To begin with, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government is structurally different than any in Indian history. While different non-Congress governments have ruled at the Centre, they were mostly variations on the Congress theme — a little better here, a little worse there, but the same socialist, maibaap mindset. To paraphrase George Wallace, there isn’t a paisa’s worth of difference between the Congress and the BJP (of old).
The Modi election campaign had several distinctive features. It was a presidential campaign, which primarily reflected the personality of Modi, that is, a successful politician with more than a decade of ruling Gujarat with an iron fist. In his promises, he reminded many of Maggie Thatcher — a political leader who achieved the near-impossible by changing for ever the mindset of a socialist, outdated England. For many an Indian voter, the ballot for Modi represented a demand for a similar modern mindset.
In 75 days, much of the voters’ demand, and prayers, are being addressed. The possibility of change is evident in the initial policies. Long held, and outdated, labour laws are being changed. Sadly, there are still a few so-called experts who continue to believe that laws formed in the mid-19th century are relevant in a transformed India and the world. None other than the ILO representative in India recently claimed that such fast change can damage the country — when some change has only begun to happen!
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Also, undergoing transformation are land acquisition laws passed by the previous government — such laws are an insult to the capitalist notion of “acquisition”, since they reflect much more the socialist dream of state-inspired prohibition. How the ground reality of life and enterprise is changing is provided by the following true story. Entrepreneurs who started businesses in India some 30 years ago had their land locked up in legal tangles. The firm could not expand and representations to the previous government fell on deaf ears. With the present government, it took them only two weeks to get ministerial approval for their project — and all this happened without a single bribe! This is progress, this is change, and this is a huge improvement in the ease of doing business.
Only someone wilfully hiding deep under a rock would not have heard the buzz of activity in the atmosphere. Work has begun, and not just in the offices of bureaucrats. Industrial activity has begun to improve, and there is a newfound confidence that India can grow again. For this, Modi and his team deserve considerable praise. A lot still remains, but well begun is well done.
However, there have been pitfalls. Rumour has it that contrary to popular belief, the babu did not write the tedious and uninspiring budget speech. The budget lacked leadership, something that all of us were expecting. Some of the content in the budget was reminiscent of the UPA and its retrogressive ways. The government could not come clean on retrospective taxes, goofed up on their own retrospective tax on mutual funds, and stuck to the same language of fiscal deficits and expenditures for the poor. A leader, operating from a position of one of the most voted governments in Indian history, should be making policy with conviction, not emulating tactics of a defunct government.
While some excuse can still be offered for the budget not being designed by a convincingly strong leader (no vision statement, no direction home), India’s WTO stand was, and is, pathetic. This is what our WTO political leader, Nirmala Sitharaman, had to say in her and the BJP’s defence: “Food security is a humanitarian concern, especially in these times of uncertainty and volatility. Issues of development and food security are critical to a vast swathe of humanity and cannot be sacrificed to mercantilist considerations.” This mercantilist clap-trap comes straight out of the Congress’s National Advisory Council, a body heavily criticised (and rightly so) for instituting policies detrimental to India. And the BJP has the stupidity to follow in their footsteps? Incidentally, rumour has it that the bureaucracy was also not to blame for this obsolete ideology. This is not leadership, this is regression. A regression to a past that should be forgotten and not invoked — ever again. A past that believed that as long as you utter “in the name of the poor”, you have a licence to make money for interest groups and “kill” the poor. This is not what India voted for in May 2014.
The pact that a voter has with her elected representative is that two kinds of leadership will be provided — direct and indirect. The latter is reflected in the kind of decisions that have been taken and partially documented above; many very good, some terrible. However, the former and very important aspect of leadership — direct communication — has been sadly absent.
Who would have believed at the time of voting that Modi would fail to communicate his thoughts, his ideas of reform, his vision for a new India — a problem also seen with the previous government? We saw and heard him here, there, and everywhere — today, direct communication is nowhere to be heard. A strong leader changes opinions, changes the landscape, and does so by speaking directly to the people and using their force to cajole, convince and change the minds and votes of the opposition. Why is Modi not negotiating with parties opposed to passing the insurance bill in its present form? Forget the Congress — they know only to obstruct, and especially with 44 seats, they cannot do much better than reminding the BJP that, yes, they did the same to the Congress. Allowing tit-for-tat to happen, and the country the loser, means leadership is absent.
Non-economic issues: Here, there is some good news, and lots of bad. The health minister has made welcome gestures on the rights of gays and decriminalising suicide. On the dreadful side — several terrible utterances, vibes and feelings being voiced by several BJP/ NDA politicians. Whether it is forcing a Muslim to break his fast at lunchtime or asking women to “dress properly” in order to avoid being raped, or stating that
India is a Hindu nation (whatever that means), or issuing an official diktat that Hindi should be used in all official documents as a first language, or allowing a Telangana BJP MLA to state that Sania Mirza is Pakistan’s daughter-in-law. The list is long, getting longer and suggestive of a certain age-old BJP mindset problem — born in the 19th century and proud to stay that way.
So what can Modi do, or should do? For starters, he should begin to act like a frontline leader rather than a behind-the-scenes operative. Part of this exercise of leadership would involve firm reprimands to his 19th century party members that they should avoid alienating voters with views that are out of sync with a young, aspirant, 21st century India. Part of this exercise should involve decreasing the burden on ministers with more than one portfolio. There are several very talented BJP/ NDA stalwarts (for example, Arun Shourie, Suresh Prabhu), who can provide a much-needed boost to intellect, ideas and policy formulation.
The point about all these recommendations is that the people, the voters who voted in Modi/ BJP with one of the largest mandates in Indian electoral history, demand a leader who would provide them both direct and indirect leadership. Right now, the voter feels short-changed by the absence of direct leadership. India needs not one but several political leaders with ideas of how to shed the past and chart the future. Will the real Modi please stand up?
The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company.