Modi’s first hundred days may not have been bedazzling but his Independence Day speech reveals his passion for change
First, a confession. After Narendra Modi became Prime Minister I have had many moments of serious doubt. As someone who wants him to succeed in bringing ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’, I have been worried by statements his ministers make. And, by the ease with which they have accepted every bad law made by the last government. And, I have been worried by the Prime Minister’s seeming inability to change the decadent political culture of Lutyens’ Delhi. This will change only when we stop the practice of reserving the most expensive real estate in India for our elected representatives. It is a practice we copied from Soviet Moscow and Maoist Beijing where leaders of the communist party lived in the Kremlin and the Forbidden City while the people made do with squalid dormitories. No democratic country uses taxpayers’ money to pay for elected representatives and high officials to live like princes. As 15 August approached, I feared that Modi would disappoint further by reading out a speech written by some clerk.
He did not. He made the best speech I have heard from the ramparts of the Red Fort and I have heard many. And, he used the occasion to sound the death knell of Nehruvian socialism. Not just by abolishing its most obvious symbol, the Planning Commission, but by urging Indians to contribute to the process of nation building. He made it clear that he needed the people’s participation in cleaning up our filthy cities and villages. And, for removing social evils like rape and open defecation. In asking Indians to do their bit for India, he showed that he has understood the need to reverse the mindset of Nehruvian socialism. This mindset caused Indians, especially poor and illiterate Indians, to believe that the Government would do everything for them. It led them to believe they had no personal contribution to make. So it was reassuring to see him use his most important speech as Prime Minister to urge change. By the end, I dared hope once more that the dream of ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’ may become reality.
But, the road ahead is long and hard and aspirations are higher than they have ever been. In Thailand, some days before 15 August, I met an Indian yoga teacher at a health resort who asked if I believed Modi could make a difference. He discovered as we chatted between asanas that I wrote about politics. And so, he told me how he had watched the election campaign carefully. He said he had never been interested in elections before but sensed that this one was special because of Modi. “Does he know how many millions of people have invested all their hopes in him?” he asked. “Does he know how much despair there will be if he fails them?” I said there was reason to hope and reminded him of what Modi said in his first speech in the Lok Sabha. “Matdaan sey pehley hum ummeedwar thhey. Ab hum ummeedon key rakhwaaley hain. ” (Now we are the guardians of the hopes of those who voted for us.) The yoga teacher, Sandeep, said he had listened to that speech and that he listens carefully to every speech the Prime Minister makes, but he still dares not believe that India will ever change. Sandeep is in his early thirties and comes from Dehradun. He studied yoga at a yoga university in Hardwar and then tried to find a job in India that would earn him enough for him to give his wife and small son a life of dignity. He failed. He tried working in health resorts and five-star hotels but found that the salary offered him was no more than ‘exploitation’. “In India they just know how to exploit people,” he said with a sad laugh. So four years ago, he moved to Thailand, where he earns three times what he earned in India and where his small family can afford a decent home and a decent life.
Sandeep’s story is the story of millions of young Indians who have learned a skill or a profession and found that it does not even earn them enough to rent a small apartment in Delhi or Mumbai. It is the votes of young Indians, many of them voting for the first time, which helped Modi become Prime Minister. They believe that he can walk on water. Make miracles happen. I remember well the words of a young man I met in Benares on the day Modi came to file his nomination papers on that day of intense heat and intense hope. The young man was standing behind me as the massive, jubilant procession went by with Modi standing in an open truck. He got down from the truck just in front of where we stood to garland a statue of Vivekananda, and the young man yelled, “Modi, Modi, Modi!” So I asked what he liked about Modi, and he said he believed that he could bring development to India. When I pointed out in devil’s advocate tones that Modi was a politician, not a magician, the young man said, “When it comes to ‘vikas’, I believe he is a magician.”
So as we approach the hundredth day of his government, are there those signs of ‘parivartan’, without which there can be no miracles? Are there signs of a new kind of governance? Are there signs of a new approach to political power? Are there signs that the new ministers know what needs to change for India to drag itself out of the quagmire of bad laws and policies that have, in the name of the poor, kept India mired in poverty for decades? These are questions people have asked a lot since that hot May evening in Delhi, when, amidst a glittering array of prime ministers, presidents and princes, Modi was sworn in as India’s first non-Nehruvian socialist Prime Minister.
There is no question in anyone’s mind that the Prime Minister understands very well that he has not been given a mandate to continue with Nehruvian socialist policies. Every time he speaks and with every gesture he has made since he took office, he has shown that he understands. In my opinion, he has not put a foot wrong other than making the small mistake of speaking in English when he went to Brazil for the BRICS conference. And, this was probably the fault of Lutyens’ bureaucrats. The mighty mandarins who inhabit the hallowed corridors of North and South Block are usually unable to speak or write in Indian languages, so they must have convinced Modi to read an English speech. They would have done this despite knowing that the leaders of Brazil, China and Russia would speak in their own languages.
