A review of the direction of the Modi government’s politics and policies, skill of its talent pool, scale of its programmes, and the speed of their execution.

Camelot that wasn’t

The council of Ministers that took oath along with Modi a year ago was average at best. The euphoria of a 282 seats-majority ensured no concrete criticism of Modi’s poor team selection, even among the supporters. Those who did object to the likes of Smriti Irani getting as important a ministry as HRD were ignored for being too cynical. And rightly so. That was the time for new opportunities and celebrations of a generational mandate, not for cynicism. So, it wasn’t the Camelot that some of us had wished to see. But we understood Modi’s position. There were bruised egos to heal, favors to return to old pals who stood by his side when no one else did, and a need to take everyone together to pacify the fears of his own party men. Then there was this belief that the competence of ministers won’t matter since Modi would rule through secretaries and concentrate power in the PMO. But the most important aspect was the size of the cabinet. Modi fulfilled his promise of minimum government. What better way to limit the incompetency in the government than cutting down the size of the government itself? We were happy.

Then came the inevitable cabinet expansion. We expected an infusion of technocrats. Instead ministries were made the parking lot, as they always have been, for party hacks with right caste composition. Modi gave up ‘small government’ bramhastra which was standing in the way of incompetent inexperienced people and positions of power and responsibility.

But if we set aside our grudge for a lackluster cabinet and look at the technocrats that Modi has scrambled in his team, then the confidence is bound to shoot up. Ajit Doval as NSA, S. Jaishankar as Foreign Secretary, Raghuram Rajan at the helm of affairs in the RBI, Arvind Subramaniam as CEA, Bibek Debroy and Arvind Pangariya in Niti Aayog are arguably the finest minds of our generation and truly inspire confidence. And credit must be given where it’s due. Modi has gone out of his way to induct an outsider but hands on technocrat Suresh Prabhu and given him the responsibility of turning around the fortunes of Indian Railways. Manohar Parrikar is a man of impeccable integrity who has been entrusted with the responsibility of defense of the realm. Piyush Goyal is doing wonders with the Power and Coal Ministry. Gadkari has surprised many of us with his understanding of infrastructure problems and his vision for developing waterways, Sagarmala, and Bharatmala projects.

Almost perfect team. Just short of Camelot. The FM is not up to the job. You could hardly tell the difference between him and his predecessor if the latter’s resume wasn’t so much better. Modi came with the promise of job creation and skill development, but the FM keeps talking in the same old language of GDP numbers. Tinkering, tweaking seems to be his favorite pastime. Forget about charting a new course and bringing new energy and direction, FM simply doesn’t know what his babus are doing behind his back. That’s why blunders like the ITR forms, MAT are bound to creep in. If it wasn’t for standing with Modi in his tough days, he wouldn’t have stayed in a job so important for so long. But Modi has to decide now if he wants to get things done for which he was elected or keep his old pals in good humor.

The HRD minister is busy fighting irrelevant battles. It’s just criminal the way this government has betrayed its core base and more importantly the students. The RTE act continues to be hostile to cost effective primary education, UGC is still the ringmaster which continues to stifle innovation in higher education, forget about providing 21st century vision for education, no steps have been taken to even correct the Leftist-Marxist bias in school textbooks. More than one year has elapsed and Madam Minister hasn’t come up with a single major policy proposal, not even ONE.

Healthcare is even worse. At least some people pay attention to the HRD ministry because of the high profile minister heading it if not for its importance in building our country itself. But no one seems to care about healthcare. Even if we count the Prime Minister’s much publicized campaign of Swacch Bharat under the category of preventive health care, then that also suffers from lack of specific direction and budget. The least the government could have done is to give proper guidance and technical assistance to the municipalities in waste management. They are simply not competent enough to deliver on their own.

Rain god seems to be upset with Modi Sarkar. But that’s not the only reason for rural distress. Last season, it was the unavailability of Urea, this time it’s mishandling of compensation to the farmers who lost their crops to unseasonal rains. Consider this, Modi Sarkar has given Rs 12000/acre – highest ever compensation but still somehow managed to be called anti-farmer. Just because they took so much time to declare the compensation, and then going back and forth on the issue. If it’s not incompetence, I don’t know what is.

Politics

Does anyone still remember the BJP’s attitude post May 2014? The party formed the governments on its own for the first time in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Haryana. In Haryana, the party had just four MLAs and was in an alliance with much stronger HJC. In Maharashtra, it had always played second fiddle to the Shiv Sena. But that didn’t deter it from breaking ties with old allies and forging its own path. It fought elections on its own terms and won on its own terms. The J&K victory was a result of even more aggressive posturing and a campaign in which even the PM didn’t hesitate to invest his reputation. The aggressiveness wasn’t limited to the election and campaigning alone but in every aspect of its dealing with the opposition. That was the BJP that cadres could be really proud of.

But all the bravado disappeared after its drubbing in the Delhi elections. It took just one defeat in a city to shake the morale of party leadership. It moved fast to finalize the alliance in J&K. The so-called master plan to introduce anti-conversion bill in parliament via ‘ghar-wapsi’ vanished. And now it seems the party has also made truce with TMC in Bengal and given up on the state betraying the hard working cadres in exchange for the legislative support in the Rajya Sabha. This further strengthen the well-established notion that BJP is a wishy washy party.

