The Narendra Modi government’s statement of intent, laid out in the president’s address to the customary joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament, was unexceptionable and sweeping. It includes large promises, from bringing down food inflation to building a high-speed rail network, from creating new cities to digitising governance at all levels, from speeding up job creation to encouraging investment. Traditionally, the address has been seen as a tool for political signalling, as a compendium of good intentions and a wish-list that governments, more often than not, fail to adhere faithfully to. In the time of coalitions, it has been understood that governments may not always be able to bring about the changes they envision or promise because of the tug and pull of demanding allies, apart from other hurdles, such as a fractious Parliament or a stubborn bureaucracy. The Modi government, however, will not be eligible for any such concessions. Having secured a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha and given its vigorous efforts to restore the primacy and power of the prime minister’s office — even at the risk of its drive towards centralisation overcorrecting for the UPA years — there should be little or no lag between the government declaring its intent and working to keep its promises.
For the Modi regime, the challenge may not lie within the government or in Parliament, but it will have to reach out to the states. The president’s address rightly highlighted that “Team India” includes the states.
For starters, in the spirit of “cooperative federalism” that it invoked, the president, advised by the Union cabinet, should readily give his assent to reformist state legislation that may not conform with Central laws on subjects on the concurrent list. For instance, the Rajasthan government plans to use this constitutional device — Article 254(2) — to push through labour law reform. The Centre should support Rajasthan, and opposition-ruled states too, in such initiatives. At the end of the day, the Centre, howsoever powerful, will not be able to rewrite India’s growth story on its own. No matter how many investment projects the Union government clears, they still have to secure state-level permits. Or, to take another instance, no matter how urgently the Centre wants to revamp agricultural markets to tame inflation, it is up to the states to abolish their APMC acts.
It is also heartening to see international civil nuclear agreements and reforms like the GST back on the government’s agenda — reforms, incidentally, that the BJP stalled when it was in opposition.