This is the first column of a new year so it is impossible not to begin by writing about the impressions left by the one just gone. And the main impression is of meaningless noise. As if India’s most important political leaders combined to ensure that history would record 2015 as a wasted year. Every one of our political leaders must share the blame, and they would do well to spend this first Sunday of 2016 reflecting on how much their behaviour harmed the interests of the people who elected them.
The Opposition parties used Parliament to raise issues that will not even be footnotes in history. When they were not blocking legislation in the Rajya Sabha, they were in the Well of the Lok Sabha demanding that some minister or chief minister resign over ‘scandals’. One of the achievements of the Modi government so far is that no senior minister has hanging over him (or her) charges of corruption, so other charges had to be manufactured. The lowest point came when the Chief Minister of Delhi called the Prime Minister a ‘psychopath’. Not once in all the noise and fury did we hear sane voices debating issues of real importance to the people of India. No matter how shameful the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq was, it cannot be blamed on ‘growing intolerance’. Nor can the murders of the three rationalists. Compared to years in which thousands of Muslims and Sikhs have been massacred in pogroms, or the year in which more than 3,00,000 Hindus were ethnically cleansed from the Kashmir Valley, 2015 will be remembered by historians as remarkably peaceful.
The Opposition parties cannot alone be blamed for diverting attention from real issues. The Prime Minister must accept personal responsibility for allowing his government’s image to be tarnished. Had he stopped Hindutva fanatics in his Cabinet when they first made ugly hate speeches, there may have been no ‘growing intolerance’ debate at all. Not only did he choose, to his own detriment, to remain silent, he also chose to not make any effort at all to engage with the award-returning writers and intellectuals. It was a false protest and had he attempted to stop it in its early stages, India’s image may have suffered less. Instead while the world pondered over ways to deal with the horrors perpetrated by the Caliphate, the Indian public square remained obsessed with so-called Hindu intolerance.
So in 2016 much needs to change. The Prime Minister must show more leadership in India than he has so far done.
On his foreign travels he has told adoring NRI audiences of how much he is doing to make India a better country by creating more jobs, building better infrastructure, improving our appalling standards of healthcare, education and public hygiene. But in India he has chosen to remain silent on these subjects. His monologue on Mann ki Baat has not once been used to explain even simple things like why reforms are needed in almost every area of governance.
It has now become clear that the Prime Minister is more reformer than liberaliser. This is not my assessment but that of the economist Larry Summers who was in Delhi last month. What this means is that he believes in the state more than he does in markets and free enterprise and this could be one reason why he has done nothing to help the private sector climb out of the pit in which it was pushed by the policies of the last government. High officials continue to treat big businessmen as if they were criminals who borrowed too heavily from banks and so are responsible for their own problems. This is hardly talk that will revive private investment.
The Prime Minister appears not to have noticed that unless private investment picks up the economy will not either.
It is stupid to continue with the delusion that FDI (foreign direct investment) is the solution, it is not. It may have doubled in 2015, but this made almost no difference to the moribund job market. We can only hope that early in 2016 the Prime Minister becomes aware that his government has not been able to do anything to create the one million jobs a month that India needs.
We can only hope in this first week of a New Year that things change dramatically in 2016 in almost every sphere of governance, politics and the economy. Of 2015, it has to be sadly said that a dangerous complacency settled over the corridors of power on Raisina Hill and in the fine ministerial bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi. Complacency is more dangerous for governments than almost anything else. For the Modi government it is even more dangerous because he won a full mandate for ‘parivartan’. Change is what we saw too little of in 2015.