By Bala Sai:
When Mr. Modi took charge of this 1.2 billion-strong behemoth of a country a little over three months ago, it was a victory of not just hopes and promises, but of clever and robust marketing. Once the magnitude of BJP’s (Modi’s) victory was apparent, it drove economists and soothsayers (separate entities, apparently) and political commentators worldwide into an orgasmic frenzy, as they wrote and spoke and debated passionately, taking diametrically opposite stances, their predictions for the outcome of the Modi government ranging from a development-oriented, economically sound utopia to a riot-ridden totalitarian dystopia. Whichever side you were on, it was never under much dispute that the Modi-government would be anything but uninteresting.
100 days have passed and to commemorate it, Mr. Modi has once again kick-started his marketing machinery to rekindle the magic of his ‘acche din’ prophesies that captured the awe of the public in his election campaigns. But has Mr. Modi delivered on his promises? Are we on the right path to our promised future? Or are we being deceived yet again? Looking at how the script reads so far, at least after the first 100 pages, we get a mixed bag. Here we shall look at 4 important aspects of his tenure: Economy, Foreign Policy, Governance and Domestic Issues.
Perhaps the biggest promises of the Modi campaign were about economic reforms. Inflation was spiralling out of control, our foreign exchange reserves were dwindling, investments were hard to come by, banks were struggling with a crippling NPA menace and our fiscal and current account deficits were drilling deeper and deeper into the taxpayer’s pockets. India clearly needed a strong-willed task master to hoist the nation out of the economic quagmire it found itself in. At this point, Mr. Modi burst in, holding up his Gujarat model to the world, and advertising his love for the free market and industrial development. He promised to save the country and keep the cash registers ringing.
The Action: Arun Jaitley’s debut budget was a dud. One felt like watching a re-telecast of the UPA budget. The issue of streamlining and targeting of subsidies, which is India’s Achilles’ heel, was only vaguely acknowledged, while Mr. Jaitley went on and increased the fund allocation for the same. There was no sign of tax reforms or of any clarity regarding retrospective taxes. The Finance Minister didn’t bother himself with the landmark GST structure, apart from promising that the issue will be a part of their deep spiritual introspections.
While the economy looks like it is on a road to recovery, whether it is due to the new government’s policies is subject to debate. Improvements in our Forex reserves and Current account deficit are fickle at best, as cash inflows can be attributed to optimism generated by a new stable government and are merely speculative in nature. A healthy 5.7% GDP growth in the quarter ending June can’t be read into too much, given the government’s huge spending on projects from the abundant funds available at the beginning of the financial year. Fiscal deficit will be financed with disinvestment of public sector companies.
There weren’t any game-changing reforms in the draconian labour laws either, and we had to remain content with what little has been done, and hope for better results in the future. The massive hype behind the popular Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana is only partially justified, as creation of bank accounts is only the first step towards gainful financial inclusion. Most of the new bank accounts created before this scheme have been lying dormant, and it is left to be seen how the government handles the immense financial burden that the Rs.5000 overdraft and Rs.1 lakh insurance facilities promised by the yojana will impose.
The first 100 days saw a few positive signals from the Modi camp. Crucial food crops like potato and onion were brought under the essential commodities act. An SIT was constituted to bring back black money. FDI was increased to 100% in Railways and 49% in the defence and insurance sectors. A plan for modernization of railways was announced. Defence contracts and tenders saw more private sector participation than ever. The Modi government engaged in a show of strength as it stood strong against the pressure from the developed countries by declining to sign the Trade Facilitation Agreement at the WTO, resolving to protect our food security concerns.
Can Mr. Modi lead India to true financial stability? Or will he continue resorting to populist measures and short-term policies that will give only temporary reliefs? The question still stands unanswered.
Before the elections, Mr. Modi was tight-lipped about his foreign policy, apart from indulging in rhetoric about driving out Bangladeshi immigrants and taking a severe stand against Pakistan. However, his energetic and dynamic foreign policy is what has truly distinguished his first 100 days at office.
