, their response to commands for efficiency would have been better. But by 2011, it was clear that this would be Manmohan Singh’s last term and that Congress was on the way out. As yet, voters still believe that Narendra Modi will ensure for himself a second term. The success of PM Modi’s government depends on a perception of BJP success in 2019 continuing for the remainder of his current five-year term. Equally, such a perception itself hinges on Modi’s success in demonstrably steering the country in a very different way than his predecessor. Nowadays, the BJP organisation seems over reliant on the official machinery to deal with its opponents, chiefly through arrests and similar other actions carried out through Central agencies. But this is a country where prison has had an aura of sacrifice since Mahatma Gandhi’s time, and whether it be Hardik Patel or Kanhaiya, or indeed the Aam Aadmi Party MLAs who are getting rounded up with such frequency, such administrative steps will only ensure a rise rather than a collapse in the AAP’s popularity and drive it with greater force to Goa and Gujarat. Minimum government implies minimal reliance on colonial laws, as it does a dramatic reduction in the many bureaucratic obstacles to a citizen’s freedom of choice in work or leisure. For the BJP to regain traction as the antidote to UPA-style governance, the policies and practices embraced by the likes of Chidambaram and Sibal need to be seen to be reversed.
In 2012, the political winds were blowing Advantage BJP. However, unless that party’s organisational wing follows a political strategy suited to India’s increasing numbers of 21st century mindset people, 2017 may witness—and this may at the moment sound as incredible as this columnist’s 2006 forecast of Modi being the next PM—an Advantage Opposition breeze that could develop into a gale as the country heads towards the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. It is time for Modi to make his government much more “Modified” than at present.