India: Modi’s Report Card

FIGHTING TALK: “The clear and present danger that confronts India today is the attempt being made by the BJP and the RSS to take over government institutions and thought processes,” says Congress Leader Kapil Sibal.

Two years into his reign, the triumphalism of India’s man Friday is paying off

By Jyoti Malhotra

India’s Modi government is nothing if not bullish about its progress. “From the policy paralysis that we inherited when we came to power in mid-2014 to becoming the fastest growing economy in the world is no mean achievement,” India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Newsweek Middle East, adding “especially when this happens in the midst of a global slowdown.”

As two years in power draw to a close, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s report card is checkered. His foreign policy successes may sit firmly atop his wins, but progress on the domestic front, however, is less certain.

Jaitley was not entirely wrong; Modi’s government has ensured that foreign direct investment into India has hit $31 billion, overtaking China and the U.S. in 2015, to become the world’s top investment destination, compared to $28 and $27 billion respectively. A recent windfall has come in the shape of gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the January-March 2016 quarter, where India stands at 7.9 per cent, making it the fastest growing large economy in the world. But some of India’s top economists, including central bank governor Raghuram Rajan, question this success. Speaking at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in January, Rajan warned that “we should be careful how we count.”

Even then, nothing appears to reign in Modi’s triumphalism. On May 28, India’s state broadcaster Doordarshan mounted a six-hour-long programme to celebrate the second anniversary of Modi’s prime ministership, pulling in an all-star cast of his ministers and Bollywood actors.

From senior actor Amitabh Bachchan to pop singer Kailash Kher, from Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi to Junior Home Minister Kiren Rijiju, the admiration for “Modiji” and his schemes—whether Make in India, Digital India, Teaching the Girl Child and the Clean India—all were present.

I was reminded of the personality cult that used to surround former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which she also no doubt encouraged. Modi clearly loved the adoration. When he finally walked into the Doordarshan TV studio that evening, after five-and-a-half long hours of self-congratulation, he proceeded to applaud his government’s achievements as well as address himself in the third person. It was more than unnerving.

Maneka Gandhi told Newsweek Middle East later that her top focus remains safety of women and children, and that she was working to introduce one-stop crisis centers in every district. It was a sentiment echoed by all the attendees.

Yet at the Doordarshan televised marathon, there was not one word of the drought that plagues large parts of India, or of the mounting number of farmer suicides underway due to many not being able to pay back loans.

That same week, several incidents across India perhaps better defined the life of the nation.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu right-wing ideological organization that supported Modi’s rise to power, was reported to have advised its cohorts to publicize romances between Hindu girls and Muslim boys so as to prevent “love jihad;” in addition, the World Bank categorized India alongside Bangladesh and Pakistan in the group of “lower middle-income” economies.

A second lab analysis of a chunk of meat was now said to belong to “cow or its progeny” because of which a Muslim man was killed some eight months ago by RSS supporters; while a special court looking into the Gujarat riots of 2002, when Modi was chief minister, found that 24 persons were guilty of massacring Muslims.

If the Indian media at home is a concatenation of noise around ethnic and communal issues that are aggravated by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi, the prime minister himself is being feted on all his travels worldwide.

Shortly after the televised spectacle, Modi embarked on a five-nation tour of Afghanistan, Qatar, the U.S., Switzerland and Mexico.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani embraced Modi and welcomed him to his “second home,” a pointed jibe at neighboring Pakistan, while in Doha, Qatar’s prime minister received Modi at the airport, besides hosting a banquet in his honor.

In the U.S., Modi is being given the rare honor of addressing a joint session of Congress. A new defense agreement is on the cards, as is U.S. investment in civil nuclear plants in India. When new applications are considered later this month, U.S. President Barack Obama, who has already promised U.S. support for a permanent seat for India in a revamped Security Council, is believed to be working on persuading all 48 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to allow India to become a member without signing the ubiquitous Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Membership of the NSG will not only allow India and the rest of the world to participate in nuclear commerce with each other, but it will give India a de facto status of being the world’s sixth nuclear power.

China is the only obstacle in the way. Beijing has persuaded its “all-weather friend” and India’s rival, Pakistan, to also apply to the NSG. According to Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “China doesn’t want India to aspire to the high table. It wants an Asia where China is the only dominant player. Since India doesn’t have the leverage to prevent China from accomplishing its goals, it must use its intimacy with the U.S. and Japan as a threat to pry out a degree of flexibility from the Chinese.”

