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Thursday, September 4, 2014

More Worries than Hope at 100 Days of Modi Govt-Yogender Yadav

Mr. Yogendra Yadav at The Hindu

Compared to the UPA-style paralysis, there are some welcome signs of movement with the new government, but its direction remains, at best, unclear, if not worrisome. It is good to see a leader with conviction, but we are already treading the thin line between decisiveness and authoritarianism

It is unfair to judge a new government and a new leader in just 100 days. It is silly to assess the changing mood of the nation or the state of the polity so soon after a landmark electoral verdict. Yet, there is something we can do. We can notice a pattern in the priorities of the government, see the direction of the new regime, say something about the style of the new leader and make an intelligent guess about future politics.
Going by this, the first 100 days of the Narendra Modi government offer more worries than hope. Compared to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-style paralysis, we see some welcome signs of movement. But the direction of this movement remains, at best, unclear, if not worrisome. It is good to see a leader with conviction, but we are already treading the thin line between decisiveness and authoritarianism. A government that lacks a clear direction and an Opposition that lacks political will or wisdom threaten to deepen the political vacuum in the country.
Active foreign policy

Let us begin with the positives. A new government always kindles hopes and the Prime Minister’s utterances have as yet not doused popular hopes. His speech in the Central Hall and Independence Day address were not visionary, but it was a relief to see a Prime Minister who looked into the eyes of his people and spoke his mind. He was down to earth, appeared to be outside the power elite of Delhi, was concerned with issues that affect people in their everyday life and seemed willing to rise above the petty politics of a blame game. This powerful communication appears to have made up for his reluctance to face the media. And if opinion polls are anything to go by, his popularity and image have received a boost that every incumbent Prime Minister enjoys early on.
The real question is: how do his utterances translate into action? This is where things get muddy. The one area where the new government has been somewhat inexplicably active is foreign policy. And there are many things to commend here: the invitation to the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for the Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony, the toning down of the imperious attitude towards Nepal and a willingness to stand up to first-world bullying at the World Trade Organization (WTO). At the same time, the new government has diluted further our principled stand on Palestine, is unclear about what it wishes to do with BRICS and keeps sending conflicting signals about Pakistan. There does not seem to be a coherent strategy underlying the foreign policy activism of the Modi government.
Electoral promises

Much was expected on the economic front of the government that promised everything to everyone in the run-up to the election. The problem here is not a lack of coherence but that the emerging priorities of the government do not square up with its declared intent. More than the Union Budget — rightly described as a UPA-III budget — the government has unveiled its economic policy through a series of specific decisions. The willingness of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to make a U-turn on its earlier opposition to foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence, railways and insurance shows its priorities. That’s why a section of business seems to be happy and hopeful about this regime.
But there is very little visible action on some of the big ticket and high decibel electoral promises. Mr. Modi had promised nothing short of controlling inflation and providing jobs to everyone. Inaction on these aam aadmi concerns does not augur well for a government whose commitment to the poor is already suspect. In fact, the new government has gone back on some specific promises made to the aam aadmi. The BJP has already reneged on its manifesto promise to revise the Minimum Support Price on the lines suggested by the Swaminathan Commission, viz., cost plus 50 per cent. The proposed dilution of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act would reinforce the impression that farmers do not quite figure as a priority of this government.
On futuristic sectors like the environment and education, it’s plain bad news so far. The government is keen to go back to the old days of growth-at-any-cost, throwing all environmental caution to the wind. Hasty clearance for increasing the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam and the Ken-Betwa river linking project are mere symptoms of systematic damage to the regime of environmental protection carefully put together over the years. Forest clearance norms have been relaxed, pollution standards have been diluted, the autonomy of the National Board for Wildlife has been compromised, and attempts are afoot to downgrade the Green Tribunal.
On education, it is not clear if the government has begun to understand the enormity of the challenge in this sector. Forcing schoolchildren all over the country to stay back in order to listen to the Prime Minister on Teacher’s Day is no way to begin addressing the challenge of quality of education in the post-Right to Education (RTE) era. Occasional forays into higher education without a road map threaten to make an already bad situation much worse. While the government has not officially endorsed any of the loose talk about changing the curricula, the noise may have already begun to induce self-censorship, and thus curb innovation and creativity.
Religious harmony

One of the biggest fears associated with this government was its hostility to diversity, especially religious diversity. While the Prime Minister has been careful not to say anything that would accentuate this fear, the trouble is that he just has to be himself to make the minorities feel uneasy. Given his image, the Prime Minister not hosting iftaar acquires more weight than his conciliatory words about communal harmony. The context of rising communal tension, especially in election-bound States, suggests that the arena of action has shifted outside the government. There appears to be crowd sourcing of communalism, with occasional and strategic help from the Sangh Parivar. An obsession with the short-term objective of winning Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and at least the Jammu region in Jammu and Kashmir has made the ruling party oblivious to the long-term cost of communal polarisation to the idea of India, and indeed to this regime itself.
Challenge of governance

The immediate and crucial test for Mr. Modi is going to be the challenge of governance. He of course enjoys a headstart over the UPA-II government — that lost legitimacy for being both corrupt and inefficient. It is natural that routing measures of administrative agility and efficiency like ensuring attendance of government employees win popular approval. The trouble would begin when people start demanding outcomes. As of now, the government has not shown much resolve to stand by its commitment towards a corruption-free government. This government appointed the Supreme Court mandated Special Investigation Team (SIT) on black money over which the UPA government had dragged its feet, but it seems to have forgotten its promise of getting black money back to the country within the first 100 days. The removal of Mr. Sanjiv Chaturvedi from the post of Chief Vigilance Officer (CVO) of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) showed that the government failed an early test of integrity.
Can Mr. Modi reverse these early signs and defy his critics? He clearly has time on his side. And he still has public support, if he is willing to learn and change. This is where the heart of the problem lies. The Prime Minister, the Leader and the Party Boss all rolled into one is closed to anything and anyone that can make him learn and change. He does not respect the autonomy of institutions like the Supreme Court. He does not allow procedures and norms to come in the way of what he wills, as in the case of the appointment of his Principal Secretary. Voices of dissent, whether in the Opposition or from within his party, are not welcome. Even Ministers are subject to strict surveillance. Loyalty must be rewarded even if it means retaining tainted ministers and making Mr. Amit Shah the head of the BJP. These are not signs of authority but that of authoritarianism.
Bad signals from the ruling party do not translate into good news for the Opposition either. The success of the incumbent Congress in the recent by-polls in Uttarakhand and Karnataka may have been illusory. The success of the grand anti-BJP alliance in Bihar is no more than a tactical victory; in the long run, it is going to help the BJP consolidate its newly acquired political support. In the first 100 days we have seen a government, warts and all. But we have not seen much of an Opposition. The remaining 1,725 days offer space for a true and principled Opposition, for alternative politics.
(Yogendra Yadav is a Member of the National Political Affairs Committee and the National Executive of the Aam Aadmi Party. E-mail: yogendra.yadav@gmail.com)