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Friday, December 19, 2014

Turbulence ahead - Narendra Modi must shift the BJP's centre of gravity to governance

By Swapan Dasgupta


The past fortnight has witnessed a series of conflicting trends in the political arena that has seemingly jeopardised the clarity that was expected after the categorical verdict in last May’s general election. 


First, on the economic front—and despite the apprehensions of some of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s more over-zealous backers—the government appears to have moved quite decisively. Apart from the popular achievement of having achieved near-zero inflation that was also a consequence of spectacular good fortune—the sharp fall in global oil prices—there has been positive movement on one of the government’s stated objectives: improving the ease of doing business in India. From managing a broad agreement on the contours of the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax to introducing a note of pragmatism in the Ministry of Environment, the Modi government appears to have largely satisfied the lofty expectations of the markets that had suffered from a prolonged bout of depression. 


Naturally, much more needs to be done if the improvement in the ease of doing business in India translates seamlessly into success for Modi’s Make in India policy. Domestic capital is particularly anxious that Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan modifies his inflation fundamentalism and effects a significant lowering of interest rates to prop up a sluggish manufacturing sector. There has been a difference of opinion between Rajan and the Ministry of Finance but this divergence has so far been marked by gentlemanly behaviour on both sides and hasn’t contributed to an ugly spat. Industry is also keen that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley act on his professed commitment to modify some of the more non-monetary dimensions of the neo-Luddite Land Acquisition Bill that was enacted by the Manmohan Singh government in its last year. 


Regardless of the formidable challenges in the path of India realising its true economic potential, it is heartening that the Prime Minister has not lost sight of the government’s principal task. In this context, Modi’s speech to the BJP Parliamentary Party on December 16 was significant. Angry with colleagues who had been speaking out of turn and raising extraneous issues in public, the Prime Minister had to remind MPs that they had been elected to raise people’s living standards, create opportunities and transform India into a global power of consequence. He was clear that he could not deviate from this agenda, not even if he wanted to. 


Modi’s outburst was occasioned by an emerging trend that, apart from disrupting Parliament repeatedly this Winter Session, has attracted speculation over the ‘real’ agenda of the BJP government. 


To a modest extent, the furore in Parliament over Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s utterances at a public meeting, the ghar vyapasi programme planned by Hindu groups in Aligarh and the non-holiday for Kendriya Vidyalayas over Christmas was a result of media activism. The BJP cannot be entirely faulted for nurturing a conspiracy theory that the traditionally hostile and loosely Left-liberal leaning English language media will do its utmost to show the government in a poor light. Yet, while over-playing the utterances of loose cannons does distort the big picture, the government has to be mindful that there are tensions within the wider ‘parivar’ over what constitutes the primary agenda of the Modi government.


The larger consensus is that the electorate reposed its faith in the leadership on two counts. The Indian voter believed that Modi’s personal attributes—his fanatical dedication to a work culture and his decisiveness—were an answer to a decade of weak and unfocussed leadership. There was, at the same time, a shared confidence over Modi’s unwavering development agenda. As a rule, and unlike western democracies, Indian voters don’t like being cluttered with policy details and prefer generalities, leaving the leadership to attend to the nuts and bolts. The generalities that found favour, however, had very little to do with either questions of identity and assertive nationalism. 


In a large country, however, there are significant departures from aggregation. The BJP, like most mass parties, isn’t really cadre based when it comes to electoral politics. However, it is undeniable that the greatest chunk of its activists—the karyakartas that figure so prominently in the party’s political imagery—have a broad commitment to Hindu nationalism. The BJP’s victory in May and the good showing in the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly polls has convinced some of the more marginalised sections of the parivar that the moment has arrived to press ahead with an ideological reorientation of the country. Viewing Modi as an instrument of convenience, this section is anxious to take advantage of a friendly Centre to press ahead with its pet schemes. Hitherto, Modi has placated this fringe with token, inconsequential sops such as appointments in bodies linked to education, but they now want more. 


It would seem that the experience of the Winter Session of Parliament is likely to trigger an internal rejig in the BJP. With the Opposition having a numerical upper hand in the Rajya Sabha—and this disadvantage will persist until late-2016—it is now clear that important economic legislation will have to be negotiated every inch of the way. The Opposition has realised that it possesses the ability to blackmail the government and it will be reluctant to relinquish that advantage. This in turn implies that Modi’s political managers will have to use a combination of persuasion and threat to keep the hotheads in check. In the longer term, Modi will have to shift the political centre of gravity in the BJP towards development and governance. The moves to making BJP membership more open—membership through a missed call—constitutes a small step. In the short term Modi will have to find imaginative solutions to the possible problem of matching the priorities of activists with that of the average voter. 


Economic growth presupposed a large measure of social stability; radical ruptures necessitate social turbulence. It is difficult to reconcile both, except through a process of regimentation that is so very un-Indian and even un-Hindu.


