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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2016 presents opportunity for PM Modi to retrieve lost momentum

By Swapan Dasgupta

If there is indeed a tide in the affairs of man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was its shining manifestation in 2015. In the preceding year, he had demonstrated his golden touch by captivating the national imagination, breaking a 21-year jinx and winning a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha, and setting the stage for a remoulding of India.

The dream run, however, ended in 2015. Beginning with the devastating defeat in the Delhi assembly election and culminating in the pre-Diwali decimation in Bihar, Modi was shown up to be politically vulnerable. Sustained Opposition pressure and misgivings within his own coalition ensured that the Land Acquisition Bill was abandoned. And it was an unrelenting Congress, determined to make life as harrowing as possible for the government, which stalled the passage of the goods and services tax legislation through the Rajya Sabha. In between, the administration was wrong footed by a revolt of the intellectuals centred on fears of growing intolerance. A polarised political climate also ensured that the goodwill for India generated by the punishing pace of his overseas visits was insufficiently reflected at home. In 2015, the Modi government was contested every inch of the way, including in spheres where it should have earned rich accolades. Until the surprise Christmas visit to Lahore re-established his audacious streak, it almost seemed that with more than three years of his term remaining, the Modi government was inflicted with a debilitating limp.

The largely favourable response to his brief stopover in Lahore to bond with Nawaz Sharif carries two important lessons.

First, it is apparent that the belief — widespread in some ‘liberal’ circles — that Modi has exhausted his reserves of popular goodwill is both rash and premature. There may be disquiet that the flowering of India’s unrealised potential people expected after the 2014 outcome hasn’t become visible, but there is no indication that the impatience has led to the government and the prime minister being written off. India still wants Modi to succeed and even usher something resembling the promised achche din. The aspirational urge that Modi successfully tapped into in 2014 is still intact and hasn’t been subsumed by despondency.

Second, it would seem that the Modi government experiences popular traction the most when it demonstrates out-of-the-box audacity in both domestic and international affairs. Whether it is the voluntary surrender of the LPG subsidy, which may have released some Rs 12,000 crore for other productive uses, the announcement of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train or even the Swachch Bharat programme, which has so far yielded patchy returns, Modi has always been seen to be inspirational when he thinks big and seeks to propel India into the 21st century. This has less to do with the incrementalism versus radicalism debate that agitates policy analysts than with the popular expectations from Modi. There are moments in history when a country is inclined towards charting a safe course. However, the 2014 excitement over Modi was not based on expectations of stodgy governance. On the contrary, the verdict was for a disruptive shift in politics and governance. When Modi feeds those impulses, he wins endorsement. Caution fuels disappointment.

If this assessment of the national mood is true, it would follow that the Modi government’s setbacks in 2015 stemmed from a flawed political management. Discounting tactical miscalculations — such as positing the national Modi, rather than the local Modi, against Nitish Kumar in Bihar — which can be rectified, the larger problem stems from a mismatch of expectations between the BJP’s activist base and the floating voters that determine political outcomes.

It is by now clear that Modi’s passion is rapid development and the transformation of India into a developed economy. If there is a conscious cultural agenda, it lies in creating a nationalist consensus around symbols that may be either secular modern or rooted in heritage. The Congress sought to instil a form of ‘constitutional patriotism’ whereas Modi is partial to a more organic nationalism. However, this cultural agenda, while important to the voter base that is in constant search of bhavnatmak (emotional) themes, is secondary to the bigger project of the material transformation of India. Over much of the past year, there has been a tussle (so vividly captured in the social media battleground) between activists who seek to push through rapid cultural change and a government that is travelling down a very different road. This has produced a political incoherence that has been gleefully exploited by those whose image of Modi was frozen in 2002. The Prime Minister has tried to change the culture of governance but hasn’t addressed the fact that his political support systems are often singing a different tune altogether. His refusal to negotiate the contradictions head-on has served to create an erroneous impression that he has a collusive relationship with the hotheads.

