So we approach the end of Narendra Modi’s first year as prime minister and us political pundit types are obliged to analyse and comment.
By next week there will be a surfeit of commentary and analysis, so by contributing my two bits a week early, I am hoping to beat the glut. If everyone has the same idea, bad luck for you and for me.
In recent days many so-called ‘insiders’ have unleashed a fusillade of criticism of the Modi government. One or two telephoned me to explain why they hate Modi and I found that they said the same things to me as they had a year ago. They started speaking this way immediately after failing to become ministers or at least Rajya Sabha MPs. This disappointment turned into bile and venom and the Prime Minister has done well not to respond to their criticism. He must though respond publicly to real criticism than he has so far done. In the past year he has isolated himself from journalists, businessmen, well-wishers and his constituents in Benares. And this has allowed a barricade of officials, petty and mighty, to rise up around him. This is not good.
Among the worst legacies of Nehruvian socialism was that immense power was put in the hands of officials. They ran major public sector corporations, big banks, universities, literary and music academies, government hospitals and even service industries like hotels and airlines. They switched from one area of expertise to another without having expertise in anything. This often made them arrogant and delusional. Long is the list of foreign investors who came with the hope of investing in India but ran away because of the red tape that officials used to tie them in knots.
The Prime Minister has failed to bring these officials under control. And, so while he talks of making India the best country in the world for business, they slyly continue to impose horrendous taxes and invent stupid new rules. Of these possibly the stupidest is the plan to ask Indian taxpayers to give details of foreign travels when they file income tax returns.
The problem with putting a rule like this in place is that it gives vast powers of harassment in the hands of petty officials who are usually more corrupt than the ‘burra sahibs’. Of these the most corrupt are those who work in the tax department, so to give them extra power to seek out black money is a very bad idea. If the Prime Minister is surprised that investment in India, both foreign and Indian, has not revived, he should not be.
It is not just taxpayers who are victims of petty officialdom. The worst victims are India’s poorest citizens. The street people I work with in Mumbai report that police harassment has increased hugely in the past year and because of this their hopes of ‘achhe din’ have begun to die. Policemen routinely arrest their children on false charges of begging and vagrancy and routinely tell them to ‘go back to the jungle’. They do not know where this jungle is since none of them have known a home other than the streets of Mumbai.
What should worry the Prime Minister even more are tales from Benares that I recently heard from people who voted for Modi because they believed he would transform their beloved city. They told me they were very worried about a Benares redevelopment plan that involves the demolition of ancient and wonderful old buildings and temples in the perimeter of the Vishwanath Mandir. If this is true, then it is madness. Even if the Prime Minister wants to keep a safe distance from us hacks, he would do well to give more access to his constituents. This will not be easy because of the barricade of officials, mighty and petty, that now stands in the way.
On a personal level I believe that the Prime Minister’s biggest failure in this past year has been his inability to give us at least a hint of new policies in education and healthcare. Massive changes are needed to rectify the harm done over decades because Nehruvian socialist rulers did not even attempt to decolonise mass education. Then there are public health services so abysmal that even the poorest Indians prefer private doctors. Could he not at least have insisted that elected representatives and officials use only public services? Just this would have made such a difference because only when the children of officials use government schools will they improve and only when officials are forced to use government hospitals will they provide real heath services.
The optimism that Modi’s victory created last summer at this time is still there but unless investment and jobs revive, visibly and soon the optimism could dissipate faster than a Delhi dust storm.