As someone all too familiar with the ways and wiles of high officials in the Government of India, I blame them as well for the less than dazzling performance we have so far seen from Modi’s ministers. The new ministers seem trapped by the mantra of continuity. So much so that the Finance Minister did not dare rid us of the ludicrous retroactive tax. He put it in his Budget knowing that this tax was the single biggest reason why foreign investors started fleeing our shores when Pranab Mukherjee introduced it to try and extort more money out of Vodafone. Arun Jaitley had the chance to rid us of other mistakes that the Sonia-Manmohan Government made. Among the more glaring ones is the rural employment guarantee law. Why can it not be just an optional welfare scheme as Vasundhara Raje has correctly asked? Why does it have to be a law? MNREGA has done nothing to reduce unemployment in rural India. It has served mostly as dole for people who would otherwise have worked usefully in agriculture. Even if Arun Jaitley was persuaded in the name of continuity to keep MNREGA, he should have ensured that it created real jobs and real assets. This has not happened. The Food Security law is another gigantic waste of public money, but the Modi Government has chosen to hang on to it. This, despite little evidence that it will reduce malnutrition levels in the villages. With a broken public distribution system and horrible corruption at every level, it is madness to waste money on distributing cheap food grain when the money could be so much better spent. Organisations like Akshaypatra have shown how malnutrition can be significantly brought down just by feeding schoolchildren one nutritious meal a day. The Prime Minister could have chosen to abandon the Food Security law and spend the money saved on a massive school meals programme. So much like a Sonia-Manmohan budget was the one that Arun Jaitley presented that his predecessor, P Chidambaram, publicly gloated that the new Finance Minister had made no changes to the Budget he would have given us had the election results been different. And, further humiliation was added by Sonia Gandhi herself when she said that her ideas were being copied by the new Government.
One of the first ministers I met in the new Government was the Minister of Human Resource Development. I met Smriti Irani in the middle of her senseless spat with the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University and tried to convince her that instead of trying to control the Vice Chancellor she should try to control the University Grants Commission (UGC). I actually suggested that it be disbanded if she was keen to make a real difference. If we want to improve the quality of higher education, I explained, then it must be released from the licence raj that has strangled it for decades. Her response was to say, “But, then what if vice chancellors go rogue?” I pointed out that this should not concern the HRD Ministry at all, because if colleges offered bad courses or poor quality teaching standards, students would simply go elsewhere. I mentioned that the need for more universities was so great that Kapil Sibal, when he first became HRD Minister in 2009, had told me in an interview that India needs 1,500 new universities. I soon realised I was having a pointless conversation because the Minister was too steeped in the old ethos to understand what I was saying. But, at least she was good enough to meet me. My efforts to meet the Environment Minister have so far failed. My reason for wanting to meet him was to see if he was planning to put in place objective and measureable norms for the construction of major infrastructure projects. One of the worst things that the Sonia-Manmohan Government did was to use the Environment Ministry as a new licence raj. Jairam Ramesh, with the unconcealed glee of a natural hatchet man, went about closing major projects on ‘environmental grounds’ after thousands of crores had already been invested.
When asked why he did this, he admitted privately that he had ‘orders from the top’. Since Rahul Gandhi was present when he ordered Vedanta to close its operations in the Niyamgiri hills, this was easy to believe. The project was closed after more than Rs 11,000 crore had been invested in an aluminium refinery that could have saved transportation costs enough to halve the international price of this very environmentally friendly material. Had it not been stopped, it is possible that Odisha would today have been the centre of aluminium production in the world. Jairam Ramesh would not have been able to turn the Environment Ministry into a licence raj had there been clear norms in place. So with a new government you would expect that in the first hundred days a decision could have been taken to come up with clear norms. This has not happened and instead the new Minister has chosen to given clearances faster as a signal to investors that the Environment Ministry is now business-friendly. As long as every project is cleared individually, the problems will remain.
The list of necessary changes for ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’ to happen is a long one. Labour laws need to be changed. The last Government’s land acquisition bill needs to be scrapped or altered drastically. The justice system needs to be made to function at a more modern speed and in more modern ways. The infrastructure ministries need to work together instead of at odds with each other. Some obsolete ministries such as Information & Broadcasting need to go the way of the Planning Commission.
So it has not been a bedazzling first hundred days but the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech renews the hope that he is committed to ‘parivartan’. And, that he is committed to using his high office to really make India a better country. May he remember every morning that outside the salubrious environs of Lutyens’ Delhi lies an increasingly impatient and angry country.