Some months ago, the commentariat exploded into a frenzy of denunciation against what were termed “Hindutva elements” within the Modi government. Individuals, who had never been the focus of national media attention through decades of political activity, suddenly found themselves adorning the prime time shows of major television channels. Their repertoire of clichés was dissected, with the conclusion being that if there was a fall in esteem for both Mr Modi and his team, it was this segment of it which was the cause. They were held responsible not for riots, for there have been very few riots since 26 May 2014, much to the chagrin of those who had predicted a holocaust once Modi took over, but for “creating a mood conducive to violence in the future”, and excoriated to their face(s) in television studios or in their absence.
The question is: why has there been such a focus on what is just ambient noise? Is the reason that the nation is yet to realise the promised “feel good” factor? Taxes, regulations and interest rates were high under the UPA and remain so. Transparency was constricted then as now. And only a dribble of cash of the $1 trillion-plus of deposits held abroad illegally has returned to the country. The SIT has been busying itself recommending North Korea-style measures that will do next to nothing to prevent the generation of black money, but serve to gift our corrupt governance structure yet more instruments to extract bribes from a hapless populace. Since 1947, law upon law has been enacted, each reinforcing the colonial-era practice of placing huge dollops of discretion in the hands of low-paid officials who nonetheless send their families to London and New York on vacations, who educate their children in institutions such as Harvard where even the annual income of Papa or Mamma would not suffice to pay a month’s tuition, or who build mansions which would put a Raj Nivas to shame.
What is needed for the Modi government is to form a hybrid Task Force, comprising elements of the civil services as well as civil society, to examine the lifestyles of the top thousand officials in its service, while state governments should do the same with those they supervise. The greater the powers of an official (including those at the political level), the higher the level of punishment which should get meted out for ignoring ethics and law. Till now, while those at lower levels (admittedly too few of even these) go to jail for long periods, those at the higher levels guilty of amassing wealth in hundreds of crores of rupees usually land up in high office instead. The Ranjit Sinhas are not the exception, but the norm in matters of recruitment to sensitive offices in a culture where the Civil Service does not as yet face the scrutiny of bodies formed for the purpose from Civil Society. Small wonder that the policy emphasis is ever on (a) control and (b) the collection of “rent”, both legal and illegal. That is how the colonial mind of the governance mechanism works, a mindset that has only grown in viciousness over the decades of “freedom”. With his call for “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”, Modi promised freedom from the constricting, corrupt superstructure of governance and its replacement with a system integrating elements of civil society and ensuring a high degree of transparency and accountability. Thus far, achievements have been exceedingly modest when compared to potential. Thus, to the Department of Telecom, a signature “achievement” is the provision of internet access in the precincts of the Taj Mahal. How many additional tourists are going to visit the Taj because of the free WiFi that has become available onsite? But what about raising broadband speeds and lowering their cost, what about rolling out 5G when even 4G has been delayed? What about giving the hundreds of millions of the poor access to the worldwideweb? On such matters, the Department of Telecom is understandably reticent.
“Smart” cities are not simply steel and concrete. They need as well an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and a liberal culture. They need 5G, they need a billion Indian citizens rather than merely 180 million having regular access to the internet. They need lower taxes and interest rates than now and much lower regulation. In less than a hundred days, the minority government of Narasimha Rao slashed away at regulations in industry, even as Manmohan Singh lowered duties and restrictions on foreign companies and funds, while refusing to show a similar benevolence towards Indian taxpayers and companies. The police officer mindset of the revenue authorities has had little effect on slowing down the generation of black money, but it has succeeded in driving much of this cash away to St Kitts or in the Bahamas rather than get spent in India.
While the economy needs consumption to grow, the measures adopted during the year have acted to dampen consumption, with the result that the increase during the previous twelve months in jobs is small, as is the case with investment, both foreign and domestic. Sectors such as coal, telecom and energy remain in the ICU, even as the banking system is on track to cross Rs 500, 000 crore in NPAs before the UP Assembly elections fall due in 2017. Even during the end of its tenure, the UPA could only lower the growth rate to 6.4%. The people of India expected at least 9% from this government at the end of their first year of governance, not just 7.3%. For Narendra Modi was not voted in to tweak the existing system, but to change it, and unless he does so, double digit growth will be a dream. Those who say that the travails of the NDA are only a matter of perception, are wrong. It is a matter of performance, and to improve on this, Modi will need to implement a “Modi India” model the way he crafted the Modi Gujarat model within a couple of years of becoming CM. But for this, Modi will need to go beyond Lutyens’ Delhi and draw his team and his policies from the real India and its people.