Saturday 7 June 2014

Economy is Modi’s top challenge (Pakistan Observer)

MD Nalapat
Friday, June 06, 2014 - India was about a year away from the chaos which ensued in Egypt after Tahrir Square erupted in 2011 when the BJP decided to nominate Narendra Modi as the party’s choice for the Prime Ministership of India. Aware of the swelling public anger against corruption and misgovernance, Modi shrewdly made governance the keystone of his agenda, stressing both his credentials as Chief Minister of Gujarat since 2001 as well as the graft and incompetence that marked the final years in office of Manmohan Singh, who seemed not to want any of the powers which go with the title of Prime Minister, remaining content with the form. He had his fleet of luxury cars and VIP aircraft, his army of office and residence staff, and the chance to travel across the globe breaking bread with President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Heads of State or Government. From 2010 onwards, citizens in India came increasingly to the view that the periodic elections that they participated in were just a sham, that one set of corrupt politicians would only get succeeded by another, who would of course ensure zero accountability for the crimes its predecessor had committed.

As they watched politicians across the spectrum (with the exception of the two Communist parties and a handful of smaller outfits) enrich themselves, watched as their views sported diamond tiaras and their children drive around in BMWs, they began to take to the streets in order to make their views known. That was the period when first Anna Hazare and later Arvind Kejriwal came into prominence, and when cities, towns and even some villages came alive with the ferment generated by the anti-corruption movement. Suddenly, in 2013,the focus of much of the electorate shifted from the streets and those calling for street solutions as a means of bringing to book corrupt leaders, to a politician from Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who promised hope and change. As the general elections of 2014 have shown, hundreds of millions of voters believed him. They gave his party, the BJP, an absolute majority in Parliament, thirty years after they had (in 1984) elected a majority government to office by backing Rajiv Gandhi in his bid to become the third member of his family to be an elected Prime Minister.

However, society has changed substantially over the past three decades ,and is no longer willing to overlook smudges in governance. Voters gave Narendra Modi’s BJP close to the 300 seats he asked for to give a stable government. Indeed, the party’s tally would have been at least twenty Lok Sabha seats more, had the selection of candidates not been so faulty. Several of those given tickets by the Delhi-based BJP leadership were unpopular with their constituents, although the majority of such picks managed to get elected, because of the desire of voters to ensure that Modi came to power. This was a change from the 2004 election, where too several BJP candidates were of indifferent quality. In that election, several lost because voters believed that the BJP would get a substantial majority, hence the defeat of a particular candidate would not matter.

This time around,in all except about two dozen contests, voters decided to back unpopular candidates in order to ensure a majority to Narendra Modi. However, the fact remains that about 40% of BJP MPs are uch as are unlikely to get re-elected in 2019. In that election, should Prime Minister Modi replicate the error made by his predecessor Vajpayee in 2004 and retain the existing MPs, several are likely to lose. The fact is that Prime Minister Modi is not past the winning post,but has only reached the starting line. Unless he ensures that the promises made by him of clean,effective and transparent governance get implemented, the public mood may turn hostile sooner than anyone believes at present.

This columnist was among the first to predict (in 2006) that Modi would emerge as a winning Prime Ministerial candidate within five years, and in 2010 that the 2014 elections would be a Presidential contest between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi,a battle which the latter won with ease. Now,his prediction is that the Prime Minister will need to call on all available reserves of talent and not follow past precedence in restricting his choices to officials and those who are Delhi-based. The newly-elected government has to be Modi Undiluted if it is to succeed, as otherwise it will find itself being stymied by those who have for decades benefitted hugely from past neglect of the twin canons of efficiency and accountability. Indeed, should Prime Minister Modi insist on an I-20 form or its country equivalent (which will show the sources of funding for study abroad of dependents) from each official of the rank of Deputy Secretary to Government and above, the results may surprise him.

Hundreds of officials are somehow managing to get their children educated in pricey colleges in Europe and North America, with the Government of India singularly incurious about how they are funding the huge expenses these involve. Some rely on corporates for the study abroad of their children, while others simply use hawala channels to ensure that tuition and other fees get regularly paid. Hence the need to ensure that each senior official furnish the I-20 form and like forms (for countries other than the US) to his or her department, so that it can be examined as to whether undue influence has been used in order to pay the bills for a dependent of the high official.

Overall, both transparency as well as efficiency are at a low ebb in the portals of government in India, and Prime Minister Modi will face a difficult task in reversing the reality of abysmal standards. However, he is known to be facing up to the problem, immersing himself for much of the day in the minutae of administration. Narendra Modi is all that stands between the chaos of an India-style Tahrir Square meltdown of the system of governance and stable, rapid growth. Should he succeed, the country is likely to ensure that 500 million people get lifted out of poverty within 15 years. Should he fail or falter, the likely consequence is another hotchpotch government in 2019,which would negate any chances for the ordered growth that is essential for social stability in a country where 240 million young people will need more jobs in nine years than are at present on offer in an economy weakened by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

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