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Can Modi move India?

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In Brief

A hundred days into the Modi prime ministership of India, the signals are mixed. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies have taken a hiding in a series of state polls and by-elections. And supporters and critics alike are already baying about a massive electoral mandate that has been squandered.

The 'honeymoon' seems be over for the Modi government, but is this a sign of its prospects for the long term?


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Early electoral losses in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand five weeks after the national electoral victory may have gone through the slips, but the defeat in Bihar ‘where the BJP and allies had won 31 out of 40 national parliamentary seats, is significant. A secular alliance won in six of the 10 constituencies. Two former chief ministers, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, patched things up after two decades of bitterness and — with the Indian National Congress — forged a successful anti-BJP phalanx in time for the assembly polls due next year. In addition to state-level losses, the BJP also lost some parliamentary by-elections including in Karnataka in the south and Punjab, which is ruled by Akali Dal, a BJP ally and party of the Sikhs’.

There is now a question at least of whether the ‘Modi wave’ is on its ebb.

On one account Modi is simply not moving fast enough and his program, including his first budget, is more or less a carbon copy of that of the ousted Indian National Congress, even though ‘his vision was to transform the nation’s economy’. Far from pressing ahead rapidly with a business-friendly set of policies, Modi has hung on to programs subsidising grains, sugar and fuel, as well as caps on foreign direct investment, which limit fresh capital for business ventures.

There is also a question of credibility about Modi’s promises to crack down on the corruption and cronyism associated with the Congress-led government. This commitment took a sharp knock with Modi’s push for close ally Amit Shah to become the BJP president. Criminal charges against Shah are the issue, despite the Supreme Court’s decision not to recognise pending criminal cases against lawmakers as a disqualification for their appointment as ministers at the same time as it appealed to the prime minister to set an example in exercising ‘constitutional morality’.

On another account, independent analysts reckon Modi’s government needs more time. The BJP itself claims that all the country’s problems are a legacy the Manmohan Singh government. BJP leaders reasonably argue that addressing India’s many complex problems will take time, that the government has a five-year mandate and caution patience.

In our lead this week, Rajiv Kumar says that ‘100 days is far too short a time for a new government to get off the blocks in a continental-sized economy like India — with its mindboggling diversity and complexities’. He cites two reasons.

First, this is Modi’s maiden term as a member of parliament in the national government; so he faces a steep learning curve. Second, until 16 May, when the election results were announced, the size of the BJP’s victory and the composition of government were completely unclear. ‘Modi’s government has started from scratch in putting together its plan of action’, Kumar points out. ‘A hundred days is too short then to make an evaluation’.

The previous government under Singh, Kumar argues, descended into ‘policy and administrative paralysis’. The new government has had to work hard to restore the credibility, efficiency, accountability and effectiveness of the national government. While not so visible, this is a tangible achievement that is necessary to success in turning policy and programs around.

Despite this handicap ‘Modi’s government has been busy’, Kumar explains: introducing a hike in railway fares; reducing diesel subsidies; increasing caps on FDI; framing proposals to revise labour laws to make them more supportive of manufacturing activity; and getting rid of the anachronistic Planning Commission. On foreign policy, Modi has actively re-engaged with the sub-continent, prioritised ties with China and Japan and weighed in behind the BRICs with commitment to its development bank. Kumar sees India’s move to renege on its commitment to implement the WTO’s Bali deal on trade facilitation as a tough assertion of domestic over foreign priorities rather than a betrayal of the promise of a more coherent national development strategy, as widely perceived in the international policy or business community.

Yet, as Kumar rightly says, it is Modi’s failure to articulate a coherent and comprehensive development vision or policy framework that has been his most serious omission in his first 100 days.

Modi gave India new hope, especially its young who enthusiastically embraced his can-do election manifesto and underwrote his sweep into a majority government with just 31 per cent of the total electoral vote. But the young, and their rapidly growing and churning numbers, who gave may be less patient than the rest of the Indian electorate famously is.

As Kumar concludes, voters who have been burdened by high inflation and a lack of job opportunities for the past several years could lose their hope and their patience sooner than expected. Both for the constituency at home as well as for partners abroad there is an urgent need for Modi to spell out a policy framework outlining policy priorities and the details of the measures that he will take to restore voters’ and investors’ confidence. The initial assessments at home on his first 100 days may be hard. Those abroad are even harsher. Expectations may have been unreasonably high all round. But in another 100 days this will be the test that matters most.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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