People Expect Revolution From Modi

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While the Narendra Modi government can be complimented with streamlining things and doing things in a much better way than its predecessor, its approach has been incremental rather than revolutionary. If a government comes to power riding on high hopes and aspirations, it must know that incremental approaches would not take it far. And one must not forget that the government has already lost 20 per cent of its life.

When confronted with the question as to whether crucial reforms in major areas of governance such as police, judicial, electoral, educational etc — about which the BJP had spoken so passionately in its manifestoes — were no more areas of concern, BJP president Amit Shah laughed it away in his interaction with some journalists on 13 May. Instead of these, he spoke of economic reforms, NITI Aayog etc.

One reason that the country did not achieve the goals expected of liberalisation of the 1990s was the failure of successive governments to create matching, parallel institutions that needed to make the opening up of the economy more effective. It led to further enrichment of the rich. While anybody’s deserved richness is welcome, a massive income disparity stops the market from booming. The bureaucracy that was supposed to lose its power to make or mar fortunes and respond more aggressively to business needs became all the more powerful.

The whole point of reforming the economy is to create better and transparent systems where doing business is easy, respectable and profitable. If a young professional should start his own businesses and not look for jobs, respect and dignity are the minimum he would expect. If he still has to stand in queues to get appointments with various bureaucrats, he would rather get a job available through a simple, one-time interview. Business was made easy in Gujarat. What is so different at the Centre? Repeated assurances to the people via Modi’s speeches do not help when the delivery machinery is held hostage by whims of individual babus.

A meme mocking Modi's electoral promise using legendary Bollywood character of Gabbar Singh to convey the scorn
A meme mocking Modi’s electoral promise using legendary Bollywood character of Gabbar Singh to convey the scorn

Among social issues, for all the lovely talk of stopping female foeticide and rape, for example, a victim is still not treated in a dignified manner at the neighbourhood police station. Mere homilies on safety and security of women are not enough.

In a private conversation, Modi, before becoming the Prime Minister, had spoken of a Military Commission to streamline defence and to make it more effective and General VK Singh was supposed to head it. Nothing has been heard on this count either. What this government needed badly was a Ministry for Reforms rather than a NITI Aayog. One can understand that these things can’t be achieved in a year, but at least the seeds of change should have been sown.

If we take away the failures on these fronts, the Modi government has given a spectacular performance in doing things better and working to make the system more transparent. With one stroke, it brought smiles on the face of almost everyone who had to run from pillar to post to get attestation of certificates by a gazetted officer. He is also removing laws that have turned obsolete. The most visible achievement is seeing officials in office in time and attendance being ensured through biometric means.

The BJP-led NDA government seems determined to show that it can work much better than the Congress in terms of transparency and accountability. It is determined to use IT effectively in auctioneering and government procurements. Once ‘Digital India’ takes off, it will change the system of record-keeping as well and make decision making faster and efficient. The feat that must be celebrated is allocation of coal blocks. The UPA government’s coal block allocations had led to a loss of Rs 1.86 lakh crore to the exchequer. The allocations were termed illegal by the Supreme Court that cancelled the allocations of 204 coal blocks. The Modi government used open and competitive bidding through e-auction in March 2015. The estimated revenue for allocation of 33 blocks alone came to Rs 2.09 lakh crore, thus calling the Congress’s bluff that the figure of loss cited by the CAG was “presumptive”, and that there was no corruption in the allocations that were as good as handouts. The allocation showed how Gandhi’s philosophy of trusteeship would work in the government sector — use of available resources has to be the most economical and effective[i]. This is likely to bring new prosperity to mineral rich states Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The government has already decided to transfer the proceeds of allocation to the mining states, the coal blocks of which have been auctioned.

A government estimate says that when all 204 coal blocks have been auctioned the mineral-rich states would benefit to the tune of about Rs 4 lakh crore through auctions. This is in addition to the royalty they would get, which is likely to be of the same amount. This is big money that these states can use to wipe off their respective deficits and debts and also launch fresh development initiatives. If one compares this with increase in transfer of central funds to states from 32 to 42 per cent, the provinces would have a good time under the Modi-led NDA government.

