The mild outbreak of long faces among pundits one year after Narendra Modi became prime minister is entirely dependent on short memory. A recent review of Mihir Sharma’s aptly named book, Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy, in The Economist offered a glimpse of the gloom in May 2014: flight of capital, catapulting inflation, mess in public finance and a nervous power grid that kept India in the thrall of incompetence. Throw in top-to-toe corruption breezily protected by zero-loss theories plus governance gridlock, and the narrative morphs into a horror story.
Twelve months later, inflation has halved. Growth is heading north of 7 per cent. Public finance is healing, with the fiscal deficit held at 4 per cent and revenue deficit at 2.8 per cent. Power output has soared to 22,566 MW, against a targeted 17,830 MW. Road construction, reduced by the Congress to a crawl of two kilometres a day, is now 10 km a day. The Jan Dhan Yojana brought some 300 million impoverished Indians into the banking sector. The first stage of a comprehensive social security network for the poor is in place, with Rs 2,00,000 life insurance at a premium of just Rs 330, and accident insurance for a mere Rs 12 per year.
Industry is back in business: Indian companies raised Rs 56,801 crore in equity capital against Rs 29,381 crore the previous year. For the first time, there is a Mudra Bank, which will give loans to the informal sector, to small business units like vegetable vendors, from an estimated resource base of Rs 1,00,000 crore. Work on 100 smart cities, which will transform the map of India, has begun. Defence has been fork-lifted from the A.K. Antony swamp.
A new railway vision won applause from every side of Parliament. Corruption, that fatal cancer coursing through the nation’s lifeblood, has been contained: A Rs 1,74,000 crore loss in coal mines has been transformed into a Rs 2,00,000 crore profit from the auction of just 10 per cent of mines, to provide only one instance. A black money bill has been passed, despite tremors among the elite. The nationwide Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has turned cleanliness into a mass effort. This is not even a comprehensive list, just top-of-mind recall.
You have to be blind or biased to suggest that nothing has happened.
The urgent necessity in a crisis is to perform. The second requirement is reform. Why? Because the second cannot succeed without the first. Narendra Modi had to get the multiple levers of government, jammed by disarray, confusion and corruption, back into sync, immediately. Having set its house in order, the government embarked upon the reform process, which requires difficult passage through a Parliament where the Congress, now under the control of Rahul Gandhi, has repeatedly used its numbers in the Rajya Sabha to wreck what it can.
The reason is obvious. The Congress needs public disenchantment for its revival, and will therefore do what it can to sabotage India’s growth. The Congress is no longer invested in the welfare of Indians. Its only interest is the high-cost maintenance of a putative leader whose headlines emerge mainly from the jumble box of low expectations.
More surprisingly, someone has been feeding Rahul Gandhi the outdated weed of pseudo-Marxism, repackaged in misleading soundbites. The politics of sulking meshes easily into the economics of despair through a corrosive formula: Keep Indians poor, and then milk poverty for votes. Does Rahul Gandhi want to turn India into the wasteland that Bengal became after three decades of Marxist rule? This politics of stop, slash and burn is anathema to a youthful India, which wants to build, grow and earn its way to prosperity. The people want a better life, not a permanent scowl.
Despite the Congress’s tantrums, the government has pushed through key legislation, most notably in energy. As that familiar adage goes, get coal right and manufacturing will move. Coal India has set in motion a billion-tonne plan, with 2019 as its target.
Question: How big does a bang have to be to qualify as “big bang reform”? Are the new FDI norms in defence, railway infrastructure and insurance minor? Both the GST and the land bill, which will find essential space for employment and rural revival, will pass by the next legislative session.
The biggest reform, in my view, happened in the first weeks, when the prime minister announced zero tolerance for corruption. His signature sentence, “Na main khaoonga, na khaney doonga”, needs no amplification. Modi has delivered on that commitment. Businessmen accept that decisions are not on sale any more. Defence purchases, a traditional snake-pit of suspicion and slush funds, have, under two capable and honest ministers, Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar, been made without a hint of controversy. There is far greater transparency in process. Delhi is a different city for barons who worked their way through opaque corridors of power under Congress rule, ordering the appointment of ministers and transfer of bureaucrats (you do recall the Radia tapes, surely).
But good governance is not merely about checklists. Good governance is powered by a philosophy. Modi set the moral compass for his government in the very first speech he made in Parliament. Poverty alleviation, he said, was not enough; the new tryst is with poverty elimination. History demands an answer to a question we can no longer evade. If it took nearly seven decades to bring extreme poverty down from 60 per cent to 30 per cent, will it take another 65 years to reduce 30 per cent to zero? Can Indian democracy bear the burden of such betrayal?
Modi was clear not only about objective but also method. The surge forward could best be shaped through the economic and social empowerment that comes with jobs. Jobs gave individual meaning to a common purpose, development. Skills-creation and manufacturing are the twin engines of this propulsion. Jobs are the pillars of a new architecture. Smart cities mean jobs, across the line. “Make in India” means jobs.
This is complemented by the fiscal inclusion of the poor. Those who take a bank account for granted can never truly appreciate how much it means for a person who has never had one. The Jan Dhan Yojana is also the first substantive challenge to chit funds, which mop up cash from the poor and divert it into unsavoury directions. The poor simply had no place to keep their very limited surplus.
Much has been done. Much more remains to be done. A government is elected for five years. The foundation is always the most difficult part of construction, but it has been laid and is visible. The people recognise this. Check PM Modi’s popularity ratings after a year in office, if you insist on wearing the mask of a long face.
The writer is national spokesperson of the BJP.