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Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

U-turns and flip-flops

It is surprising how rapidly some of the most ardent supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have become disillusioned with his government’s performance. It has been barely 15 months since the Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power with 31.5 per cent of the popular vote in May 2014. Yet corporate captains, right-wing ideologues, columnists and pubic intellectuals — many of whom were his ardent cheerleaders and welcomed his ascendancy — are today vying with one another to criticise him and his stewardship of the Union government.

To a considerable extent, the disillusionment is a consequence of Mr Modi having raised expectations to unrealistically high levels in the run-up to the elections. Those who were especially enamoured of his slogan “minimum government, maximum governance” and expected a sharp rightward shift in the thrust of the government’s economic policies are now, perhaps, realising the limitations that any government in India will face in introducing business-friendly policies. So far, the inflow of new investments from the private sector has been sluggish and there has been negligible increase in employment opportunities, despite the windfall gains that have accrued to the Indian economy due to the sharp fall in the world prices of crude oil.

This is not the full story. After mocking the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act on the floor of the Lok Sabha on February 27 as “proof” of the failure of the Congress, on the last day of July Mr Modi’s government quietly presented supplementary demand for grants, seeking Parliament’s approval for additional spending of Rs 40,882 crore during the current fiscal year. More than a third of this amount is meant for the very schemes the BJP has trashed from time to time. These include, besides the MGNREGA, the National Food Security Act and the Integrated Child Development Scheme started by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975.

The implications are clear. No government, whether led by the Congress or the BJP, can afford to cut spending on welfare schemes meant for the rural poor. It is a separate matter that the money that is meant to be spent on these schemes is siphoned off and pocketed by a few. Improving the administration of a welfare scheme is one challenge but curtailing the scheme is a different question altogether. Cutting expenditure on welfare schemes, even if symbolic, is fraught with grave political risks. This has been belatedly recognised by the government.

The Planning Commission, which Mr Modi and his cohorts believed was a relic of India’s Nehruvian socialist past, was dismantled with alacrity and replaced by the NITI Aayog headed by Arvind Panagariya, a stridently right-wing economist. But the consequences of this move are there for all to these. No change is so far apparent in the functioning of those who work out of Yojana Bhavan — the name is yet to be changed. So the question that is being asked: Why try and fix something which isn’t broke?

Mr Modi and his supporters surely realise that the renaming of progammes (such as Jan Dhan Yojana and Swachh Bharat) can never substitute superior implementation on the ground. Meeting targets of opening new bank accounts is different from ensuring that these accounts have some money in them. Building toilets is one thing, but ensuring that these are usable over a long period of time is quite another challenge. There is no indication that these old programmes are being implemented in a different, better manner.

Is Mr Modi then only concerned about meeting targets and not improving the quality of administering welfare schemes? We will know when he addresses the nation from the ramparts of Red Fort for the second time on August 15. Will he regurgitate and repackage old policies and programmes, with a new slogan or two?

Industrialist and Rajya Sabha member Rahul Bajaj told a television channel on August 7: “We had an emperor on May 27, 2014. Very few places in the world in the last 20-30 years (have) a success like that in the history of a nation. I am not anti this government. But the fact does remain, the shine seems to be wearing off.”

The government’s flip-flop over amending the 2013 land acquisition law has predictably come in for a lot of flak. On August 5, columnist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar wrote: “The land acquisition fiasco reveals him as frightened and indecisive, happier retreating than fighting to the finish... Mr Modi put his tail between his legs and fled. He surrendered on all the key clauses to expedite land acquisition.”

The U-turn on the land acquisition law was in the offing. It was apparent to all but the most politically naive that there was no way the government would be able to push through a new act without the provision for social impact assessment and prior consent without a majority in the Rajya Sabha. Nevertheless, Mr Modi’s ministers doggedly persisted in pursuing a lost cause in the name of economic reform and improving the ease of doing business in India. Their poor political management resulted in the government losing seven months and a huge amount of goodwill.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Delhi-based think-tank, the Centre for Policy Research, was scathing in his criticism of the Prime Minister on August 7: “Instead of boldness, we are getting timidity... Instead of clarity, there is confusion... Instead of implementation, you are getting inaction... Instead of confidence, there is insecurity... Instead of political acuteness, there is political obtuseness... Instead of communication, you are getting silence... Instead of aspiration, you are getting a diminution of spirit...”

The government had to beat a hasty retreat after a ham-handed attempt was made by the finance ministry to clip the powers of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. The same ministry goofed in introducing a complicated income-tax return form before backtracking. The story was repeated when it came to imposing a minimum alternate tax on the profits earned by foreign investors in the country’s stock markets.

The concentration of power in the hands of a few in New Delhi is evident to all. The paucity of talent in the government and ruling party is also rather apparent. Mr Modi’s silence while his supporters make provocative socially divisive statements is deafening. His government’s selective targeting of individuals such as Teesta Setalvad is a bit too obvious. His naive belief in his ability to rule the country the way he ran the state of Gujarat is being questioned by even his one-time loyalists. How quickly has time flown.

Date posted: September 4, 2015Last modified: September 8, 2015Posted byEeshaan Tiwary
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