Flesh Out Message, Mr Modi

Like the enraged Iraqis who a decade ago pulled down the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and agitating Ukrainians last week uprooted Lenin from his pedestal in central Kiev, the voters in three heartland states and in Delhi did a demolition job on the Congress party. It may be the opening act of a play ending in a shrivelled-up Nehru-Gandhi dynastic party.

While media commentators debated Narendra Modi’s role in the BJP’s poll sweep in abstruse terms (“Modi wave”, “Modi effect”, etc.), alarm bells should have begun clanging in Modi’s mind when Digvijaya Singh, the Congress party general secretary and agent provocateur non pareil, congratulated the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for becoming politically more mainstream. A basic rule of thumb: When a “Diggy-raja” sees Modi as, in some sense, a political variant of himself, it spells trouble, reeking of an attempt to minimise the ideological differences separating the two parties, and portending Modi’s co-optation into the Establishment fold. This may reassure Modi about his own acceptability quotient, but it is aimed at lulling him, and blunting his message. Then again, what’s his message?

Beyond commending the “Gujarat model” of economic growth and development for the country, he hasn’t yet explained in simple language to his vast, growing and, importantly, youthful audiences the secret of its success. To most people in residually “socialist” India, “sarkari naukri” (government job) denotes lifelong economic security and better life, and an opportunity to step on the social escalator—to advance from the lowliest levels of society to the lower middle class, and for their children from the lower middle class to middle tiers of the middle class that comprise the bourgeoisie and bulwark of any democracy. How entrenched is this view? Chandra Bhan Prasad and Milind Kamble, the remarkably far-seeing Dalit leaders who have been touting entrepreneurship as antidote for caste discrimination and social backwardness, discovered to their chagrin that the Dalits they talked to preferred the job security of low-level government jobs to the risks of embarking on their own ventures even with offers of seed capital.

The bulk of the people thronging BJP election gatherings, apart from enjoying the entertainment provided by Modi slamming the Congress leadership with zest, mocking statements, and jibes, would reasonably assume that when Modi mentions industry and development, for example, what he is promising is a version of what most politicians they have known all their lives have always offered—yet another crowd-pleasing, dole-dispensing, treasury-busting, taxpayer-funded scheme of the kind the Congress has specialised in over the last six decades. Such schemes, if not outright giveaways, involve setting up public sector units—such as the railway coach factory, pilot training academy, and what not, in Sonia Gandhi’s Rai Bareilly constituency. It is the easiest way to buy votes and cement support at the state level at the public exchequer’s expense. But, whose money is it anyway?

Congress members behave as if the monies to finance the inordinately expensive and wasteful populist programmes the National Advisory Council dreams up come from their party coffers or party president Sonia Gandhi’s personal fortune estimated (by Huffington Post) at some $2 billion, which exceeds the worth of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth-II! Whence, the oft-heard statements made by gesturing Congress party minions, ministers, and the like, to the effect that “we” have given money to the states which have been misused or remained unused.

Surely, this is not Modi’s message. But unless he articulates his own distinct “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” ideology—that he exemplifies—and a more energetic vision for the country, that is what the people limited by their experience will assume he represents. For starters, therefore, he needs to disabuse the masses of many of the myths propagated by the Congress over the years, among them, that poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, can be eliminated by legislative diktats. Congress slogans, such as Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty) and Sonia’s variations of it, essentially turn development—a hard, difficult, and messy process—into a magical outcome. Modi needs to show these up for the airy confections they are. “Beggar the treasury” schemes, he ought to point out, only erodes the self-respect of the people, reinforcing their gimme habit and belief in government as mai-baap—a regressively feudal concept the British colonials expropriated to promote servility in Indians, which Congress subscribes to.

Modi has, moreover, to do the unthinkable for a politician—speak truth and common sense to the people, which is that the government cannot give them the good life that they themselves are unmotivated to secure by their own hard work. Further, he has to stress that the government is not and can never be the employer of the first or even the last resort, but that it could be an enabler. That the government will provide the youth with the remedial training and upskilling to international standards necessary to help them make good in the growing industrial sector and in the economy at large. That the national resources would be more effectively used by privatising public sector units based on his conviction that “government has no business to be in business”. That while well-funded and monitored social welfare programmes will guarantee a minimum level of benefits for all, and protect the indigent, the incapacitated and the elderly, a cradle-to-grave social welfare state is unaffordable, especially on a meagre tax base—less than two per cent of the working population, for instance, pays income tax. And finally, that if the freebie programmes are not reined in, the fiscal deficit and national debt will sink the nation.

Modi’s new national credo must exalt individual effort, initiative, and enterprise, and project unshackled entrepreneurship, private industry and capital as the prime drivers of prosperity and India’s rise. Gujarat’s progress, he needs to emphasise, owes much to the self-help can-do attitude of Gujaratis, which if widely adopted by the rest of us, would carry the country very far.

Published in New Indian Express, December 13, 2013 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/opinion/Flesh-Out-Message-Mr-Modi/2013/12/13/article1942395.ece

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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2 Responses to Flesh Out Message, Mr Modi

  1. Reproduced here is a response-comment by J. Chacko to my email acct:
    Mr. Karnad has left out one important beneficiary of the “Sarkari Naukari” syndrome and it is the politically affiliated trade unions. All Sarkari Naukari providers like Government, PSUs etc are gold mines for them. Employees in these organisations join their Unions even before they join for duty as there are informants in the Personnel Departments about candidates selected and leaders would immediately reach their homes to enrol them into their Union. Instead of the employers briefing, introducing and initiating them into the organisations, what they first get is a brain washing by these leaders. In the old PSU dominated environment, there used to be regular annual recruitments, helping these outfits to swell their membership giving them a gala time. This is the secret behind some political parties which cannot even win a Panchayat seat anywhere, controlling big Unions.

    The resultant militancy of the unions ensured that not much work was done in theses units and the public anger against this go against the Government. It was Congress which did all the nationalisation but somehow their trade union wing INTUC could not make much headway in enlisting members. As a result, they not only failed to benefit in this field but instead had to face public ire for the work culture in Government and PSUs as they were in power most of the time. Congress dimwits fail to realise this and hence they constantly swear by PSUs.

    J. Chacko
    Sent from my iPad

    • Mr Chacko correctly identifies the labour aristocracy that labour unions in PSUs and government service represent, as a major source of resource drain and low productivity of the public sector enterprises — an oxymoron, public sector and enterprise!

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