Achhe din, like old times

Government has quickly descended into a mix of trifles, alibis and risk averseness.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:July 29, 2014 12:52 am
On the economy, the government has, at best, put in an ordinary performance. On the economy, the government has, at best, put in an ordinary performance.

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.

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’
express@expressindia.com

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  1. G
    Guest
    Jul 29, 2014 at 5:52 am
    Too early to comment on Modi's performance. We will see in a couple of years if the country is going in the right direction. If BJP doesnt learn from Congress mistakes then it will pretty much go the Congress way.
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      ANUJ
      Jul 29, 2014 at 6:09 am
      Hi, I had been a admirer of your writings and will remain so. I believe PM Modi not promised to change everything according to "experts". He has his own long term vision and he has to win elections. But the experts also need to 'write' for their bread and butter this their compulsion also.
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        Ankur Prakash
        Jul 29, 2014 at 4:46 pm
        And foolish british lickers like you will always believe in their Aryan-dravin theory :) Not sure who controls BJP but your foolish dump brain controls you for sure...
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          B.D.SINGH
          Jul 30, 2014 at 11:02 am
          The role has changed and the new PM has adopted quickly in that role. When a leader is in opposition, his duty is to talk but when he comes to power, he has to show the result. Taking alone will not serve the purpose. The PM seems to be on right track. Too much speed may cause problems. He should be judged after he completes his first half of his tenure.
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            Netaji
            Jul 30, 2014 at 10:28 am
            What is the use of lamenting now? Do you accept that you were hoodwinked by the Modi hype in media yourself? Media wanted to create chaos and change in Govt for its own TRPs. It is like creating a snake out of nothing and then lamenting that the snake is hissing everybody.You all media so-called intellectuals should have thought twice before giving in to the Modi hype triggered through social media by a bunch of paid workers. Couldn't you have forseen these things given BJP's past track record? And more so of RSS?Now having been hoodwinked by the campaign marketing genius, you should allow some time, judge things only when they go to an extreme. India's democracy is relative...with the right wing, you get agressive speakers but short on any policy except the ones advocated by their sister concerns like Sangh Parivar...with the Cong, you get poor speakers, prone to corruption, but given their experience in governance, their role in long-term policy making is far far better.
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              Nita
              Jul 29, 2014 at 5:50 pm
              In 2 months since taking office, PM Mody has effected several significant changes across the spectrum of governance. Because he works almost always without media attention, it is not always registered. Experts familiar with Mody's style of governance say that it will take 6 months for the change to be visible and two years before a new structure of governance is in place for 15% growth. To be possible for the economy.
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                nitin Mathur
                Aug 2, 2014 at 10:58 am
                Ankur not sure where you picked the reference to Aryan-Dravidian Theory..Please restrict to article and the reply while commenting.
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                  nitin Mathur
                  Jul 29, 2014 at 9:06 am
                  As always PB Mehta's observations are timely and sharp. But what surprises is why are senior and seasoned commentators like Mehtaji disillusioned. All serious commentators know BJP is controlled by RSS. BJP only has a handful extra masks. If Akhand Bharat has to be projected and NCERT books need to be amended to give RSS its rightful place HRD ministry has to play a role. It is foolish to expect current BJP leadership to speak against its cadre engaged in rabble rousing, as the mindset of the cadre is to talk against Muslims/ Christians. Cheers in BJP rallies are expressions of youthful anger bordering on gondaaism. PM himself has promoted " garv se bolo" and "chaati thonk kar" engagements. A party dominated by shopkeepers and businessman cannot be expected to provide relief to ried taxpayers or allow people to get credit easily. It disturbs the parallel "mahajan" and "hawaalaa" business. No wonders after coming in power BJP FM finds there are no black money depositors in Switzerland ! A party of traders cannot amend APMC rules to cater to its own ders. How can food inflation come down if the party is in power. there will only be lip talk. Tomatoes are Rs 80/kg in Delhi. What is shocking is media knew core instincts of BJP but gullible media created a Achhe din hype for Modi and his BJP team.
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                    Indian
                    Jul 29, 2014 at 8:20 pm
                    wto tfa is all about profit of west...lets talk abt our gainwhich is in food security..i dont mind standing alone for my benefit..us alone voted no on israel UNHRC..hi/bhagat/tipu alone stood up to britih raj
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                      Desh Premi
