By Swapan Dasgupta
There are many customary but meaningless rituals that govern politics in India. The 100-days stocktaking of a new government leads the pack. The exercise is quite meaningless because there are no similar audits at the end of 200 or even 300 days. Yes, there are annual assessments but even these—marked by a lavish media-spend by the government—are overshadowed by the one assessment that really matters: the verdict of the electorate at the end of a government’s term in office.
Next week will witness the Narendra Modi government’s first 100 days in office. For a Prime Minister who received his popular mandate on the strength of a promise to change India in 60 months and even once spoke of 10 years in government, the importance of 100 days is purely episodic. At best it is a tentative indication of the way in which the government plans to move.
However, there is an importance attached even to this tentativeness. As the first government after 1989 where a single party enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Modi is being viewed through a very different prism than the ones that shaped perceptions of all Prime Ministers since Rajiv Gandhi. Although the government still does not command a majority in the Rajya Sabha, there terms “coalition dharma” and “coalition compulsions” have ceased to enter everyday usage. Much more than V.P. Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee—Prime Ministers that enjoyed a measure of popular endorsement—the present National Democratic Alliance government is seen as the Modi sarkar. In a country where the parliamentary system of government is expected to work within a presidential mould, this total identification of the government with the captain of the team makes political judgments much easier. To put it bluntly, the buck stops at Modi.
When he was sworn in on the evening of May 26, Modi wasn’t quite the untested gamble that foreign observers of India believe he was. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat for 12 years, Modi had always been a part of the political conversation in India. He was either adored or intensely disliked but never ignored. Following his energetic eight-month campaign that took him to nearly every part of India, the army of admirers increased exponentially. So, for that matter, did the legion of Modi-haters who, having based their assessment on his reputation as a juju man, were exposed to his aggressive campaigning style. Consequently, when Modi became Prime Minister there was no real neutrality surrounding him. Modi wasn’t quite deprived of the honeymoon that awaits a new occupant of Race Course Road. But it was more of a temporary cease-fire rather than a display of open-mindedness.
The problem, as Modi quite rightly emphasised in his August 15 address from Red Fort, lay in his status as an ‘outsider’ who threatened to play by setting very different rules of the game. Beginning with his spartan, loner lifestyle—his penchant for simple but stylish clothes being the welcome aberration—to his maniacal work schedule and complete disavowal of humdrum media publicity, Modi has turned PM-watching into something akin to the Kremlin-watching of yesteryear.
The reason lies only partly in the reluctance of ministers to speak out of turn and media gripe over lack of ‘access’. Ever since the government assumed office, Modi has been preoccupied with two things: familiarising himself with the totality of governance and relentless questioning of fundamentals. True, there have been the usual quota of government schemes where the Prime Minister has taken the lead and some energetic neighbourhood-centric diplomacy aimed at re-establishing India’s primacy in the region. However, in the main, the government has devoted the past 100 days in ironing out pre-existing glitches in the system.
Yet, just because decisions weren’t ‘sexed up’ doesn’t mean they are inconsequential. The economic ministries have devoted themselves to a very big project: improving the ease of doing business in India. Starting with the modification of obscure excise and tax rules that made life hell for Indian entrepreneurs to clearing a huge backlog of approvals pending before the Ministry of Environment, the government has taken important steps to restoring business confidence in India. On his part, Modi has made “make in India” a priority. This implies that modifications in land acquisition laws, labour laws, power sector reforms and the streamlining of banking will be the focus in the coming months. The past 100 days have been devoted to strengthening the foundations of India’s imperfect market economy. The belief is that these small steps initiated by the government will have a knock-on effect on business confidence and facilitate large-scale investments whose effects will be felt after two or three years.
There was a belief, particularly among those who rallied behind Modi during the elections out of a sense of total exasperation with the UPA’s economic policies, that Modi would rush through with big ticket changes. As of now, only the abolition of the Planning Commission, a move that has enormous implications for shifting the terms of the federal arrangement, is seen as being ideologically decisive. Disappointment has, however, been expressed over the intrusive, one-size-fits-all approach of the University Grants Commission, a body whose relevance in today’s world is questionable. Likewise, many friends of the BJP that expected a marked shift in the orientation of foreign policy have been bewildered by the underlying conservatism of the Ministry of External Affairs. Finally, there is bewilderment that the government has dragged its feet over the removal of over-politicised bureaucrats and pro-Congress functionaries from departments and government-funded institutions.
Whether the tardiness stems from an exaggerated sense of caution or is evidence of ministerial ineptitude and cooption by the bureaucracy is the subject of constant speculation. However, Modi has to be mindful of the fact that his government’s circumspection has been interpreted by the relics of the ancien regime as evidence of dysfunctionality. In an article in Telegraph earler this week, for example, a writer suggested “there is no one in ( Modi’s) establishment who has the intellectual prowess to correlate intricate international developments to India’s diplomatic footwork…” Likewise, a New York Times correspondent in Delhi hinted at a growing realisation ( in which sections?) that India may have elected a “cipher” as Prime Minister.
Driving these indictments is, of course, the enormous condscension that invariably accompanies a reordering of the establishment from the cosmopolitan to the rooted. But it is also accompanied by a combination of both smugness and fear: smugness over the belief that nothing will change and fear that change may be more far-reaching than initially imagined.
Regardless of some by-election setbacks—which, ironically, help us quantify the Modi effect of the Lok Sabha poll—national opinion polls indicate that popular backing for Modi has actually increased since the general election. As such, having tested the waters for the past 100 days and blessed with a better sense of what changes are necessary and at what pace, Modi would do well to turn the underlying sense of fear of his critics into a self- fulfilling prophecy. He cannot afford to ever forget that the huge mandate he secured was for change, and for the better. It is how that belief in change in translated into action over the next nine months that will set the tone for the remaining four years of the term.
The Telegraph, August 29, 2014