By Mihir S Sharma
Narendra Modi isn’t quite the reformer his advocates try to sell him as being
There has been a certain inevitability to Narendra Modi‘s rise to leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Over the past two to three years, the noise his supporters – old and new – have created in the media; the sophistication of his public-relations machinery; and the decrepitude of his party’s establishment in Delhi have all combined to ensure that, for many BJP workers, there seemed to be no alternative to Mr Modi. In choosing Mr Modi over the clear wishes of some other senior leaders, the BJP has therefore done well – after all, a crucial part of the difference between it and the post-Indira Congress is that it has been more committed to internal democracy.
Let us, for a moment, take one crucial claim made by Mr Modi’s many defenders, both fanatical and supposedly neutral, at face value: that we should not consider the riots he unapologetically presided over in 2002 as relevant to his candidacy for prime minister. There are various reasons given for this, all self-serving, blind or hypocritical to one degree or another; but Mr Modi himself has made few of them. He instead carefully sidestepped his record in 2002 when speaking outside Gujarat, and tried to reinvent himself as a messiah of “governance”, a word as irritatingly meaningless as “terror”. So let’s look at exactly what that means.
And, in doing so, let us not be sidetracked with questions of how much he is responsible for Gujarat’s undoubtedly excellent performance on many, but not all, major parameters of economic growth and development. What we need to investigate is not just what has been done in Gujarat, but what he has said about more national economic issues.
Mr Modi is generally believed to be business-friendly; to be in favour of a government less intrusive in the economy; to focus on outcomes rather than outlays; to accept the need to invest in renewable energy. These are all good things, and are part of the reason why some people initially shocked by 2002 are now hoping he succeeds.
However, as a prime ministerial candidate, Mr Modi will have to be much more concrete about his plans and prescriptions than he has been so far. And that’s where we begin to run into trouble. So far, his public speeches – all available on his flashy and Flash-ridden website – have been full of excellent one-liners and statements of “his” achievements in Gujarat. But what about the reforms central to India’s further development, and on which the Congress-led government has been shaky at best? Beyond buzzwords, he has had little to offer hitherto. And as for the vision that shines through his suggestions – well, judge for yourself how reformist it is.
Even on those steps that the central government has taken, for example on foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, the Gujarat chief minister has been the strongest voice of his party’s anti-reforms line. FDI is meant to benefit “Italian businessmen”, he has claimed. The rationalisation of diesel prices, perhaps the most important step the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has taken in the past year, will “create more pain for those already suffering” and cause India’s “ship to sink”. Gas companies were “cheating the people” by asking for limits on the number of subsidised cooking gas cylinders. And his website adds, “on the same day the UPA announced these regressive decisions, Shri Modi announced 100 per cent relief on loans and 50 per cent relief on electricity bills for farmers.” This is India’s great reformist hope? How deluded, desperate or cynical do you have to be to claim that?
Then there’s the goods and services tax. There’s little doubt that this is something that’s both needed and possible; it could give the Indian economy a boost of two percentage points. Most states are agreeable, including almost all BJP-run states. The only real holdout, as even the BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi will sadly tell you: Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.
Is there any other market-oriented reform the government has proposed that Mr Modi has been on board with? Forward trading in commodities? No, it’s “detrimental to the national economy”. Is there anything that market-oriented reformers disapprove of that Mr Modi has attacked – say the food security Bill? Nope, his silence during the current debate has been deafening. On keeping the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) from “distorting” rural wage bills and draining the exchequer? Narendra Modi personally intervened with the Centre to raise Gujarat’s daily wage amount under the scheme to Rs 147 from Rs 134. On accountability for government servants? “Sometimes when there is talk of a minimum government, one of the topics brought up is the size of the government. I don’t want people to be sacked from their jobs.” Again, this is who you’re selling as a reformer? How foolish are we, precisely?
OK, what about those issues that the Congress has conspicuously avoided, such as labour law reform? Yashwant Sinha, as a BJP finance minister in 2001, tried to raise the number of people employed in an enterprise before stringent requirements kicked in, an Indira-era regulation that has held Indian production and employment back ever since. But that attempt at reform was rolled back; Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, “labour must be consulted”. Very well, is Mr Modi willing to take this great step at the central level? Not quite. He has instead suggested, with Chandrababu Naidu, that labour law be moved from the Concurrent to the State list. A constitutional amendment? Why cannot he call for a change in central regulations? Is it because he is timid? Or is it because he knows, cynically, that an amendment has no chance of going through?
The answer to all these questions is that Mr Modi is not as different from other Indian “reformers” as his fans like to make out. His own speeches explain that – if you ignore the painful buzzwords and the occasional ridiculous idea like solar panels at the India-Pakistan border. “True reform,” he has said, “is improving infrastructure”, not correcting past policy. Actually, no, it’s the latter. But even on improving infrastructure, what’s his plan? Will he raise taxes to pay for public provision? He has admired China’s approach to infrastructure; will he pay for it through financial repression, as that country does? Or will he persist with the UPA government’s public-private partnership (PPP) method, at the root of most of the scandals and scams of the past few years? So it seems: “Good governance is defined by public-private partnership.” OK, but perhaps with increased regulation? Not quite: “We must look to P4 – people private public partnership. People should be kept in the loop by the government. People should get a chance to speak before a government decision is taken.”
So jan sunwais, or public hearings, for every PPP? Perhaps not a terrible idea, but one I’d expect from those dreadful Naxalites Sonia Gandhi keeps around her, and not India’s Margaret Thatcher. Going by his stated opinions, Mr Modi should stop criticising the National Advisory Council and join it instead.