                      Jul 29, 2014 at 7:14 am
                      Well written, not from an emotional angle but purely based on facts and overall perception. Lack of clarity, no strategy, silent PM in an echo chamber while his compatriots are footloose, and no shift in atude towards political accountability... The govt is losing traction faster than it gained pority. India seems to be directionless for the time being; change can wait.
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                      1. R
                        Ravi
                        Jul 29, 2014 at 2:28 am
                        These so called "intellectuals" (euphemism for being in the pay of orted foreign funded agencies and Congi infrastructure" couldnt find any problem with the comatose UPA for a decade. Back to pontificating about Modi Govt in 2 months. Go on, you have a long time to keep cribbing before the funds run out...
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                        1. R
                          roshan reach
                          Aug 22, 2014 at 10:46 am
                          It is clear you haven't read Bhanu Pratap Mehta's earlier articles in the Indian Express. He has consistently criticised UPA's many acts of omission an commission.As a citizen and a reader, it is also your job not to remain comatose once the government of your choice and favourite leader are in power. And every dissenter need not be funded by foreign agencies. Such atudes are a throwback to the Indira days when everything used to be blamed on the foreign hand
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                            Sachi Mohanty
                            Jul 29, 2014 at 6:10 am
                            Congress = BJPdia deserves the kind of vision-less opportunists it has for 'leaders.'
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                              SUBU
                              Jul 30, 2014 at 7:29 am
                              Iske pahele ache din tey, the answer is nahi, But now if some body is trying to make it upside down. There are certain clowns who require attention, hence they will never see the positive steps taken by the new govt, For now i can only say " Maunam vidvana Bhushanam",
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                                SUBU
                                Jul 30, 2014 at 7:35 am
                                The Term Analysis, needs certain data, I think certain people are weak in maths, Even to compare there should be some data. The data which you have is of UPA days, So UPA Bure Din / Price RIse,UPA Bure Din / Price RIse,UPA Bure Din / Price RIse,UPA Bure Din / Price RIse, Now BJP Ache Din. If you take the average the answer will be negative. So if you want to totally analyse the ache din, you have to start from Ache din. And the data is too small to predict/ to analyse. Instead see what positive steps have been taken, When these positive steps will start giving fruits. It is simple, the seeds are sown, now wait for the tree to grow.
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                                1. H
                                  hari
                                  Jul 29, 2014 at 4:00 am
                                  all the intellectuals in country have started talking as if they expected Modi to be a GOD with magic wand and now they have started pointing fingers at him. why can't all these jokers, instead of commenting from their air-conditioned drawing rooms, go out and do something positive for the country.
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                                    Subrahmanyam
                                    Jul 29, 2014 at 7:28 am
                                    An excellent analysis. The present Government which claimed that it would reverse all the mistakes of UPA to bring Ache Din has failed on all fronts. The most worrying is the unstopped price rise. on every front their hypocrisy is palpable
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                                      PoMoGandhi
                                      Jul 29, 2014 at 5:31 am
                                      Dear PBM, should you have not thought about all this BEFORE the elections, when you were busy providing liberal justifications for Modi's ascendance even though it was obvious what was going to happen after his victory? It boggles the mind that you are considered a leading public intellectual after your disastrous and naive faith in Moditva.
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                                        Sukant
                                        Jul 29, 2014 at 4:33 am
                                        Too Judgemental Too soon
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                                          vikas
                                          Jul 29, 2014 at 6:23 am
                                          Even after regime change nation-building is still second to politics. I wish coming years prove me wrong.
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                                            Johnny Yates
                                            Aug 28, 2014 at 1:02 pm
                                            BJP will stomp its feet on your chest, rat. You guys dont have the skill and capablity to earn money and cry about price of tomatoes and onions. Losers and failures will always find life difficult, no matter which party comes to power. And you ried cl will die of starvation if businessmen dont create jobs for you lazy smuchks. So dont abuse the businessmen too much.
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