London, February 24 (The Economist): At a rally in the southern state of Karnataka the prime minister wagged his raised finger, accusing the local government, run by the rival Congress party, of creaming a 10% cut from every state contract. “Do you want a commission government, or do you want a mission government?” he boomed. After four years in power Narendra Modi still relishes nothing more than attacking his opponents as no-good, lazy and corrupt.
In response Karnataka’s chief minister, Siddaramaiah, who faces a state election in two months, posted a cartoon on his Twitter account. It pictured glum citizens queuing outside a bank, a reminder of Mr Modi’s painful “demonetisation” in 2016, which sent hundreds of millions of Indians rushing to exchange abruptly voided banknotes. From the back of the bank, meanwhile, emerged a pair of grinning millionaires carrying big sacks of money. Airily waving them off was a Modi-like figure labelled chowkidar or watchman. BS has turned a profit at last. But it’s too soon to celebrate.
The reference was not subtle. Before his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) landslide win in the general election of 2014, Mr Modi had promised to be the country’s vigilant chowkidar. Yet on his watch there has been no let-up in the kind of scams and scandals that had made Congress such an easy target. The latest involves a diamond dealer who is said to have fled the country after allegedly defrauding a state-owned bank of some $1.8bn. As recently as January the jeweller in question appeared in a photo of Indian tycoons hobnobbing with Mr Modi at the Swiss mountain resort of Davos. As the next general election, due early next year, approaches, it grows ever harder for Mr Modi to pose as the fresh, clean alternative to bad old ways. The BJP government has, in fact, slowly evolved into something surprisingly similar to its Congress-led predecessor, from which Mr Modi promised to “free” India.
The BJP looks increasingly like the party of state. Mr Modi’s image adorns billboards and newspaper ads. His voice resounds from state television and radio. His loyalists influence a growing array of public institutions. In some instances, say critics, such influence might be described as abuse. Police and courts, for instance, have all too often proven slow to follow up potentially embarrassing leads, or quick to absolve BJP bigwigs of wrongdoing. Milan Vaishnav, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank, points to recent instances when two powerful institutions, the central bank and the election commission, have appeared to bow to Mr Modi’s wishes.
The energetic prime minister has launched dozens of heavily promoted social programmes. But his government has also taken over numerous Congress-era projects and simply rebranded them, stripping away associations with such Congress figures as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. A scheme started in 2012 called the Basic Savings Bank Deposit Account, aimed at providing banking for the poor, was pepped up and relabelled the Prime Minister’s People’s Money Project.
In some cases Mr Modi has adopted policies that he sharply criticised while in opposition. He had dismissed Aadhaar, a Congress-initiated project to issue all citizens with a unique, biometrically certifiable identity number, as nothing but a gimmick. In practice his government has made Aadhaar cards mandatory for everything from mobile-phone lines to food subsidies. The BJP repeatedly stymied Congress’s attempts to replace a quaint hodgepodge of local taxes with a national goods and services tax, only to bring in the GST itself, with great fanfare, last year. Mr Modi also frequently disparaged Congress programmes to boost rural incomes as wasteful vote-buying. But his government has raised spending on these, while several BJP-run state governments are offering massive loan relief to indebted farmers.
The Hindu-nationalist BJP had excoriated the secular Congress for pandering to religious and ethnic minorities. Yet in hard-fought election campaigns this month in the small states of the north-east the ruling party has pandered as hard as anyone (see article). In the majority-Christian state of Meghalaya it promised free pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In Tripura, a state that suffered a separatist insurgency until 2004, the BJP has set aside its nationalist credentials to ally with a party that had backed the independence movement.
In 2014 business leaders were among Mr Modi’s most enthusiastic supporters. Many still praise such achievements as the introduction of the GST, a bankruptcy law and streamlined government procedures. Yet some of the BJP’s economic moves raise questions about its commitment to reform. Earlier this month, for instance, Mr Modi’s government quietly abandoned plans to relax a “licence Raj” rule that obliges any firm with more than 100 employees to seek government permission to fire any staff. Speaking in Davos in January, Mr Modi repeatedly declared India’s commitment to open competition in a globalised world. A week later his finance minister unveiled a budget that sharply hikes tariffs on a broad range of goods. Duty on imported sugar is now 100%.
Following a series of apparent recent setbacks, Indian pundits are also growing increasingly critical of Mr Modi’s foreign policy. Having promised a more robust and active stance, the prime minister has delivered mostly bluster. India’s biggest rival, China, continues to make strategic inroads into India’s traditional sphere of influence. Iron-fist tactics to squelch unrest in the state of Jammu and Kashmir seem only to have deepened local alienation.
So far, all this has done the BJP little harm. It still dominates politics, despite a slight dip in the polls. But Congress has benefited from a commensurate uptick and its leader, Rahul Gandhi, has cut Mr Modi’s lead as preferred prime minister from 35 percentage points to 17. Perhaps even as the BJP succumbs to some of Congress’s foibles, Congress is learning new tricks from the BJP.