The Modi government will complete two years on May 26. Hopes have been belied, key reforms and bills are stuck, black money is elusive and social harmony, a bygone word. Will the next three years see any improvement?
By Kalyani Shankar
Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes two years in office on May 26. Though two years are not enough to judge a prime minister, it gives an indication of the direction of the government, which is a mixed bag of pluses and minuses. Last year, the slogan after completing a year was “Saal Ek, Shuruat Anek”. This year, the government is talking of “Zara Muskura Do”, though it is not planning to hype its achievements. Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said: “It is going to be a report card to the nation.”
So what is the score? Has Modi been able to deliver at least 30 percent of the things he promised to the electorate? Is the halo intact? Expectations have certainly come down by half. While critics dismiss his promises as mere rhetoric, supporters blame the opposition for blocking his way. Modi is slowly realizing that India is not Gujarat where his writ ran large for 13 years. There is parliament, a proactive judiciary, a belligerent opposition, a vigilant media and an obstinate bureaucracy to contend with. Modi’s administration has already started feeling the heat. Ram mandir, a flip-flop policy on Pakistan, China, social disharmony and economic challenges. The Modi term can be analyzed under various topics.
Modi is more than first among the equals. His tight grip over his ministers has not loosened. The PMO is becoming powerful by the day, diminishing any initiative by the ministers and the bureaucracy. Except for half-a-dozen ministers such as Arun Jaitley, M Venkaiah Naidu, Sushma Swaraj, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar and Rajnath Singh, others are hardly known. Ministers like Smriti Irani, Mahesh Sharma and Gen VK Singh are more in the news for their controversial statements. Modi has not assessed the performance of his team so far. It is time he weeded out the dead wood.
Modi came to power on the promise of good governance and development. But not much has been done despite launching 48 programs. These include Make in India, Stand Up India, Skill India, Swachh Bharat, Jan-Dhan Yojana, Ujala (Unnat Jyoti by Affordable LEDs for All) Scheme, Digital India, Smart Cities Mission, Deendayal Gram Jyoti Yojana, LPG “Give it Up” and Crop Insurance Scheme. But farmer distress is high and the government is just waking up to this rural economic crisis that is fast slipping out of control. For the first two years, it didn’t pursue MGNREGA but seeing the folly of it, the government has decided to continue this scheme. While the Jan-Dhan Yojana provided bank accounts to 21 crore people and cooking gas has now come under the direct benefit scheme, much needs to be done.
US President Bill Clinton came to power in 1992 riding on the slogan, “It’s the economy stupid.” Modi too has promised that he would bring back black money, root out corruption and get rid of red tape, besides providing jobs to millions. He has been courting investors, offering them the tempting proposition of ease of doing business. Though key reforms are stuck, the IMF in its latest Regional Economic Outlook for Asia and the Pacific retained its growth forecast for India at 7.5 per cent, largely driven by private consumption, even as weak exports and sluggish credit growth weigh the economy.
Foreign investment norms have been eased in areas like defence, insurance and food processing. The government has deregulated fuel prices and permitted private competition in coal mining—market-friendly moves designed to attract investment. Several high-profile firms, including Foxconn and Posco, have pledged billions of dollars of fresh investment in India, as also US companies such as General Electric, General Motors, Uber and Oracle.
Has this made a favorable impact abroad? Sadanand Dhule, a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, told a US Congressional briefing recently: “So far, the Modi government’s record has been mixed.
It has done its best to roll out a red carpet for investors with the prime minister him-self acting as India’s chief pitchman. It preferred caution over boldness.”
On the negative side, experts feel that Modi’s term has belied expectations of big-bang reforms. Labor reforms, financial sector reforms, banking reforms and public sector reforms are still not in place.
According to a Bloomsberg report, several economists, including those at HSBC Holdings Plc and Deutsche Bank AG, as well as Modi’s political opponents have said that India’s economic expansion masks underlying weaknesses. Deutsche’s Taimur Baig pointed to a record 15-month drop in ex-ports, falling factory output and lower corporate earnings, while HSBC’s Pranjul Bhandari said the surge is likely to fade once oil prices stabilize. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said that the NDA government had been slow to move on key reforms and even failed to deliver on those it had promised.
One of the big promises made during the campaign was to bring back black money stashed away abroad that would effectively put `15 lakh in the account of all Indians and the second was rooting out corruption. While corruption is under check by and large and dalals are banned from government corridors, black money is still elusive. Corruption is still a hot topic of discussion, as can be seen in the recent AgustaWestland helicopter scam where the BJP has been targeting the Gandhi family.
On the job front much more needs to be done. The last quarter of 2015 recorded job losses. About 12 million youth enter the work force every year in India. Latest job creation figures should come as a sobering reality check for the NDA government.