Mr. Modi has striven to project India as a global power and pave way for an enhanced sub-continental co-operation and unity. He played the game well, landing master-stroke after master-stroke, turning eyeballs around the world. Starting with an unprecedented gesture of inviting the SAARC leaders to his swearing in ceremony, Mr. Modi exhibited tact and diplomatic expertise. He chose Bhutan for his first official foreign visit and surprised everyone by his $1 billion loan to the Nepal government. He played a crucial part in establishing the BRICS New Development Bank and then took stern action against Pakistan by cancelling their foreign secretary level meeting citing Pakistan’s invite to separatist Hurriyat leaders.
Finally, he headed to Japan to forge a historic alliance and bring home Japanese funds and support for the modernization of Indian Railways and making of Varanasi into a smart city, among others. More crucially, this association is deemed critical to stability in the subcontinent, strategically founded to counter Chinese domination in the region. These measures make foreign policy the most significant aspect of Mr. Modi’s 100 day tenure.
“Minimum Government, Maximum Governance.” This was one of the popular catch-phrases that Mr. Modi made sure to mention whenever he wielded a microphone in public during his campaign. It was a direct attack on everything that was wrong with the UPA government. Modi promised to combat red-tapeism, while enhancing accountability, transparency and approachability of the government. To an extent, he has delivered.
He started off with slashing and combining ministerial posts, squashing portfolios together and streamlining the power-centres at the top. The merits of this move is still being debated, given that many members of his taut cabinet are first-time ministers and may not have the ability to handle multiple or mutant portfolios.
Within a few days, the erstwhile UPA government’s pet dinosaurs- its 19 GoMs and 8 AGoMs were scrapped. These were basically functioning as efficient clogging mechanisms successfully slowing down and sometimes mortally delaying decisions and projects.
Mr. Modi then got about clearing the cobwebs that had settled around our old, creaky governance system. Before any complacency could set in, he made it clear that he meant business. Ministers were spotted working 12- hour days, and it was apparent that their ministries were being strictly monitored. Modi issued ultimatums to his ministers to get rid of nepotism in selection of their Secretaries. Ministers found themselves unable to purchase new cars and their foreign tours were curtailed. Mr. Modi issued a 17-point people-oriented agenda to his ministries and voiced his expectations that they be carried out.
A National Data Litigation Grid was established to facilitate speedy settlement of legal cases. A more controversial move, which dangerously bordered on forcibly wresting control from the judiciary, was the scrapping of the 20-year old collegiate system for appointment of judges through a constitution amendment bill, proposing to replace it with a 6-member body. Overall, as far as governance is concerned, the Modi government has provided reasons for optimism.
A spate of rapes has disgraced the country. Women are feeling more and more insecure. Communal violence has increased. The Badaun horror re-emphasized the sorry state of rural sanitation in most of India. Government directive on making Hindi the preferred language in social media has been shot down. The government has succumbed to Hindi lobbyists by conceding partially to their demands of watering down the CSAT section in the UPSC examinations. The budget proposed 100 new smart cities, while existing infrastructure was still reeling from multiple short-comings requiring dire attention. The government’s ambiguous position on Article 370 led to an uncomfortable face off between the centre and the J&K government.
Mr. Modi’s efforts to clean up the Ganga does very little to hide the environmental damage his policies are poised to inflict in the long run. Already, it has been decided to water down the Forest Rights and Forest Conservation Acts, industrial bans and the National Green Tribunal Act. Clearance procedure for dam and irrigation projects and pollution classification, have been dangerously simplified. The government has made its intentions clear by refusing to appoint the authorized number of independent members to the National Wildlife Board. Clearly, sustainable development is taking a back-seat. These are all mounting head-aches that the Modi government has not handled properly. As far as domestic issues go, the Modi 100 has been anything but rosy.
Overall, the picture emerging from Mr. Modi’s 100 days is chaotic. There are equal hits and misses. However, it cannot be denied that what we now have is a committed government, an authoritative leadership and immense optimism exhibited by the investments into our country. An opportunity has been created for India to break its shackles and emerge a global leader. The question is whether Mr. Modi has it in him to live up to his marketers’ promises, and to the hopes of the people waiting for their ‘acche din’.