The Modi government at two is still weighed down by all the contradictions that marked its spectacular rise to power. But it can claim some credit that despite these contradictions, the India story still seems one of some possibility rather than doom. In a global context marked by increasing ideological frenzy and economic uncertainty, India’s warts, serious as they are, seem less glaring by comparison. It is also a measure of the prime minister’s success that no other political leader comes close to enjoying the popular legitimacy he possesses.
The government’s path to power had tapped into a fear that India would slide into unbridled defeatism. The sense of defeatism has abated. But India is far from a deep transformation; and the risk of social and political conflict is returning.
The energy and candour with which the government has engaged with literally all parts of the world is impressive. But it is hard to argue that this vigour has yielded any major breakthroughs yet. There have been some important bilateral successes. But on big issues, success is more elusive: the neighbourhood remains both fragile and hostile; our relationship with China remains as tense as ever; our approach to economic globalisation is not entirely clear; there is an inexorable drift towards the United States on its terms, and seats on several high tables still elude us. The theatre and confidence of engagement has run far ahead of structural realities. The same gap is also manifested domestically.
Contradictions in the government are still muddying its identity. This is a government where swagger often overshadows truth. But it is difficult not to see the contradictions. On institutions, Modi ran on the slogan of minimum government; but the reigning ideology is that he is a big believer in government. He believes in government but does not invest much in state capacity. He ran against a backdrop of policy paralysis and institutional decay. He has brought immense personal energy to decision-making. But in the process, he has also exemplified his enduring trait: the solution to all ills is not the dispersion of power and authority but its greater concentration. This cannot be a long-term recipe for institutional regeneration. High-level transactional corruption seems down because of a genuine political fear of scandal, and the comfort that a ruling dispensation can easily raise funds anyway. But not a single institution of investigation, from the the CBI to the NIA, has any more credibility than it did before. Modi ran on the promise of greater federalism; and certainly financial devolution to the states as recommended by the Finance Commission has been a right step in that direction. But is the nature of our institutional architecture, the political relationship between Centre and the states as evidenced in the use of Article 356, or the centralised character of the BJP as a party, a harbinger of greater political federalism? India’s long road to institutional regeneration remains long.
On economics, there is more continuity than the rhetoric of change acknowledges. The government’s macroeconomic prudence has been commendable. Several schemes, like taking LPG to the poor, are potentially life transformative; and recently some important steps have been taken to reform the regulatory environment. But India has still not been rescued from the deep quagmire the UPA bequeathed. The banking crisis is still severe and the resolution tepid. There are still question marks over three other poles required to make India competitive. On energy, the power ministry seems to have grasped the central challenges, and even has a framework for dealing with them. But the political economy of the states still indicates that India’s energy woes are a long way from solution. On logistics, there is more momentum in roads; some reform in the railways. But the transformative capital investment in railways still eludes us. On human resources, one should in fairness, wait for the new education policy. But the current trends defy the ratiocinative powers of most of us academics. The truth is that increased FDI notwithstanding, private investment is still stagnant; the increase in public investment negligible; consumption demand registering only a very slow rise; inflation still a threat. There is no sense of a framework for the single most important challenge for India: Jobs. This lack is now manifesting in social challenges bubbling from below.
On the welfare state, the government is still caught between contradictory architectures. On the one hand, there is the achievement of creating the enabling conditions for JAM. While this architecture is put in place, the government was caught off guard by the agrarian distress. But the economic debacle in Brazil is also a pointer towards the two glaring deficits in the framework of this government: productive jobs are not a substitute for a rationalised welfare state. And insurance that deals largely with illness is no substitute for building robust public health systems. The prime minister’s most audacious gambit, Swachh Bharat, has set off an administrative frenzy of toilet building. The bully pulpit may rouse the electorate, but it is less effective against unreformed bureaucracies or for changing deep-seated behaviour.
But the biggest contradictions are within the soul of the government: a prime minister who can on occasion articulate a sense of destiny only to cloud it by a petty take on institutions. The second tension, less noticed, is that the PM, though adept at governmental centralisation, seems less in command of the party than appears. The transition of the BJP president, Amit Shah, from backroom organiser to the front face of the party, suggests that the tension between the lofty aims of the government and the low politics of the party is likely to exacerbate. This will pose a challenge to the coherence of the government. But most significantly, the poison of majoritarianism, the intimidation of ultra nationalism, and the deep coarsening of public discourse this government has used, even if in controlled doses, vitiates the triumphant mandate with which it was elected to office. Its backward-looking instincts keep pulling down its forward-looking mission. These contradictions have so far not exploded beyond manageable bounds.
The government’s mandate and opportunity gave it a shot at transforming India. It gets some credit for steadying the ship. But its inner demons threaten to unleash storms. The government has to be clear whether it stands for a politics of hope or a politics of resentment. To paraphrase Burke, large nations and petty minds go ill together, and the most efficient of economic contrivances will not amount to much if not accompanied by a self-confident liberality that befits India’s destiny.