By Devang Pathak:
If you survey the political world from the last decade, you will find very few leaders who have captured global imagination with their election and appointment like Barack Obama and Narendra Modi. Barack Hussein Obama came into office with a message of hope and change as the first African-American President of the United States of America. As the first non-Congress Prime Minister to secure a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, Mr Modi galvanised Indian optimism in 2014.
But as the year ended, so did the so-called honeymoon period of his government. 2015 will be the year when Mr Modi’s promises will be tested and the content will become more important than the jingle.
2014 saw the NDA government take the ordinance route all too often. The National Judicial Appointments Commission bill was the only significant legislation that the government was able to pass and even that is pending approval from the states. The much talked about Insurance Bill and the Land Amendment bill were given the ordinance treatment, with the latter raising eyebrows with the contentious changes it brings in.
The amended law allows for the land of tribal or farmers to be taken for Public-Private partnership projects, without consent or Social Impact Assessment. This is in stark contrast to Mr Modi’s speech in Jharkhand where he argued that “No one could usurp tribal land”. Yet, there was no opportunity to debate and point out this obvious contradiction.
The ordinance route further legitimises the claim of many detractors about the autocratic style of Mr Modi. 2015 will require the government to accept the reality of its numbers in Rajya Sabha and work towards bipartisan support for passing of important legislation.
A revival in the economic growth is probably the most important expectation the nation has from this pro-business government. The Indian economy enters its most positive first quarter in years with slumping oil prices and a low inflation rate. The promise of growth revival was one of the key factors which saw ardent support for Mr Modi but the first seven months have been a little slow on the reforms expected. The path ahead seems to be based on three factors for the government- increase in public investment, easing of fiscal restrictions for the coming years, and higher revenues from sale of oil, spectrum and disinvestment.
Mr Jaitley has removed the excise concessions for the auto industry and is likely to remove certain subsidies on fuel. Though the NDA government has stated certain expectations from banks, there seems to be slight skirmishes between the Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India. 2015 would require both the custodians of Indian economy to work together to ensure a 5-6% rate of growth as India braces for external shocks such as the continuing war in Middle East and the Russian Economic Crisis. The passage of the long due Goods and Service Tax bill, FDI in railways and defence, and the changes in the Companies Act will help get India the best out of the favourable economic situation with structural corrections.
Boost to Infrastructure Projects
The development agenda of the Prime Minister would be incomplete without the much needed boost to infrastructure growth in the country. The coal ordinance has put in place an efficient and corruption free process for coal allocation which can help resolve the energy problems faced by the country. However, the National Energy Policy, which was promised in the BJP mandate of 2014, is yet to be announced. The Transport Minister has proposed many swift changes to the road transportation facilities of the country such as electronic toll booths and there will be a close vigilance on him following up on those claims. The Clean Ganga initiative was given a boost by the setting up of the Ganga Rejuvenation plan under the Water Ministry. A comprehensive plan which states the roadmap to bringing this vision to fruition is still awaited.
Strengthening of the Federal Structure
The Niti Ayog is the first step towards greater centre-state coordination. The federal structure of the constitution means that while the central government can enact laws, their ultimate implementation and acceptance is dependent on the states. Mr Modi has been a divisive leader and the challenge of bipartisanship which he faces in the Parliament gets repeated when it comes to states. The leaders of the non-BJP states, who have often been targets for Mr Modi during polls, are not keen on co-operating with the government. While a special mention of the North-East was made in the BJP Mandate, the recent escalation of violence in Assam in the backdrop of the largest migration in the country in 2012 means that the government must work towards protection of individual states as well.
Clarity on Secularism
The NDA alliance made secularism a much maligned word in 2014 by linking it to the Congress’s communal agenda. The truth is that secularism is a part of the Indian identity, given recognition by the constitution as well.
The last two months of 2014 saw the government face immense flak for its leaders and ministers making insensitive and, often communal statements. These were responsible for derailing the winter session of the parliament as well as a vindication for the detractors of the Hindutava agenda of the government. Mr Modi’s silence and failure for stern, re-assuring action on the errant leaders also raised many questions.
There are still many serious concerns as the New Year ushers in- the influence of the Sangh Parivar on policy decisions such as the HRD Ministry, the pandering to Sangh base by established leaders like Sushma Swaraj who asked that the Bhagavad Gita be declared the country’s national book and the constant back-channel negotiations with the RSS. Mr Modi needs to prove in 2015 that while “India first” is his philosophy, he recognises and respects all religions and ethnicities in the country as well as their problems and fears.
Foreign Policy Conversions
While the Prime Minister has spent his seven months stirring a favourable impression with the Indian Diaspora and the international community, 2015 needs to see the pay-off of the positive notes with the countries. The goodwill generated by Mr Modi’s visits to the West, Japan and Australia need to be translated into concrete policies which boost Indian interests in the long term as well as strengthen the SAARC initiative, a process restarted in 2014.
While Pakistan remains a difficult neighbour, there is a need to restart the dialogue process which brings resolution to the decade old issues we have faced as well as a tougher resolve to end India-targeted terrorism. The visit of the Chinese premier which was seen as a positive highlight preceded an encroachment on Indian Territory by Chinese troops. The present government was timidly akin in its response to the UPA to the blatant attack on Indian sovereignty. India needs to assert its interests and autonomy with every neighbour in equal measure and not allow any exceptions.
Lastly, Lesser on Platitudes and More on Action.
On a personal note, I believe that the PM needs to lessen the platitudes offered and follow it up with more clear action. While Make in India, Swacch Bharat, Digital India, Visa on Arrival for US and Australia were conceptually brilliant policies, the concepts fail to hold in deeper introspections.
Swacch Bharat requires a change in attitude which does not come from speeches with banalities or challenges to celebrities, while Make in India should aim at Indian manufacturing and not foreign investors. The essential promise of toilets and sanitation, which was reiterated in the Red Fort speech has still not been outlined with specific details by the government.
Mr Obama’s speeches and body language made him a force to reckon with in 2008. Mr Modi’s meteoric rise to India’s top job can be seen as a clear parallel using the same strategy. But as Obama learnt the hard way, inspiring speeches and policy ideas are not enough- decisive action is vital and imminent. Here is hoping that our Prime Minister takes a note from Mr Obama’s story and delivers on his ambitious promises.