Democracy has many loose ends. Among them is the understandable itch of media to predict the fate of a marathon after the first hundred steps. But even the sharpest critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will admit, possibly through gnashed teeth, that he has got off to a very brisk start.
The Prime Minister has established the parameters for governance during his term. He has reset the economic and moral compass of the nation. He has begun to unblock the arteries of the economy, clogged by ten years of waffle and dreary delay, which threatened growth with a devastating heart attack. He has infused discipline within administration, to a degree that has left bureaucrats amazed at their own obedience to new norms. And he has filled that huge vacuum created by UPA, of leadership. India has a voice again.
His strategic vision is controlled by a powerful dynamic, the elimination of poverty. Even as I write this, I appreciate how tired this sounds. After all, every Prime Minister since 1947 has used up many dictionaries of cliché on poverty. Narendra Modi changed the meaning when he challenged Parliament to believe that if government was not for the poor, then it meant very little. He shifted the principal objective of governance from “poverty alleviation” to “poverty elimination”.
In truth, poverty had never been real or human to the mandarins of our system; it was simply an unholy statistic whose deceleration was desirable, but not particularly urgent. That is why in 68 years of freedom we have reduced the percentage below the poverty line from 60% to around 30%. At this rate, we will take another 68 years to bring it down to zero, if lucky. India simply will not accept such procrastination, and Indian democracy might not be able to bear the burden of such sloth. Narendra Modi understands the horrific pain and indignity of poverty. He has been there.
Even as the smug ruling classes squirmed at being reminded of the India they had created, Modi put toilets at the centre of his speech from the Red Fort. Every Prime Minister reads out paragraphs of promises on 15 August, which then disappear into some unfathomable black hole.
Modi knows that poverty is best addressed by fiscal empowerment, and used a startling phrase to define the existing depression: “financial untouchability”. Why were the poor still outside the banking system, when banks had been nationalised as far back as in 1969 ostensibly to serve the poor? If Mahatma Gandhi could destroy “caste untouchability” why could we not end fiscal discrimination? The mandarins nodded, and bravely suggested that this could happen within a year. Modi gave them five months to add at least six crore bank accounts; at the pace he wants, this could be achieved within three. Modi wrote personal letters to 750,000 bank officials, urging speed in national service.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley accepted the responsibility on his broad shoulders. On 28 August, within a fortnight, the scheme went public. Within two days two crore new accounts had been opened, each ornamented with Rs 130,000 as insurance available for those who need it most, and credit of Rs 5,000. That was a 20% strike rate in 48 hours. Unprecedented.
Modi’s icons are a Bengali, Swami Vivekananda, and two fellow-Gujaratis, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. Between the three you get a powerful blend of national spirit, revolutionary vision and administrative ability. Modi’s parallel programme, of a Clean India, is his homage to Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary. Cleanliness has a second dimension; ridding India of corruption. I wonder if anyone has made as direct a statement as Modi: “I will not steal, and I will not let anyone else steal.” Is there anyone who does not understand this simple sentence? There is no magic wand that will banish this curse overnight, but we have a Prime Minister who is not going to whimper about coalition compulsions, or look the other way while colleagues and puppeteers loot the country.
India is too turbulent for any government to become complacent. Each sliver of success also begets the paradoxical problem of raising aspirations even higher than they were. The growth trajectory has already become positive; the April-June quarter recorded 5.7%, the highest in more than two years. Manufacturing quadrupled to 3.5% from a contraction of 1.2% a year ago. The country is the same, industrialists are the same, workers are the same, and consumers are the same. The government is different. Investments, and stock markets, began to rise from the winter of 2013 in anticipation of a Modi victory. The results are beginning to show.This is the beginning. We have seen only two or three of Modi’s signature projects taking concrete form. There will not be a stampede of projections. Promise will only come with assurance of delivery, or it will not come at all. But we have glimpsed the dawn. Perhaps it is safe to bet on the nature of the day.