Prime Minister Narendra Modi increasingly seems to be trapped in his own echo chamber. His government is fast confusing the trees for the forest and ignoring the sense of restlessness brewing outside its hallowed circles. There have been, no doubt, some interesting administrative decisions coming out of this government. But when even some of its own core supporters start using the “blame-the-bureaucrats” alibi, you know the government has lost a sense of credible control. It is admittedly early days. But for a government that promised a new narrative, the adjustment to old ways is striking.
Whether believable or not, Modi had promised a new discourse on secularism: an atmosphere less thick with the possibility of violence, less suffused with the “others-did-it” alibi, less suffocatingly invoking identities for political purposes and less rewarding of politicians producing polarisation. No one would be targeted for being who they are. But ask a simple question. After two months, is there more or less reason to be anxious on this score? UP, in particular, is now turning out to be a tinder box. Much of the blame lies with Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, who is running, arguably, the single most morally irresponsible government UP has seen. But the BJP’s contribution to the politics of polarisation is far from negligible. Ministers in the Central government, like Sanjeev Baliyan, have been accused of intimidation; and Amit Shah does not exactly have a reputation of throwing cold water on conflict.
The sources of violence on the ground are complex. Let us even grant that the prime minister cannot comment on every matter. But he is acting like the Congress in two ways. He has failed to publicly draw clear red lines on what his partymen can and cannot say, and inevitably, the worst in his party will shape the public narrative and induce fear. His job is to encourage voices of conciliation and to use his office to transform public culture for the better. This is far from happening. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s silences created the vacuum that anyone could fill. Can this prime minister name one action that sends a loud and clear message about what kind of conduct will not be tolerated? Has he used any incident to create a teachable moment? There is a kind of out of touch complacency, that somehow this small-scale violence will not snowball into something big. But this is a poison that, once unleashed, cannot be controlled.
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The second big narrative setback has been on India’s commitment to globalise. The prime minister’s neighbourhood policy seems, for the moment, sure-footed, though he will have to deliver agreements fast, before this moment vanishes. But the BRICS notwithstanding, the larger signal India is sending on two of the most important economic issues, trade and climate change, are not impressive. India’s food security options need to be protected. The government also inherited a structural mess in agriculture, one whose contours the BJP also supported. But grandstanding on the Trade Facilitation Agreement is bad politics for a number of reasons: India risks global isolation on this issue. We are sending a huge anti-reform signal: that we will use our farmers as a shield not to improve our processes. Admittedly, this is a complex issue; but the government seems unable to communicate concrete options well.
The “just say no” strategy also seems to afflict our stance on climate change. The challenge in both areas is that the world is moving fast. The looming prospect of a Transatlantic Free Trade Area and Trans-Pacific Partnership has induced far-reaching changes in China’s stance on trade; and a US-China deal on climate change is not beyond possibility. The main shift we need to bring in both trade and climate change is from thinking dogmatically to thinking strategically, in ways that benefit us both at home and abroad. All our global ambitions will come to nought if these two issues are not handled with thought and imagination.
The third narrative setback is that what is passing off as administrative reform in this government is taking more shortcuts. The ministry of environment and forests is setting up the government for a big fall. Its public narrative is constantly emphasising speed over credibility and, rather than projecting a more believable environmentalprotection regime, it seems to be weakening the protections that exist. This will not just have adverse consequences for the environment and the poor, it will also create greater uncertainty for business as courts will have more reason to look at the government with suspicion on this score. But this is just an example of the regime not getting that shortcuts are short-sighted; in all likelihood, we will see the same fiasco in HRD.
There is also some fancy hoodwinking. Corruption remains a central issue, but any anti-corruption measures that bypass legislative institutions are going to fail. The big failure of the last decade was parliamentary collusion, where committees like the Public Accounts Committee were rendered moribund by all-round collusion. Instead of furtive administrative measures, all the government needs to do is promise to restore political accountability. CAG reports should not be the last word on any subject, but we indicted the last government for not responding to them adequately. Will this government respond to them? The BJP government could make a start by responding to the recently released CAG reports on losses to the exchequer in Gujarat. We have settled into the very familiar pattern of avoiding the obligation to explain.
On the economy, the government has, at best, put in an ordinary performance. It conveys the sense of a series of small tactics but no overall strategy. One measure of this is that economists most sympathetic to its possibilities, from Bibek Debroy to Arvind Panagariya, are openly expressing deep disappointment. It is probably a measure of how quickly the government has gone out of touch that this message will not deeply register in its consciousness.
It was unrealistic to expect big bang reforms or sharp ideological shifts. Quite the contrary, what is needed is a little clarity, honesty, common sense and sense of purpose. The government is, at this moment, failing to project these qualities. It has quickly descended into an odd combination of trifles, bureaucratic crosshairs, alibis, risk averseness and a shadowy politics of stealth. As if to symbolically underscore its continuity, it has even obliged with a possible bugging scandal. If the prime minister does not come out swinging soon, in a way that can become an exemplar, this government’s credibility too, will be done in by that ultimate weapon of passive resistance: whispers in the corridors.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’