Colombo, June 4: Having completed 60% of his five-year term in May this year, it is time Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was assessed both by the people of India and the regime itself. To win the next elections in May 2019, just two years down the line, Modi should have begun delivering on his grandiose promises by May 2017, so that he has some significant achievements to his credit by the time he faces the people for a second term.
But so far, the regime is characterized by an over-abundance of claims with little or no substantive achievements to back them. Perhaps aware of this, Modi has resorted to the tried and tested (but not always successful) technique of inciting communal animosities ( against the Muslims principally) and nationalistic jingoism (against Pakistan and China) to rally the multitude around him.
But what is routinely ignored is that, in the past, communalism and jingoism have delivered the goods only once. For a second term in office, the yardsticks have always been rational, namely, economic well-being and democratic but effective governance.
Indira Gandhi won the 1971 elections handsomely with the catchy slogan “Garibi Hatao” or Get Rid of Poverty to contrast to the conservative ideologies of past Indian governments. And her power over the people got strengthened in December 1971 by her military action in East Pakistan to set up a pro-Indian government in Bangladesh.
But the war victory failed to pay dividends once economic issues, created partly by the war, caught on. The separatism that Indira fanned in East Bengal gave rise to demands for Khalistan, a separate Sikh country in Punjab, backed to the hilt by Pakistan seething with anger against India over its break-up. Indira reacted to the people’s discontent by resorting to oppression which reached its high point when she put the country under a two-year Emergency Regulations in 1975 and jailed all opponents.
When elections were held in 1977, her government was thrown out. She had failed the test of “good governance” though she was hailed as Goddess Durga only six years earlier.
But Indira came back to power in 1980, thanks to the absence of governance under the stewardship of a clutch of opposition parties. But her regime got caught in the quagmire of the armed secessionist movements in Punjab and Assam, giving her little time for “good governance”. However, her assassination by her own Sikh body guards in 1984, became an emotional issue for the Indian people who elected her Congress party, now headed by her son Rajiv, with a thumping majority.
Rajiv had set India on the path of economic reform and made headway on the Punjab and Assam issues, but his scandal-ridden regime failed the governance test. The strengthened opposition came to power in the 1990s. But their laudable manifestos remained unimplemented and that, combined with lack of unity, led to India being ruled by a series of unstable governments till 1999.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government which was formed in 1999, won laurels for its handling of the war with Pakistan over Kargil in Kashmir. But the war victory did not ensure the BJP-lead coalition’s victory in the next elections in 2004. Its “India Shining” campaign, backed by some good macro-economic indicators and a string of victories in the provincial elections, did not help. The reason: the common man, especially the farmer, was ignored to give prominence to grandiose schemes which pleased only the urban middle and upper classes.
The “pro-poor” Congress won the 2004 and 2009 elections. While the first term was marked by solid achievements, the second term, from 2009 to 2014 , was marked by scandals and an absence of governance. Not surprisingly, the May 2014 polls were won by the highly nationalistic BJP, headed by a new star, the “development messiah” Narendra Modi.
Modi promised rapid economic growth through greater industrialization to provide jobs. He promised to get massive foreign investment under his “Make in India” project. He promised to bring back black money stashed away abroad; radically improve infrastructure and clean India through his “Swachch Bharat” program.
Realizing that peace in the neighborhood is a sine qua non of development, Modi launched the “Neighborhood First” policy with fanfare and made moves to befriend traditional rival Pakistan. His “Look East” policy was to befriend emerging rival China. To get foreign investment he will have made 67 visits to foreign countries by the end of 2017.
But in the last three years of office, the Clean India Drive has become a symbolic public ritual. Indian industry continues to be in the doldrums with high interest rates discouraging investment. According to Prem Shankar Jha, INR 880,000 crore (UN$ 136.6 billion) worth of industrial projects mainly in the infrastructure sector, have been abandoned due to banks charging 11 to 14% interest. This has resulted in Indian corporates investing abroad rather than in India. About US$ 70 billon have been invested by Indian companies abroad.
Lack of industrial investment has led to a seven fold fall in employment growth in the labor intensive industries, Jha says. But about 8 million more Indians join the labor force every year man of whom would be jobless.
Due to his 67 visits abroad, Modi has got huge pledges for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). FDI had indeed jumped to US$ 61.58 billion in May 2016 from US$ 36 billion in 2014. He has further opened up defense industries to foreign investment; allowed 70% FDI in pharmaceutical companies; and 100% in the greenfield pharmaceutical sector. He has secured contracts for Indian companies in Bhutan, Nepal, Iran, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Japan has pledged US$ 30 billion for the Delhi-Mumbai Economic Corridor and Australia is to sell uranium to India.
But as the Institute for the Study of Industrial Development points out, the figures are only pledges. Actual investment could very different. Moreover, the investment is substantially in the form of shares in existing companies bought from existing share holders.
There is a marked neglect of the agriculture sector which is burdened with debt leading to farmers’ agitations and suicides. The anti-cow slaughter laws have hit farmers below the belt besides crippling the meat export sector.
But knowing that he has a long way to go before he can convince voters that he is a fountainhead of development and a good economic manager, Modi has activated majority Hindu communalism, the BJP’s traditional and core electoral base, through a ban on cow slaughter and beef. To feed nationalism, he has exacerbated tensions with Pakistan by insensitive actions and words in regard to the crisis in Kashmir. He has collaborated with the US to antagonize China over Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh and the One Belt One Road project.
Given the self-created external and internal threats, Modi is expected to divert the nation’s resources to defense and getting laurels abroad. But as the past shows, these will only add to the burdens on the masses and alienate them from the ruler. Bad or indifferent governance is a recipe for political disaster.
(The featured image at the top shows Prime Minister Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Gandhinagar, Gujarat)