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The scourge of great expectations- How Modi must not allow the narrative to be seized by the detractors

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It is tough being a Modi supporter these days. It is even tougher to apply critical reasoning in an attempt to distinguish between the narrative and the reality. There is a certain disconnect from what the news channels, both pro and anti Modi, would have you believed as compared to what is, essentially, the everyday life- on a train/bus, on the dusty roads or in the crowded markets, far away from the daily hyperbole and social media outreach. A war of the narratives is on.

Given the riveting aura created around the persona of Modi, cult following and the heavy mandate in 2014 elections, the burden of expectations was natural. He was pitched as the new Lee Kuan yew who had catapulted Singapore from a poor landlocked nation into an economic powerhouse, someone who would unshackle the country from its baggage of the past and pave the way for a golden future.

These great expectations have perhaps become his greatest scourge.

Right through his campaign in 2014, till his inauguration, then through the first year as the PM, Modi ignited the imagination of all classes alike. The middle classes and the educated youth were amongst his biggest supporters. The conversations in train journeys or during the evening gupshup over tea or drinks generally revolved around how the new PM is going to change the fortunes of this country. There were seldom any counters. The only people who weren’t really excited about him were the elite (the non business rich, English speaking left leaning ones now more famous as the pseudo liberals or Lutyen’s club etc).

Post the electoral setbacks in Delhi and Bihar and finding himself cornered for being a jet setting Prime Minister aloof from the public, Modi made the great pivot! Instead of emulating Deng Xioping who made the pivot to the right in 1978, setting China towards the trajectory of immense growth, Modi swung far left and landed himself deep into the heart of the Indian poor. Demonetisation, the word has dominated the Indian lexicon ever since it was announced. The move has been unequivocally supported by strong loyalists, teared into by the detractors and debated threadbare by the intelligentsia for its economic merits and demerits. Only time and numbers (indexes like GDP, IIP etc) will tell the real effect. Despite their differences on the economics front, the experts are unanimous in their view that this was a political master stroke. Add the free LPG connections, Jan Dhan accounts, affordable housing, GST taxes favouring the poor and further squeezing the rich, and the unmooring of the farm loan waivers by states, most of them BJP ruled, and the dramatic arc of the new paradigm looks complete.

This shift is not without reason. According to a recent study on global incomes by the Pew Research centre, USA , contrary to the popular view only 2% of the total Indian population constitute the Middle class, taking roughly ₹700/- per day per person income as the datum. (In the US anyone earning below ₹1000 or $16 a day is considered to be below poverty line). Which means anybody who is not the real middle class, and not rich, is basically a prospect voter, who can be swayed by a new promise. They don’t call Amit Shah a wizard for nothing! Today, Modi finds himself in a unique position where he has successfully juxtaposed himself as a ‘Garibon Ka Masiha’ while still advocating development and inviting CEOs of companies from all over the world to invest in India. He also manages to be extremely popular with the Military, and commands great respect abroad within the Indian diaspora.

But somehow this jiggery pokery of appeasing everyone, swinging between the right and the left and lack of a clear vision for sprucing up the economy, esp manufacturing, does not inspire much confidence in the companies who had pledged to invest in the country. So, it is not surprising that a new counter narrative is slowly emerging which focuses on his failures, and simply outlays the PM as a no-gooder, dream seller, ‘Jumla man’, who is active in promoting himself but inept at leading the country. In their recent cover story, leading international journal, The Economist, never known to be kind to Modi, or to the right wing for that matter, has gone on a diatribe against him for failing to capitalize on opportunities such as low oil prices, India’s young demographic and skilled labour force. The publication, considered an authority on all matters Economics, finds Modi to be a fine administrator but a poor reformer, doing ‘fix this’ jobs for the industry-finding land for a factory or expediting construction of a power station.

Prejudice aside, there’s indeed some truth to the criticism. Except for the Ministries of Power, Transport and External affairs who are doing an exemplary job chasing targets and achieving deadlines, the other ministries and departments of the govt are in disarray. Railways remains a laggard. Premium or non premium, the trains just don’t run on schedule. The entire railway infrastructure, including its work culture needs a reboot. The same parable may be applied for all the glitzy initiatives like Make in India or Skill India. Or even Air India! On time delivery is the key. In agriculture, Modi’s much touted real time price index, central fund for farmers, crop insurance and scaling up of warehouses nationwide, visionary ideas during the 2014 campaign which were thought to be the cure to farmer suicides, are yet to see the light of the day. Smart cities are still on the blue print stage and barring a few exceptions such as the Jeep factory at Pune or the upcoming Apple facility in Bengaluru, foreign investment based manufacturing hasn’t really taken off. If only all these ideas were implemented as policy with the same gusto and sense of urgency as the Cow and Cattle laws have, one wonders!

To be fair, the overall performance of this govt can be said to be just about OK. There are no scams yet. The economy, despite the ‘Demo’ shocks is cruising at a healthy 6.1%, although we have lost the tag of the fastest growing economy in the world. Die hard Modi supporters couldn’t agree more. “We are doing just fine” “give him more time to prove himself”. The otherwise reticent Manmohan Singh was doing just OK too, till the scams came tumbling out. The question that the citizens and the Modi supporters should ask is ‘are we ok with an ok?’ To borrow a leaf from The Economist, a once in a generation golden opportunity is being squandered away to make way for political compulsions. Trying to do everything and please all segments of the society all at once, signals the departure from the ideology on which this govt rode to power.

Poverty and oppression are fertile grounds for breeding extremism of any kind, political or religious. It is indeed the duty of every leader to alleviate poverty but it shouldn’t become a case of doling out freebies. That is economic harakiri.

In one of his campaign speeches in 2014 Modi had said “I don’t want the poor of my country to beg for what is rightfully theirs. I will create so many industries and avenues like roads, cities and infrastructure that there will be no dearth of jobs.” These words resonated with the appeal of an ideology, long subdued by the pacifist philosophy of the left-liberals. An ideology whose time had finally come. None of those words sounded like a Jumla. The people of this country await those promised opportunities. Modi’s failure will not be his alone, but a collective failure of the idea. It is thus incumbent upon the PM not to let the narrative be seized by the detractors. There are chinks in the armour that need to be identified and addressed on an immediate basis. It is also the duty of his supporters to ask the govt for accountability where required, and not get swayed with the hyperbole of nationalism or patriotism.

The time has come to do the disruptive. With two years more to go for his first term to end, the PM must unleash bold reforms disregarding the political costs. Shut down the loss makers and laggards or divest them. Build those cities and bridges, unshackle that war chest of cash collected as excise duty on oil. Invest in education, specially primary education. Invest in research and development in all fields by creating institutions on the lines of IISC, Tata institute of social sciences and JIPMER Puduchery, don’t mindlessly replicate the  IITs. Usher the tax reforms of GST with the intent of making it a one nation one tax system as was originally envisaged. Infuse capital into existing manufacturing industries and get those factories running. Shut down the cow vigilantism by exemplary punitive action, the nation has bigger things to worry about. Most importantly, place the right individuals in the right ministries, not mere yes men, empower them to take the initiative and pursue an agenda, do not worry about the statistics and numbers as they will never depict the entire picture anyway.

Lastly, groom a group of probable political successors, and then, pass on the baton and retire timely, as the PM, in 2024!

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