From the moment he unveiled an enticing vision of growth before ambitious students at the capital’s prestigious Sri Ram College of Commerce in February 2013, effortlessly capturing the imagination of young India (and an awestruck national and international audience), Mr Narendra Modi has straddled the nation like a colossus – a leader without a peer across the political arena. This is true even today, despite some attempts to portray a re-booted but robotic Rahul Gandhi as an equal challenger.
Unfortunately, Modi’s first anniversary as Prime Minister has been caught in a pincer between abnormal rains and hailstorms that wreaked havoc on standing crops in northern and central India, causing acute grief to farmers (some died of heart attack, some committed suicide), and a severe heat wave that has taken over 2,000 lives nationwide – grim evidence of climate change.
These tragedies were followed by media-hyped unrest over one-rank-one-pay for the Armed Forces, and an overall disparagement of the regime despite the Prime Minister’s private engagement with those he once derided as “news traders”. Some Opposition leaders and commentators ridiculed the Prime Minister as a dream merchant. But Modi is an ambitious leader; as Chief Minister he established Gujarat as an alluring destination for investment, creating jobs and wealth. As Prime Minister, his high-profile foreign tours, with special outreach to the diaspora, try to replicate this on the national plane.
Most importantly, emulating Franklin D Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Modi has taken responsibility for the big-ticket infrastructural investments (railways, roadways, metros, etc.) needed to fill the potholes of six decades of ineptitude, sloth, and corruption, and get the economy back on track. Unlike most analysts, he understands that Jawaharlal Nehru was right to seize the commanding heights of the economy once he realised that Indian industrialists did not have the stomach for large and long-term investments.
Where Nehru (and his heirs) erred was in perceiving a dichotomy between the public and private sector, when both could co-exist. Instead, he created a gigantic bureaucracy and maze of laws that harassed industrialists in areas where they wished to invest and make honest profits. This spirit of official meanness penetrated every small and medium enterprise providing employment in cities and towns, and was most vicious in hounding the self-employed poor, such as street vendors.
While private business (small, medium, big) survived by greasing palms and the poor suffered the humiliation heaped on them, the real tragedy played out in the public sector. Despite huge investment of public funds, political interference and poor accountability resulted in lethargic performance, barring specific sectors such as nuclear energy.
In a double whammy, well-managed public sector units were often made to fail. In just the past decade, the highly profitable BSNL/MTNL accumulated huge losses, triggering motivated calls for their sale to private capitalists; yet when a private airline defaulted on loans to the tune of several crores of rupees, no one demanded seizure of company assets.
To combat this environment of economic gloom, the Prime Minister visited some of the major economies (and will tour others this year) to invite investments and tourists to trigger growth. The simplification of visas, including for China despite the irritant of stapled visas for Indians from Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, is part of a larger design to lure foreigners to India.
The policy paralysis of previous years has ended. The endless negotiation for Rafale fighters was compacted into a Government-to-Government purchase of 36 planes and a Make in India component proposed for the rest of the aircraft (whenever required). Several policy measures have been rolled out, including raising the foreign equity cap in insurance, pension and defence sectors; for Indian Railways, sky is the limit.
Genuine efforts have been made towards cooperative federalism by devolving more finances to States and inviting them to be equal partners in planning via the NITI Aayog. Auctioning of natural resources like coal mines and spectrum has been transparent. The Goods and Services Tax may roll out soon, and a parliamentary panel is working to resolve conflict over the land acquisition Bill. Despite propaganda that the Centre is dragging its feet on the issue of black money, a Special Investigation Team was constituted soon after coming to power, new legislation mooted to detect money held abroad illegally, and foreign banks nudged to disclose Indian accounts. The issue was discussed with the Maldives soon after Modi’s swearing-in on 26th May, 2014, and later at the G-20 summit in November 2014.
Modi’s personal initiatives such as the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan have resonated with citizens who are voluntarily cleaning up river ghats, water bodies, and public streets. The construction of toilets in schools (a major factor behind girl child dropouts) is being taken up across States. The Beti Bachao Beti Padhao movement to abolish female foeticide and promote education of the girl child is its natural corollary, as is the exhortation to families to plant trees at the birth of a girl child. Modi is the first Prime Minister to fuse critical social reforms with his political mission.
Critics ignore the electrifying impact of the Jan Dhan Yojana; yet over 15 crore households have bank accounts with a life cover. The pension scheme, the accident and the life insurance schemes have been appreciated by poor and middle class families who see the Prime Minister as a beacon of hope.