Modi’s foreign policy wins are tempered by domestic woes. Some of the data in expanding financial access to the less affluent is, indeed, credible. The Modi government has opened 210 million bank accounts for the under-privileged called the ‘Jan Dhan Yojana,’ allocated ‘Aadhar’ or social security cards to 1 billion people; the scheme was started by the previous Congress-led government when it came to power two years ago. It has also begun to implement direct-benefit cash transfers in rural areas through mobile telephony.

The report card is checkered however; according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, India’s unemployment rate has gone up from 8.7 per cent in January to 9.6 per cent in March, which is three times the government’s figures. Consumer confidence, on the other hand, remains upbeat. Jaitley told me that low oil prices, alongside huge government spending, have played a salutary role in bumping up the economy, especially across infrastructure. “Our fingers are crossed on oil prices. An excessive increase may hurt us,” he added.

Junior finance minister Jayant Sinha admitted to Newsweek Middle East that India needed to work hard on improving its ease of doing business; India stands at 130 today, out of 192 nations in the world. Although the government’s fiscal stimulus towards the development of roads and highways and taking electricity to millions of new homes has contributed to improved economic figures, Sinha mourned that “infrastructure was India’s bane, where we lag behind the world, and you only have to go to China to see [the difference].”

Asked to identify the Modi government’s biggest achievement, Sinha pointed to the creation of a national social security platform, via ‘Aadhar,’ which allocates all social benefits including medical treatment, food rations as well as cooking gas. “By the time elections are held again in 2019, our intended seamless, cashless coverage will be extraordinary,” Sinha said.

There is no denying that some of the extraordinary energy that Modi has demonstrated during his foreign policy tours—especially his connection with thousands of non-resident Indians who have flocked to see him at choreographed events more suitable for rock stars—is now being channeled inwards.
Modi knows that it is the Indian electorate that will vote him back in or throw him out, notwithstanding the adoration he receives during his visits abroad.

Certainly, there is room for applause. At the end of two years, Modi has led his party to victory after victory in provincial elections. India is more politically saffron than it has ever been since its independence in 1947. The grand old Congress party, that celebrated its 125th anniversary only last year, has more or less been reduced to a rump. It is now in power in only one large state, Karnataka, and a handful of smaller ones.

Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, a close aide of BJP party president Amit Shah, told Newsweek Middle East that the Modi government’s single most important success is the “democratization of aspirations,” as opposed to the single-minded determination with which the Congress party is passing down the mantle of party leadership from mother to son. “The BJP is getting closer to achieving its goal of ‘Congress-mukt Bharat,’ an India without the Congress,” he added.

Regional parties have performed much better, with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) winning Bihar for the third time in October 2015, N. Chandrababu Naidu holding Andhra Pradesh and K. Chandrashekhara Rao in power in Telangana. In last month’s elections, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress kept West Bengal, J. Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam stood firm in Tamil Nadu and the left parties returned to Kerala.

The big election next year, in Uttar Pradesh with its nearly 200 million people and currently governed by the regional Samajwadi Party, is already looming large. Both Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the putative leader of the Congress, know this will be a make-or-break moment, and have already started to plot their strategies. Rumors abound that Rahul’s sister, the charismatic Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, will jump into the fray to help her brother; the Congress knows it needs help, including from as many anti-BJP parties as possible.

As for the BJP, the question is if it will once again fall back on its Hindu right-wing proselytizing spirit, just as it did in the 2014 general elections, when it won 71 seats out of 80 in Uuttar Pradesh. The senior RSS functionary and close Modi friend, Om Mathur, has been given charge of Uttar Pradesh and RSS cadres have already fanned into the countryside. A communal polarization, between Hindu and Muslim, is an easy fallback option, just as it was in the 2014 election, with Hindu priests crossing the line into politics and warning of the perils a lapse into “pseudo-secularism” could bring.

Or will Modi restrict himself to asking for votes in the name of vikasvaad (development) the mantra for national success that he so fondly and repeatedly invokes? Many fear the BJP will adopt a dual strategy to win the Uttar Pradesh election; while Modi will make public speeches in the name of the development card, RSS cadres will stoke the ground from beneath.

Read the full article in the latest issue of Newsweek Middle East. 


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