UP and Bihar together gave 104 seats to the BJP but the PM hasn’t returned any favors to these states, not even by paying a token visit to the heartland barring presiding over a couple of formal arrangements. But all is not lost since Modi remains as popular as ever in the heartland and there is still hope that party will perform well in the upcoming state elections.

Modinomics

Certainly there haven’t been any big bang reforms in the first year (and no, inability of some to define what big bang reforms constitute doesn’t mean that this is untrue) and those who fantasized Modi as India’s Reagan or Thatcher must be feeling let down. Modi is being accused of instituting incrementalism model of reforms while the mandate was for total change of course. But we don’t know if any big bang reforms model would succeed in India when a slightly liberal land acquisition act is being blocked by the crony socialists masquerading as saviors of poor.

So far, Modi’s governance model, or Modinomics as I see, is a ‘server side’ economics. In past one year, Modi has put a stop to not just retail corruption but also to the much despised crony capitalism. Corporate brokers have been shut out from the corridors of power. Industrialists can’t expect any favors in return for their contribution to the party fund. This stop on loot has swelled the coffers of the government treasury. The transparent auction of national resources, be it coal or spectrum, has brought in lakhs of crores and this has helped bring down deficits. Halving of the international crude oil prices has proved to be cherry on top.  So, definitely acche din for the treasury and the government – the server side.

The problem is that the common man – the client side is not feeling it. The benefits of bloated treasury are not trickling down. Oil prices should have been much lower but petrol is still priced over 70 – almost same as it was a year ago. Farmers are forced to sell their crops below minimum support price. Increased service tax is going to hit everyone hard. Students, for example, have to pay more fees for the same subnormal quality of education. Three percent education cess only adds insult to the injury. So, people are also shilling out more money than ever at a time when government is having laddoos in both hands. (I am well aware of the huge deficits that government has to finance and the losses the oil companies have to recover – but does aam aadmi know why the promises of acche din are not translating into reality? If not, whose fault is this?)

This server-side economics model is one aspect of Modinomics. Another important aspect is the JAM trinity (Jan Dhan, Aadhar, Mobile) through which Modi intends to connect every citizen to the banking economy, the main aim being the transfer of ‘100 out of 100 paisa’ to the poor, thereby removing leakages and cutting government wastage, and then maybe ultimately steering the country towards a cashless economy. On this front, the government has achieved unprecedented success, and the criticism that most of the accounts are lying empty, or only two or three, and not all fifteen crore accounts are active, is totally unwarranted. Two crores or three crores or thirty percent is still much better than the zero.

Death by thousand cuts!

That’s how the noted satirist and journalist, Rahul Roshan describes Media’s strategy vis-à-vis Modi Sarkar. That is similar to Pakistan’s strategy with respect to India. Media, which hasn’t yet made peace with the fact that the man they vilified for a decade has become Prime Minister, is manufacturing news to give a perception that indeed the worst fears of minorities are being realized under this government. Utter incompetency in failing to understand this media strategy coupled with inability of party spokespersons to counter this manufactured narrative is only making things worse.

Only ghar wapsi was handled properly until the government developed cold feet and the campaign for a was summarily abandoned. The BJP rightly framed the narrative that if secularists have any problem with the conversions or reconversions, the government can always bring the anti-conversion bill. Either way, this campaign if sustained, would have resulted in tangible achievement and a victory of smart Hindutva politics that PM Modi and Amit Shah champion.

But there is noisy Hindutva too which tarnishes the image of the PM among his progressive voters and doesn’t add anything of value to the Hindutva cause. As Shourie puts eloquently, the aloofness of Modi gives the wrong impression. Either you go into complete seclusion like our former PM, but if you can tweet about relatively irrelevant things, you must not shy away from giving a thorough dressing down to your own party men when they misbehave.

As far as the achievements of the government are concerned, nobody could have summed them up better than Modi himself who has written to the nation on his government’s anniversary about various measures and schemes launched in the past one year:

“….from making school toilets to setting up IITs, IIMs and AIIMS; from providing a vaccination cover to our children to initiating a people-driven Swachh Bharat mission; from ensuring a minimum pension to our labourers to providing social security to the common man; from enhancing support to our farmers hit by natural calamities to defending their interests at WTO; from empowering one and all with self-attestation to delivering subsidies directly to people’s banks; from universalizing the banking system to funding the unfunded small businesses; from irrigating fields to rejuvenating Ma Ganga; from moving towards 24/7 power to connecting the nation through road and rail; from building homes from the homeless to setting up smart cities; and form connecting the North-East to prioritizing development of Easter India.”

Those of us following Modi’s governance model for long know very well that he is not a big bang reforms guy but an incrementalist who executes his projects at lightning speed, as was vividly evident from the success of Jan Dhan Yojna. He picks his guys, set targets and gives them full freedom to get things done. Following up on projects has been the most important factor in his success as an administrator. Though he has been dealt a tough hand as far as the talent pool goes, both in the party and bureaucracy, Modi hasn’t scored big on the execution front which is quite a surprise. But it’s been only a year and he must be given more time. Still, I can’t help but agree with Sadanand Dhume that Indians didn’t give Modi the country’s biggest mandate in thirty years to settle for mere incrementalism.

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