The Delhi poll-quake produced an outcome almost everybody in the political firmament, including many within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, it seems, craved for—the crashing of the Narendra Modi juggernaut. It has highlighted the shortfalls in Modi’s nine-month rule encapsulated in the opposition’s jibe that he is “All talk, no action”. Paperless cabinet meetings, ministers staying late in office, civil servants turning up in time for work do not, apparently, constitute the social and economic revolution the people expected. Arvind Kejriwal, in the event, has emerged, remarkably, as the rival the prime minister will be judged against.
Modi’s achievements to date amount, in substance, to an easy camaraderie with world leaders and exhortations to the people. In contrast, the 49 days of Kejriwal’s first tenure as chief minister had such impact it carried his Aam Aadmi Party to an overwhelming victory in the capital and, the day after the declaration of the poll results, for instant changes—government tankers appeared in water-starved parts of the capital, touts disappeared from the regional transport offices, and bribe-demanding police turned into paragons of propriety. While Modi’s “corruption-free India” remained a slogan, Kejriwal’s campaign motivated the citizens to use mobile telephony to trap wrongdoers, and become the agent of change they desired.
The irony is that as a former chaiwallah who made it to the top on his own, Modi has a better story to tell, but has failed so far to parlay it into policies that encourage and reward personal initiative and individual effort, reduce the profile of the government as employer of the first and last resort, and to embark schemes to grow jobs by growing the economy. Over the months the people found that Modi did not trim government waste, or reconfigure the system, or rectify its ways of doing business with the people, or ramp up the abysmal-quality services it delivered, or devise policies to encourage and incentivise private enterprise, or initiate training schemes to upskill the potential industrial workforce needed for the country’s industry to be at the cutting edge, or facilitate a take-off by the manufacturing sector by putting teeth into his “Make in India” policy, or attract the fabled foreign investment to get trillion dollars worth of infrastructure and connectivity projects going. More disheartening still, pronouncements aside, labour and judicial reforms, like their economic counterpart, have stayed stuck in the political and administrative quagmire.
By way of relief, Modi sought visibility on the international stage where “success” can be gleaned by managing the pomp and attendant pageantry and playing to the delirious non-resident Indian crowds from New York to Sydney. The trouble is the law of diminishing returns kicks in fast. While the occasional international summit and Madison Garden-do is fine, too many foreign jaunts and diplomatic jamborees quickly pall, giving the impression of a democratic leader seeking escape or diversion from his failures on the domestic front.
Problematically, Kejriwal has scored in the areas Modi appears deficient. The AAP supremo did what he promised—improve, even if slightly, the everyday life of the majority—the underclass surviving in miserable slums and shanty towns by ordering cut-rate electricity and water for it. Populist programmes cannot be long sustained because the policy of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” is guaranteed ultimately to alienate both but, in the interim, he can coast. Relying on his “brains trust”, Kejriwal has been inventive—like asking the Centre to allot Delhi a coal block as a captive source of energy for thermal power plants in the capital region. He has less in common with the lowliest in the land than does Modi but compensates with the kind of empathy, humility, and ability to connect with the common folk the PM seems unable to match. And, bad optics—the supposedly expensive suit he donned in his session with Barack Obama—hasn’t helped.
The Left liberals comprising the bulk of the country’s media, intelligentsia, and political parties, who have benefited from the quasi-socialist nanny state, see Modi’s failure as rooted in a faulty ideology symbolised by the carryings-on of the Hindu fringe. The miniscule minority forming the more responsible liberal Right in the country, among whom this analyst counts himself, on the other hand, is a frustrated lot. With the government identified by Modi as the mother of most ills afflicting the state and society, he was expected to slash government, rid the system of the careerist civil servant-dominated decision making, redefine the national interest along hard nationalist lines, and shape policies accordingly. Instead, Modi empowered the bureaucrats.
Meanwhile in the policy-making field, too, Kejriwal has taken the lead, appointing domain experts to advise him on innovative solutions and policy options. Other than in the economic field where outside experts have been installed in the NITI Aayog and as advisers, they are conspicuously absent in most of the rest of the Modi government. Thus, the technical ministries at the Centre continue to be run by generalist civil servants, foreign policy by the prime minister’s instincts (which has resulted in inadequate attention paid to neighbours—Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, compounded by ill-thought out actions, such as the nuclear compromise with Obama, in violation of an Act of Parliament, that could make the indigenous nuclear energy programme extinct), and defence is constrained by the limited imagination of external affairs. Judged broadly, the current policies generally seem unchanged from Manmohan Singh’s days which, perhaps, explains the popular disillusionment with Modi.
For Modi to pull things back, which he can do in the remaining four odd years in office, it will require him to return to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s nationalist ideology and the BJP’s root social self-help principles. He will also have to bank on conservative strategists from outside, who helped Atal Bihari Vajpayee chart an expansive national security policy and set India on the great power course, to fill his strategic policies with meaningful content. Without the right intellectual heft and expertise in the Prime Minister’s Office and in government, Modi may end up winging it on his own without taking the country or even himself very far.
[Published in the New Indian Express, February 20, 2015, at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Modis-Action-Deficits/2015/02/20/article2676686.ece