The fear of continuing blockage in the working of government were the UPA returned to a third term, was crucial in several tens of millions of voters entering the BJP corral, thereby giving the party a workable majority in the Lok Sabha. But after 16 May 2014, the excuse of “coalition compulsions” cannot be used to justify lapses in performance by the BJP. The skeletal presence of the Congress in the Lok Sabha will not be accepted by voters as reason enough for important legislative enactments to get put off session after session, including GST, the Land Bill, the Real Estate Bill, the Whistleblowers Act and several others. Contrary to the impression of paralysis, the reality is that several administrative initiatives have been taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in several ministries. However, perceptions differ. And the most common is the view that the change in the chemistry and mechanics of governance between the UPA and the NDA has been marginal. In reality, Prime Minister Modi has done much to ensure that the gears and sprockets of the administrative machinery operate at a much higher level of efficiency than was the case under his predecessor. However, few of these changes are visible to those outside the government, with the consequence that many who voted for the BJP last year feel disappointed.
The cautious approach of the BJP leadership towards making the transformational administrative changes expected of the new government has given rise to the view among his admirers that the Prime Minister is in the process of working out a Modi Model for all-India governance in the same way as he did within two years of his taking over the Gujarat administration, when a state-level model of governance was crafted that delivered enough to ensure the continuing loyalty of the electorate to him and to his party. In contrast, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao as Industry Minister downsized the powers of this and other ministries to kick-start the 1990s reform process, although the credit went to Manmohan Singh, whose image as a reformer was damaged somewhat by the damp performance of the gentle economist as PM. The excuse was that “Sonia would not allow it”, as though a Prime Minister in India lacks the instruments to enforce his will.
Interestingly, despite a raft of criminal charges hurled in the direction of Sonia Gandhi and her closest collaborators in the two years leading up to the 2014 polls, thus far they have escaped legal retribution at the hands of Team Modi, thereby gifting the Congress a chance to turn the tables and accuse Prime Minister Modi himself of “not doing anything to battle corruption”. Clearly, the reliance of the new government on the bureaucracy for not simply the implementation but even the formulation of policy has not helped the process of transformation in governance expected of Modi, for bureaucrats are known to be cautious to a double fault, and to shy away from change. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, with both of whom Modi has been compared, set about implementing their ideologies within a short time of assuming office. Although Prime Minister Modi is known to believe in low taxes, low regulation and reliance more on private than state initiative, thus far such a philosophy does not seem to have been reflected in the working of his government. It is time that this changed.
There is a focus on Bihar within the BJP, and it is a given that a defeat there would damage not simply the reputation but the ability of the Central government to effect change. Progress needs the system to work at a high level of motivation, and unless officials believe in the transformative will of Narendra Modi, they will not put in the extra effort needed to nudge the economy onto the double digit track. Thatcher or Reagan did not allow either traditionalist colleagues or change-resistant bureaucrats to slow them down, and neither should Modi.
For a start, a special session of Parliament should be called by month-end to pass key bills which have been stalled for more than a year, and these without the restrictive clauses (for example in the Whistleblowers Act) put in by a bureaucracy intent on retaining its colonial-style control over the citizen. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not elected to tweak the system, but to alter it, and the best way of achieving this would be to downsize the powers of several of the agencies of the state far more comprehensively than Narasimha Rao could.
Rather than seek to out-Lalu Lalu through the use of the caste card, the BJP must show that it is bringing about the change that voters sought when they gave the party their mandate. Not passing the Land Bill, for instance, would just confirm the impression that it was “anti-farmer”, when in fact, it is pro-growth in a context where two hundred million now working on farms need to move to other occupations to escape poverty. Modi has to deliver on the ideology of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance” that secured him the vote of tens of millions aspiring for a life freed from penury.
The voters of Bihar showed in 2014 that they could transcend caste and community in choosing a leader who promised to deliver. Now that PM Modi has a majority in the Lok Sabha, he needs to show that he can deliver results at the Centre, so that voters in Bihar give his party a mandate to rule. After all, it is his ministry’s performance in Delhi that will count with the voter in a state with glorious roots in Indian history and traditions.