Since political commentary in India is sharply polarised, there is often little analysis of Modi’s past eight years that is clinical, objective and clear-eyed. A forensic examination of Modi’s political balance sheet has credits and debits
After eight years in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has transformed Indian politics at a subliminal level. The Nehruvian idea of India has been upgraded. Is the new idea of India an improvement on the past? Or has it unleashed regressive forces?
As Modi met US President Joe Biden bilaterally at the Quad summit in Tokyo and multilaterally with the new prime minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese, and the prime minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida, it was clear that India’s foreign policy had acquired a new tone and a new confidence. Is this, too, a part of the new idea of India?
Since political commentary in India is sharply polarised, there is often little analysis of Modi’s past eight years that is clinical, objective and clear-eyed. A forensic examination of Modi’s political balance sheet has credits and debits. Consider, first, the credits.
For decades after Independence, India’s social and physical infrastructure remained rudimentary. Nearly 200 years of British colonialism had left India in 1947 with a broken economy. Literacy levels at 12 per cent were among the world’s lowest. The average life expectancy of an Indian was 31 years, roughly half the global average.
India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-64), his heirs, and political leaders from Opposition parties who followed them, chose socialism as economic policy and secularism as social policy.
Both appeared unexceptionable in theory. In practice both failed. While the rest of Asia raced ahead at economic growth rates of 7 perncent a year, socialist India dawdled along at 3 per cent a year.
Secularism was meant to help minorities economically and integrate them into India’s social mainstream. It did neither. After nearly 70 years of Nehruvian secularism, India’s Muslims have slid down the socio-economic ladder to become the country’s most impoverished and under-educated community.
Since 2014, Modi has tried to fix the socio-economic detritus collected over decades. He has been partially successful.
Ten transformative changes stand out. First, financial inclusion. Jan Dhan Yojana has given Indians in distant villages access for the first time to bank accounts. Second, as part of this virtuous cycle, the poor receive their full food, fuel and fertilizer subsidies directly in these new bank accounts through their basic mobile phones, bypassing corrupt middlemen.
Third, tap water. The Jal Jeevan Mission is delivering clean water on tap to villages where women for years had to travel long distances to fetch water in buckets. This is as revolutionary a social reform as the fourth initiative on sanitation. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan may not have yet provided toilets to every Indian household and many toilets are, for socio-cultural reasons, used as storerooms. But the improvement in sanitation and water-on-tap together have the potential to reduce disease and improve hygiene. In turn they will enhance longevity and economic productivity in India’s least privileged communities.
Fifth, health insurance. Ayushman Bharat Yojana has already helped 32 million people pay for surgeries and hospitalisation. In a country without universal health care benefits, the scheme is a game-changer. Sixth, the new education policy (NEP) promises to give Indian students flexible choices, mixing science courses with the liberal arts and moving from rote learning to a well-rounded education that encourages curiosity and knowledge across diverse domains.
Seventh, infrastructure has been fast-tracked: Airports, seaports, metros, tunnels in Ladakh, underpasses in Kashmir, and highways across the country. Eighth, the thrust on renewable energy with a commitment to generate 500 GW of electricity by 2030 through wind, solar and other renewables will meet India’s climate change goals and secure power for a growing economy.
Ninth, placing technology at the centre of India’s rise to a middle-income nation over the next decade: the digitalisation of India’s ecosystem has made UPI (Unified Payments Interface) a globally recognised innovation. Similar technology-based initiatives like Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC) will help India, colonised and brutalised by foreign rule, leapfrog the port-industrial revolution straight into the digital age: Artificial intelligence, supercomputing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Decentralised Finance (DeFi).
Tenth, and finally, Modi has changed the electoral arithmetic. In the post-1996 era of coalitions, governments were formed with small vote shares. For example, the Congress managed to stitch together a government in 2004 with the support of the Left and multiple regional parties despite a vote share of just 28.30 per cent. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP managed a vote share of 37 per cent on its own and 41 per cent with its NDA allies. That compares favourably with Indira Gandhi’s winning vote share of 42.69 per cent in the 1980 Lok Sabha poll when the Opposition was small and fragmented. The BJP, founded in December 1980, did not exist.
The debit side of Modi’s balance sheet is somewhat shorter. Nevertheless, it raises several red flags. The BJP has weaponised polarisation of the Hindu majority more ruthlessly than the Congress and its “secular” allies weaponised minorities for decades to win elections. That doesn’t excuse the BJP for replicating an amoral tactic which, anyway, can deliver diminishing returns.
Modi has been very good at executing transformative schemes. But on key reforms such as privatisation, land and labour he has held back. The government has become more protectionist rather than less. It tends to over-regulate instead of mandating regulators like the RBI, SEBI, TRAI and others to use light-touch regulation. That always produces better compliance. The same applies the Goods and Services Tax (GST) where simplification is needed, not further rate changes.
It’s time to answer the question posed at the start. Is Modi’s idea of India an improvement on Nehru’s idea of India? Many regard the question sacrilegious. Nehru’s idea of India always carried a special cachet: progressive, liberal and secular. Modi’s idea of India in contrast has acquired a reputation among the entitled elite as being coarse, illiberal and communal.
Modi’s India doesn’t speak English. It speaks the language of the aspirational middle class and the poor. Nehru’s India spoke the language of Harrow and Cambridge. It helped the entitled elite to keep the rest of India at sniffing distance.
That distant part of India — but the numerical majority — is Modi’s India. There are two caveats, however. As it rises, new India shouldn’t acquire the bad habits of the old entitled India.
And Modi himself must surround himself with people smarter than him. A great leader prepares a good succession plan. Nehruvian dynasts had no such problem: Heirs were always apparent.
For Modi, only merit should count.
The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.
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