By the first week of May 2014, even before the last voter had pressed the EVM button, it was apparent to most Indians that Narendra Modi would become the next Prime Minister. What was finally settled on counting day was the scale of the triumph.
The decisive outcome was inevitably accompanied by high expectations. The slogan 'achche din' may have been a copywriter’s brainwave that captured the popular imagination, but it meant different things to different people. These ranged from the realistic to the miraculous. Likewise, the triumph of Modi, a man dubbed a hateful, ‘polarising’ figure by both the media and the intellectual establishment, aroused a set of fears. Some of these apprehensions may well have been contrived, but the seemingly unending controversies over the ‘real’ saffron agenda did persuade some groups and communities that with Modi at the helm the very ‘idea of India’ would suffer a knockout blow.
Nearly one year into the Modi government, the broad political values that have defined India for 65 years have not undergone any fundamental shift. Democratic rights haven’t been compromised, free speech is intact, the media is as shrill and rumbustious as ever and the Opposition hasn’t been put out of business. There have been the few stray communal skirmishes and even an orchestrated campaign to suggest that the Christian minority is in danger. But the rhetoric overkill notwithstanding, there is zero evidence to suggest that there is an emerging institutional bias against the practitioners of non-Indic faiths. Modi may not have personally commented on every expression of prejudice — and prejudices do exist in India, as they do in most countries — but he has reaffirmed the government’s larger commitment to post-identity politics on numerous occasions in Parliament and outside.
The only discernible change is that the government is no longer squeamish about also celebrating and promoting facets of Indian cultural heritage that are connected to Hindu traditions — the Bhagvad Gita, the Ganga, yoga and Swami Vivekananda. In short, there has been a subtle but conscious bid to ensure that secularism isn’t undermined by an impression that it is defined exclusively by minority gratification.
Cultural or even religious engineering may well be the overriding passion of some backbench MPs but it does not feature in the list of the Modi government’s priorities. The PM has been categorical in asserting both publicly and privately that he was elected on a development plank — to unleash India’s economic and human energies — and that extraneous issues will not derail him. The government may often have failed to control the headlines and shape media-driven perceptions but its focus hasn’t shifted from bread and butter issues to fire fighting.
The subtext, however, do also suggest alternative patterns. When Modi assumed charge a year ago, the prevailing consensus was that the Indian economy had been hobbled by a combination of political indecision, regulatory cussedness and shortsighted legislation. To this list can also be added inflation, high interest rates and international capital’s loss of appetite for India.
It is not that all these issues have been magically put right. At the time of writing, the amendments to the land acquisitions Act are still in parliamentary limbo and there is a race against time to ensure the Goods and Services Tax is operationalised by April 2016. Interest rates remain high and the tax authorities appear to be stuck in an adversarial relationship with individual and corporate taxpayers. Yet, the progress over the year has been quite impressive. From raising FDI in insurance, clearing the coal and mining logjam, the more purposeful and pragmatic handling of environmental clearances to a slew of measures to make business less cumbersome and daunting, the Modi government has crossed many of the hurdles in the path of India’s development. As of today, the Make in India initiative is still in its nascent stage but at least the appropriate business environment for both manufacturing and services is being put in place.
Before he became PM, Modi was seen by different groups of supporters in ways that mirrored their own inclinations. In 12 months it is apparent that he cannot be easily fitted into a prefabricated ideological mould. He has combined business-friendly policies with a passion for efficient and corruption-free welfare programmes that don’t amount to the disbursement of freebies; he has sought to limit the government’s involvement in business and at the same time he has bolstered the public sector in infrastructure building; and he has promoted national objectives — Make in India, smart cities, bullet trains and Swachch Bharat — while empowering states to set a differential pace and factor in local sensitivities.
In May 2014, the buzz centred on a government that lacked will and was in a state of drift; today’s criticism is that the government isn’t proceeding fast enough. Scams have disappeared from the headlines, although the collective delights over individual idiosyncrasies haven’t. The mood change is visible.
Indeed, the big change brought about Modi in a year has been the shift from despondency to impatient anticipation of delivery and returns. The reality of an India blessed with soaring aspirations but dragged down by inadequate capacity — including skill deficits and the imperfections of both private and public sectors — and a strange unwillingness to rush things poses a daunting challenge for any government, not least one with a clear mandate. So far Modi is building the foundations and setting the pace for a long-distance run. In foreign policy he has set a searing pace but within India he has had to confront fierce headwinds — a status-quoist babudom, an unforgiving ancien regime and unrelenting media hostility.
Given the challenges, he’s done remarkably well. But it’s just the start.