The government’s biggest failure is handling the agrarian crisis. A staggering 3,228 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra in 2015, according to data tabled in the Rajya Sabha on March 4, 2016. The crop insurance scheme is yet to take off. There is severe water shortage and drought in many states.
The real casualties are social sector expenditure and environment. The government has to set right the public education system which is almost crumbling. The UPA’s Right to Education Bill has not taken off due to lack of political will. There is also a need for more funds in the education and health sectors.
Modi started with a bang on the foreign policy front and has made 40 trips abroad so far. He has raised India’s profile and connected well with the Indian diaspora. Next month, his joint address to the US Congress will be a major change from the days when he was treated as a pariah and denied a US visa. His visits to Europe, including Germany and France, have improved relations. Ties with China are better and India’s relationship with Japan has improved noticeably.
However, Modi’s Pakistan policy is seen as a flip-flop. His predecessor Manmohan Singh said in a recent interview: “Certainly relations with major powers have improved. But that was also the case with us…. But I would say that the real test of foreign policy is in the handling of your neighbours. And here I would say that the Modi government’s handling of Pakistan is inconsistent. It has been one step forward, two steps back. Also, with regard to Nepal, once again we have a situation where the government there is accusing the government of India of putting up a blockade, and that is very unfortunate.”
However, relations with Bangladesh showed a decisive upswing with ratification by India of the Land Boundary Agreement which had been pending for the last 40 years. Sri Lanka will continue to test Indian diplomatic prowess as it plays the China card periodically. Maldives will also remain an area of deep concern over its domestic politics.
“Act East” is proceeding well as it rests on the growing convergence between India and Japan, 10 nations of ASEAN and Australia. Hosting the Africa summit in October 2015 was a good initiative.
The government’s record on civil liberties and social issues is not encouraging, to say the least. Despite Modi calling Obama “Barack”, the US President after a successful visit here last year, cautioned him: “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith—so long as it’s not splintered along any lines—and is unified as one nation.”
Religious intolerance has increased and culminated last September in Dadri where a mob lynched Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim, on suspicion that he had beef in his house. Scores of Sahitya Akademi winners returned their awards in protest against the killings of MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare, two rationalists.
Meanwhile, Dalits were also alienated, be it at the University of Hyderabad where Dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide after a spat with the ABVP or at JNU, where student leader Kanhaiya Kumar took on the government. One wondered if the PM had lost the plot.
NDA ALLIES AND POLITICS
Modi and his 26 allies are not the best of friends. NDA meetings are few and far bet-ween. There is no floor coordination among the allies. The Shiv Sena has been publicly criticizing Modi and his government. The Akali Dal and the BJP are not on the best of terms. The TDP is disappointed that Modi has not allocated the funds it needs for building the new capital. The MDMK and the DMDK have left the NDA.
The PM has been talking of “Congress Mukt Bharat” and the country seems to be moving towards that as the grand old party is yet to recover from the bashing it got in the 2014 elections. The BJP formed the government for the first time in Maharashtra and Haryana, it became a coalition partner in J&K and eyed Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. On the other hand, the BJP was mauled in Bihar and Delhi. And the recent assembly polls in Kerala, West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry don’t augur well for it. Next year, crucial assembly polls will take place in Punjab and UP where Modi’s magic will be tested. For now, he has complete control of the party and the government. He has put people of his choice as chief ministers in Goa, Maharashtra and Haryana and has nomina-ted state BJP presidents of his choice. And his right hand man, BJP chief Amit Shah got a second term.
When Modi first entered parliament, he showed reverence by kissing the steps at the entrance. But unlike his predecessors, he often skips parliament. On the legislative side, not much has been achieved, except getting some bills like the Land Boundary Agreement, Aadhar Bill and Bankruptcy Bill passed. The Modi government introduced 74 new bills though the current budget session has not seen any new bill. The crucial Goods and Services Tax bill is stuck.
The NDA lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha where the Congress-led opposition is blocking crucial reform bills. With little possibility of a major change in the Upper House till 2019, the BJP is stuck. “It would be great if we uphold parliamentary traditions. Debate will be more fruitful if procedure is followed. These are not my words, this was said by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi,” Modi said while replying to the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address this session. For that to happen, the Modi government should seek cooperation from the opposition with a conciliatory tone. But the Congress feels that the government is indulging in witch-hunting of its leaders.
The man who went out of his way to create a personality cult, has not been able to retain this image. Though he uses Twitter and radio often, there are no media interactions to disseminate any messages.
Modi should realise that next year will be crucial and hard decisions will need to be taken. He should reassess his team, fulfil his campaign promises, ensure harmony and adopt a conciliatory tone towards the opposition to ensure passage of crucial reforms. For now, the scorecard for the Modi government is not more than 50 percent. As an American investor described it, there is a lot of sizzle while the steak is on its way to the table.