It is also a communications mishap. The government has failed to make its performance the central agenda of discourse. Many of the more people-centric initiatives such as financial inclusion, the MUDRA scheme and the creation of self-contributory-cum-government-subsidised welfare schemes are important measures that have suffered from a publicity deficit — particularly when compared to initiatives to improve the ease of doing business. This has meant that the government has had to do battle on agendas determined by either its opponents or a headline-seeking media. And even when development has been in the public gaze, the focus areas have been rarefied. Was this a factor behind the inability of the BJP to retain the support of poorer voters in Delhi and Bihar?

From Modi’s perspective, it is fortuitous that the alarm bells have been sounded even before the government is halfway through its term. 2016 presents an opportunity to retrieve the momentum.

Hindustan Times, December 30, 2015


Jitendra Desai said...

In a way 2015 has been a timely warning.2016 must witness departure of non performers from his cabinet and infusion of fresh talent from party, allies and communities.Hindutva related agenda must be pursued by VHP( which is well within its rights to do so) and not by few BJP MPs.All 281 MPs in LS must ensure nursing of their constituencies away from the glaring eyes of media.They can learn few things from BSP, where only Behenji speaks, we don't know what others are doing.PR & media management has to assume top most priority.As many from the "Right of Center" are advising, government has to rely more on executive decisions in remaining years for providing governance and deliverables than on opposition parties in the Parliament.Both party and government to evolve small cells to effectively counter allegations and disinformation campaigns by media and opposition parties.All others should focus on tasks on hand.

SatyaK said...

Modi has at once succeeded and failed in the top position as the Prime Minister. While he has succeeded in energizing India with his zeal for transforming the country to an economically strong, militarily confident and culturally proud (if not pompous) nation, he has failed in maintaining the national discourse along these lines. The reasons are the following:

1. by choosing only those ministers which he believes he can manage effectively he has included a lot of mediocre, provincial, loose-mouthed individuals in his cabinet. Implicit in their appointments is the supreme belief in himself and his trusted bureaucrats in the PMO to run the country along the lines he envisions the country to take. Consequently, he has not only not staffed all the ministries with competent individuals but allowed even the talented few in the BJP, who have been ignored, to take an adversarial stand.

2. he has created two adversarial forces in the polity: the opposition without (Congress, TMC, JD, etc) and within (Arun Shourie, Advani et al.)

3. he has created a paradoxical situation: extolling the greatness of Hindu (Indic) cultural ethos of tolerance, resepect for elders on the one hand but completely ignoring the talents and contribution of the senior leaders of his party such as Arun Shourie, Advani, Yashwant Sinha, B C Kanduri, M M Joshi, etc on the grounds of them being too old (above 70). This will prove to cost him dearly. A mix of youth and experience would have been the better path to take, but he has opted solely for the former

4. he has too much incompetence in his ministry given how immense his plans for the transformation of the country are: Smriti Irani, Uma Bharathi, Sadananda Gowda, etc
Each of these individuals head ministries that can do enormous good for the country and very quickly at that. Also these ministries can impact a lot of people more directly than others, but they are headed by incompetent people. It is impossible to understand how a college dropout like Irani can run universities and command the respect of academic intellectuals solely on the basis of ministerial power? it is a Plebeian approach at best. Same with Uma Bharathi: the ministry needs not a religious head, but a scientific and bureaucratic one; somebody cast in the mold of Abdul Kalam or M S Swaminathan or Madhavan Nair.

5. Why is the minister of Science and Technology never heard of in public? if Make in India and a great India are to be realities this ministry must be visible and in the news frequently. Does Modi believe that the underpinnings of a great and industrialized India must be imported lock, stock and barrel from his foreign visits?

6. While Modi has impressed all with his sincerity, hard work, nationalism and single mindedness he hasn't exactly sustained the admiration of the educated classes since 2014. He needs to have well spoken, suave and performing ministers in his cabinet -- people of the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Arun Shourie or Jaswant Singh. This is where the ministries of Human Resources, Science and Technology, Information and Broadcasting, and Urban Development affairs come in. These need to be headed by eminent public spirited and suave individuals who also perform. By not appointing such individuals Modi gives out the image of an insecure PM who is afraid to have top notch talent in his cabinet. But without this talent he might as well give up hopes of getting re-elected in 2019.

I hope Modi takes the opportunity of the impending cabinet expansion to effect this change.