It is not without reason that Amit Shah claims absence of corruption to be the single biggest achievement of the one-year-old Modi government. If seen in the backdrop of the UPA government that gave the country one scam after the other, this is indeed remarkable. There is not even one finger raised at any of the ministers for having taken money to push a decision. There are stories circulating in the power corridors like how an important minister could not even get his pet official transferred. Though we see a side effect of slowing down of decision making processes as a result, once the new process turn into a culture, one can expect faster decisions.

One can reel out statistics to show that this government has performed reasonably well despite constraints. If growth is an indicator of economic success, this government has performed well in one year. If one uses the old indicator, the growth was about 4.5 per cent when the Vajpayee-led NDA government had come to power in 1998. When it left and the first UPA government took over in 2004, the growth was 8.4 per cent. When the Modi-led NDA government came to power in May 2014, the rate of growth was 4.7 per cent — roughly the level from where Vajpayee had to begin his journey. In a year, the growth has been increased to 5.7 per cent, BJP president Amit Shah stressed in the informal interaction the day before yesterday.

On the price front, this government must be credited with controlling inflation. The Wholesale Price Index has come down from 6 per cent in March 2014 to 2.33 per cent in March 2015. The Consumer Price Index, which indicates market variation, came down from 8.25 per cent in March 2014 to 5.17 per cent in March 2015. Even the industrial output has increased from 2 per cent in February 2014 to 5 per cent in February 2015.

Combined with lower fuel price due to international situations, these should produce a combined effect that would be good for an average Indian. BJP president held that control over price had led to benefits between Rs 1,500 and Rs 4,500 per month to each family depending on their consumer pattern — based not only on fuel expenses but also on spending on goods whose prices inflate when petroleum prices go up.

The government’s record in social sectors has been very good. It brought about 15 crore people in the banking sector by getting their bank accounts opened under the Jan Dhan Yojana. Still about 46 crore people are outside the banking system, but this is likely to decrease once the 15 crore brought in start reaping the benefits of these accounts. This would enable getting benefits of social security through heavily subsidised insurance schemes under the Pradha Mantri Jivan Jyoti Bima Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Surakahs Bima Yojana and Atal Pension Yojana. These would provide some form of social security to the poor at a very reasonable cost and send an impression that the government cares for the poor. Further, the Modi government eased the compensation norms by reducing the clause of 50 per cent crop loss to 33 per cent and enhanced compensation by one and a half times for loss of crop due to bad weather. Why then the government has not been able to present this face before the people?

Overall, the indicators are neither good nor bad; it’s a mixed bag, but the situation has causes of concern for the government — politically speaking. The government has acquired the image of being pro-corporate and pro-rich — proverbially close to Adanis and Ambanis. It appears that the Modi government has been losing the battle of perception. Shah  disagreed and said that people in the villages were aware of what the government was doing. This was the case even on the issue of Land Acquisition Bill (LAB) — amendments to the The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 — that has sought to sully the government’s image. But Shah is not defensive about it. “We are convinced this is going to give a big push to development,” he asserted and claimed that there was not a single clause that could be said to be supporting private industrialists. The farmers who get good money for the land can always buy more land and can make good use of the money saved, he said. The farmers are convinced that the government’s policy is correct, according to Shah. This is for the first time that landless labourers have been assured a job, he pointed out.

Finally, either because it is wary of journalists or due its own arrogance, the government has stayed away from the media. It’s a mistake. If you don’t feed the media, they would go where there is a story. The Congress realised the vacuum and Rahul has used the opportunity to the hilt, mixing truisms, spins as well as rants. With aggressive replies to the Congress scion by BJP’s parliamentarians, and Modi’s interview with Dainik Jagaran, perhaps the realisation has dawned upon the government that the flow of information must be maintained. Changing media strategy would help the government win the perception war over domestic policies.

But this government must realise that it has to come clean on the promises it made to the people on the issue of retrieving black-money, providing wide-scale employment to the youth and bring in a system that would make individual citizens’ winning or losing livelihood and routine life’s battles justifiable. The government also needs to make people aware that things would not happen overnight and it would take time to stem the rot. After raising their expectations to the skies, you cannot fault them for being impatient. It’s time to temper expectations with realities and work tirelessly to achieve the turnaround.

[i] Jagannath Swaroop Mathur, Industrial civilization & Gandhian economics (1971) p 165