Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ideological moorings have often been debated. But his attributes as a leader are also coming under scrutiny. Detractors will say that his leadership was always an illusion, a virtual trick, designed to hoodwink the gullible. Supporters will be immune to any reality check. But Modi’s actions are demonstrating qualities that are opposite to the mythology surrounding him. There may be an alchemy to power, where mirrors show exactly what a leader wants to see, but the chatter outside the hallowed halls captures reality more presciently. Admittedly, the PM had a big challenge. As Machiavelli said, “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” But his turning into the opposite of his own self-presentation is striking.
Instead of boldness, we are getting timidity. There is not a single measure this government has taken or a policy it has proposed that can in any way be called bold, which involves the slightest political risk, or displays a measure of conviction. Just to take one example, the UPA did more subsidy reform in its last year than this government has managed to with its mandate. Government is, for the most part, still business as usual, even more so. A bold leader would have understood Machiavelli’s advice: “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger but calculating risk and acting decisively.”
Instead of clarity, there is confusion. Look at the narrative of flip-flops on the land bill. The government first jumps without thinking and promulgates an unsustainable and indefensible ordinance, ostensibly under bad advice from the finance ministry that this will be a big-bang reform to energise investors. All it took was one jibe on an infamous suit for the government to decide that it needed to appear to be pro-farmer more than pro-investor. The point is not about the specific merits of the bill or the right balance between investors and farmers. But you get the sense that there is no coherence to the economic narrative; it will swirl with the wind, not giving confidence to anyone.
Instead of implementation, you are getting inaction. This was a PM who staked everything on implementation capabilities. It will be interesting to see how he presents himself on August 15. Just rewind to his promises last August. None of the schemes are on a sustainable implementation pathway. Arm-twisting corporations to spend money to randomly build toilets is hardly an implementation plan for Swachh Bharat. Niti Aayog, the central statement of a new planning philosophy, hardly has the identity or range of capabilities. There is not a single major institutional reform on which there is tangible movement that has surpassed UPA 1.
Instead of confidence, there is insecurity. The most visible internal manifestation is the government’s inability to promote talent. Again, Machiavelli: “The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” The quality of people may not be a reflection of intelligence, but it is certainly a reflection of self-confidence. With a couple of exceptions, there are few ministers who bring ideas, passion and command for detail that initiating change requires. It has to be said, with regret, the finance ministry displays more of the casualness of old Lutyens than the passion of a government that is about to initiate change. From within his party, the PM has slim pickings. But at least his IT team could have done a better job of showing that the government knows what the internet is. As Robert Darnton once argued about the French Revolution, exposing yourself to pornography jokes is the surest way to lose credibility. The culture of petty reprimand within government is not about discipline; it is an acknowledgement of its inability to generate enthusiasm.
Instead of political acuteness, there is political obtuseness. Rahul Gandhi may have come back with new vigour. But he has not yet said anything that inspires confidence. And yet, in Parliament, the government has been bullied into submission. The political machine that can do complicated math, divide and rule with millions of voters, cannot handle a few dozen MPs. And there is no strategy — there is no taking the fight to the public, no symbolic gestures that can give the Opposition a face-saver. Even when concessions are given, on the land bill for example, they are not being leveraged to make progress on other things. The only narrative of parliamentary management is victimhood.
Instead of communication, you are getting silence. Communication is not about a string of words, it is about appearing to address core issues. There is no question that the Vyapam scam and conflicts of interest over cricket have stunned the government into silence and inaction. Its foreign policy seems a success because all the hard questions are being postponed.
Instead of aspiration, you are getting a diminution of spirit. A genuine politics of aspiration, instead of a counterfeit, cannot sit easily with a politics of control, distrust and revenge. It cannot sit easily with a political culture marked by anti-intellectualism, pettiness and crudity. The ultimate mark of leadership is not just an odd material achievement; it is the ability to set a tone that lifts the spirit. Whatever the PM may say, he has licensed a culture of politics at odds with aspiration.
India is riding on luck. In global terms, its economy does not look bad. But it is hard to see an economy powered with a banking sector still stuck, a teetering power sector, real estate in disarray, subsidy rationalisation a long way from being real, health and education in crisis. And rural demand, the driver of growth in the last decade, is likely to show only tepid growth. No one expects these problems to be fixed overnight. But the roadmap, implementation capacity, institutional dexterity and political urgency are all absent. Modi is visible in campaign mode; he will doubtless put everything on the line in Bihar. But the PM is missing. This August 15, he would do well not to announce any new scheme. He will be far more credible if he can acknowledge mistakes and take some decisive steps to rectify them. Or India will be fated to deal with another missing PM who may be loud, but is still missing.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.