With each passing day the Narendra Modi government is robbed of some its sheen. Last year it had all the goodwill in the world, but soon disappointment began to set in. Even its most ardent supporters are now on the defensive. No doubt, a part of the reason is the very nature of governance. Once in power, democratic leaders invariably fail to match expectations. That is true of electoral politics everywhere.
Look no further than the on-going drama in Greece. The ultra left party, Syriza, and its leader Alexis Tsipras won an unprecedented mandate earlier this year. In the last few days, Tsipras has become a hate figure for the same voters who had overwhelmingly elected him. He has squandered all goodwill. Why, nearer home, Arvind Kejriwal won 67 of the total 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly and has since busied himself in making a complete hash of things.
The short point is that matching electoral rhetoric with performance is hard in democracies. Remember the expectations Barack Obama, the first black to become the US President, had aroused when he first came to power on the platform of “change” in 2008? Seven years later, most Americans believe that under Obama things have got worse. Obama’s popular ratings are a record low for any modern President.
In a way, Narendra Modi is fortunate. He continues to be by far the most popular leader in the country. His image remains unsullied. And his nearest rival for the prime ministerial office is not only hard to pick from the Congress-JD(U)-RJD-SP gaggle, but there is a huge gap in popularity ratings between him and all the potential rivals put together.
Yet, there is reason why Modi should be worried. It is because ordinary people are yet to experience first-hand the gains of the Modi sarkar. Acchhe din can materialise only if there is an improvement in the life of ordinary Indians. Despite all the good intentions, unless there are tangible gains by way of better healthcare, education, employment opportunities, roads, public transport etc., Modi will remain in danger of losing popularity.
Even on prices, thanks to a fortuitous drop in global crude and commodity prices, the wholesale index is in check, but the food price inflation continues to hurt ordinary people. Supply of vegetables and pulses cannot be augmented overnight, but removing the marketing barriers too is proving to be hard. The creation of a single agriculture market is a good idea, but is difficult to implement. Nor can e-market help moderate the prices of seasonal vegetables and fruits. Since these directly impact tens of millions of household budgets, a fail-safe mechanism to ensure price stability should be a priority.
With a 20:22 hindsight, it is crystal clear that Modi missed a grand opportunity to push through some of the big-ticket reforms in the first six months of his regime. Now he may be stuck with the so-called incremental change. There was little appreciation of the political fall-out when changes were undertaken unilaterally in the land acquisition bill. Consultation within and outside the government was kept to the minimum.
Now the government cannot avoid paying political costs for its original mistake of wanting to push through those changes without the customary consultations with the stake-holders. As a result, the embarrassment is huge. Even the timetable for pushing through the GST could have been advanced had the Prime Minister made himself available for wider consultations and brainstorming.
After a year in office, even the corporate bosses, hitherto very strong backers of Modi, have lost fervour. For, incremental reforms have failed to improve the investment environment. No significant fresh capital formation has taken place since May last year. Debt-stricken industrial groups cannot visualise achhe din anytime soon. Thanks to the complicity of the previous government, banks are saddled with huge non-performing assets, with the corporate borrowers in no mind or position to service the debt.
There have been other self-goals as well. The entire business of enforcing accountability on the NGO sector could have been handled more delicately. Preventing one Priya Pillai of Greenpeace from taking the flight to London attracted far more adverse publicity for the government than if she had been allowed to go and return. Nobody would have cared a fig for her antics in London if the government had not created such a fuss.
Curiously, even when there is certainty that the courts would strike down the wilful denial of radio licences to the Marans’ Sun group, the Home Ministry refuses to see reason. Whether Rajnath Singh seeks to thus please the AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa, whose support in Parliament could further bolster the government, is not known. But what is known is that the arbitrary denial of licences can attract a strong judicial rebuff. Now, for all we know, the Marans made tonnes of money exploiting the Karunanidhi connection, but that can be no reason for the Home Ministry to behave in an unreasonable manner.
Even in the matter of sinecures the government could have done better. It is not that there was no other BJP-friendly film personality around for heading the Pune institute. Why pick someone who is devoid of any credentials for heading it? Yes, Congress was notorious for distributing largesse to its own chamchas. But the BJP claims to be different. Besides, it is the BJP’s core middle class constituency which is turned off when the party apes the bad ways of the Congress. Even now it may not be too late to replace the nondescript Gajendra Chauhan with someone like Kirron Kher or some actor in her league to head the premier film and television institute.
Likewise, some of the personnel choices of the HRD Ministry have needlessly invited controversy. Yes, it is no crime to belong to the RSS-BJP school. But the person filling an official slot must meet the job description. Unfortunately, the Sangh leadership is easily swayed by charlatans who woo it purely for selfish reasons. Besides, it is needlessly suspicious of those who are touched even remotely by the modern ways of thinking and living. In short, they are gullible. Which is duly reflected in some of the choices made by Smriti Irani’s ministry.
There might have been a valid reason for the government to counsel patience to those asking for results in its first year in office. But now that it is well into its second year, Modi will find it hard to convince supporters and critics alike that the lack of a tangible change on the ground is not due to its own flawed working. After the decimation in the Lok Sabha poll, the Opposition has already regrouped. Modi will have to reckon with an increasingly hostile and obstructionist Opposition. Yet, if he fails to show results this year and next, he will be in danger of forfeiting whatever goodwill he still enjoys.
The Prime Minister must cease to give the impression of being a distant figure even to his own party men, consult more people both from the party and outside, find time to fill the long-empty slots in government and quasi-government bodies, allow ministers to take initiative, meet the media more often, and generally exude a friendly air instead of evoking fear and aloofness. It is a mistake to conflate Gujarat with India. Running the latter is an altogether different ball game, Mr Prime Minister.