The final trend that has the potential of creating a political byway is the re-emergence of Islamist terrorism in a virulent form. It may be unduly alarmist to suggest that either the lone wolf attacks in Ottawa and Sydney or the ghastly massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar could be replicated in India. At the same time, it is impossible to underestimate the grotesque impact of the brazen cruelty that is the hallmark of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on dysfunctional minds. The Bengali Muslim man arrested in Bengaluru for operating a pro-ISIS twitter handle may well be a loner, disinclined to pick up a gun. But there are nearly 100 or more Indian citizens who have signed up with the ISIS in the war zone, and not all of them are engaged in cleaning lavatories—as the lone defector was. The possible impact of their bravado on impressionable fed on a diet of victimhood is a source of worry. 


Security in India is uneven and the government is likely to step up efforts to plug as many loopholes as possible. This exercise is certain to give priority to pre-emptive policing, a phenomenon that creates localised tensions and a sense of victimhood—the aftermath of the Burdwan blasts being a case in point. 


For the Modi government the next few months are certain to be challenging. The government seems clear on its priorities but there are significant roadblocks that have to be negotiated calmly. It is important to ensure that subterranean currents remain firmly underground and don’t create diversions from the path the electorate voted to travel down. 

The Telegraph, December 19, 2014


Shivangni said...

A very balanced and unbiased assessment. Looking at his performance in Gujarat, not unachievable. Behaviour of some of lutyens Delhi guard now in cabinet vis a vis media traders is a bit perplexing though and no explanation is seems to be forthcoming

Shovon Chakraborty said...

Agreed. When the government should have been concentrating on the governance, some of the members are behaving in an immature, irresponsible manner and shifting the focus away.

Krish said...

Swapan, Nice assessment - except for glossing over Jaitley & Co's pressure tactics upon RBI Governor to reduce lending rates that he, as a pragmatic money manager, has been right in resisting.

Please understand, Indian enterprise includes PSU Banks that even today are whimsical lenders instead of being prudent. Those whims being that of politicians in power and you see the effect by way of large defaulters like Vijay Mallya roaming scotfree (or enjoying a buggy ride in full view of his unpaid employees at his Goa villa) even as he personally together with his companies owe no fewer than Rs.7,700 crore to PSU Banks. His securities against the said loans include personal guarantees which the Banks are tardy if not reluctant to enforce - apparently because someone high up in the Modi Government is apparently holding them back.

If such securities are enforced and lending / recovery process is freed of political influence the PSU banks don't need Government's largesse at all to recapitalize themselves. Today they are down by more than Rs.1 trillion collectively, if assessed in accordance with Basil-III norms.

So, the problem that ails Indian business is not high interest rates as much as it is mismanagement, political meddling in banking processes and widespread risk aversion.

That anyway, doesn't seem to be high on Modi agenda going by the experience recently of SBI Chairperson. The petite lady was ( from hindsight, looked intentionally made) a part of the Modi entourage to Australia, who had to apparently yield to persuasions of political public posturing of Modi - on ease of doing business in India that he was waxing eloquently on his tours overseas - where she had no choice but to instantly approve a loan of $1 billion to Adani, also a part of the entourage even as quite a few seasoned, ordinarily liberal overseas lenders have declined citing grave risks)

Besides the above, Rajan is also rightly railing against the callously servile PSU Bank Chairmen and Board members who have, traditionally been happy in smoothly riding out their terms heeding to political masters and retire into a life of unabashed luxury than choosing a far more upright one that makes allowance to reflect upon the glory of professional nirvana enabled by their role in helping stem the rot that has undone the entire PSU banking system.

Jitendra Desai said...

BJP,Modi,Amit Shah and leadership need to advise elected representatives and ministers why they are here.All of them are enjoying power because people want them to do their job in a much better way than what Congress representatives did.
Talking out of turn on any subject under the sun is not what they have been elected for.
As of RSS and Parivar, they need to tell media and other Delhi based secular mafia that they are only doing whatever that they are doing since so many decades now.Arrival of Modi as PM does not mean that they should stop talking of Hindu Rashtra or Hindu way of life of anti Hindu forces entrenched in the country.BJP's spokes persons need to clarify that RSS will continue to further its agenda irrespective of who is in power.If Congress could not stop RSS, how can bJP do other wise?

S. Kumar said...

Modi should seriously explore the joint session of parliament and ordinance route. The opposition and media crooks will not change. Instead of Jaitley's networking and pleading with these people, for which they will extract a heavy price, it is advisable to lean on them heavily to bring them in line. Laaton ke bhoot baaton se nahin mante. Dr Swamy should be given free rein and see the results.

Satya Anveshak: In research of what may pass as Truth said...

Swapan. I disagree with you when you say that Modi needs to shift the BJP's centre of gravity.

The fact of the matter is: BJP is appearing on the defensive for it is acting defensively and reacting apologetically to the MSM and opposition's onslaughts.

Give me a break. Do comments of Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti really merit so much of outrage? Regarding Sakshi Maharaj, much worse had been said before. He at least took care not to criticise Gandhi. Lastly, the sham of conversions. It has been going on for years so why this outrage now? The MSM and opposition has made it amply clear that conversion, by any mean, from Hinduism is welcome while the opposite is to be abhorred. It is a travesty that the Mahant's comments that people are free to return to Hinduism get called controversial and divisive.

Modi and more importantly, Jaitley has already given many reasons why to criticise and corner them. The so-called Hindu agenda is a mere hogwash. Only shows that the opposition is least concerned over governance. Seems that it suits Jaitely too