Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi grown in the two years that he has led India?

Remington is on one side and Mac is on the other
Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi grown in the two years that he has led India?
Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi grown in the two years that he has led India?

A leader is judged on performance. A leader is also judged by whether s/he has grown on the job, stagnated or simply rolled back. A leadership team is valued for building institutional accountability and due process, for sharing responsibilities and enabling change. In politics, perception is as important as data – people vote with their hearts as much as with their heads.

Where does Prime Minister Narendra Modi stand in all this? Is he a visionary leader or a good administrator? Let me push that a little – does India need a good administrator at this point or a visionary who lays the foundation for next generations? There is no straight answer and in May 2014 Modi walked into that multi-pronged question with the faithful promise of answers.

He could afford taking that risk then because he had it all. The force, the flourish and the faith of millions of Indians hoping he had answers for them led to the decimation of the Congress Party – a drubbing from which it has yet to recover. Modi’s job began then and much remains to be done. People understand that the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy is not a magician.  But the resounding mandate he had secured had one message – get India on its feet and going.  Do he and his team understand people’s expectations or are they trying to manage them? Do they value people’s faith?

That question is moot because something has happened since 2014. What? Has Modi grown? Have Indians grown with him or grown away from him? It may be too soon to take a call on that now, but inertia is beginning to set in. Sluggishness is as bad for a political party as it is for economic growth. Work cannot thrive and expand if it is met with suspicion and distrust. There is a faith deficit that is raising its head and it must be addressed swiftly.

Yes, inflation in the country is down, major railways and highways expansion programmes have been fast-tracked, there is impetus to small and medium industries and in the fiscal year ended March 31, India’s gross domestic product (GDP) rose to 7.6%. All this may not have done much to lift corporate profits or consumer spending but faith in the government’s stamina to stay and deliver remains even if shaken a bit. India’s banks have been struggling with massive debts as well, but there is expectation that something constructive will be done. The crucial Goods and Services Tax (GST) and new laws on land acquisition for key infrastructure projects is stalling but not sinking.

On the foreign policy front India is not a global powerhouse. It never was in recent times and it is disingenuous on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders to claim they are an international voice. It is equally irresponsible on the part of the Congress Party to accuse the Narendra Modi government of an international slide. You cannot slide back from a height you never achieved.

The only countries that make an impact in the global arena are those that are either economically or militarily strong or both or have strategic assets like oil or access to seas. India’s big internal market is one of its greatest assets as is its vast and strategic coastline. For now though, the Narendra Modi government as the previous one is on a giving spree – give, give to the United States till it hurts (I will deal with that in another post). India’s relationship with its neighbours is not anything to brag about. Despite all this, hope remains – does the government understand why hope remains? Have Narendra Modi’s men and women even bothered to find out why hope remains?  

Stuttering and surrendering on foreign policy brings one level of problems but India is not going to be attacked by air, sea or land tomorrow – gunboat diplomacy has been replaced by trade attacks but the worst attacks are coming fast and furious from within. Modi was a polarising figure as he rose from being the Chief Minister of Gujarat to Indian Prime Minister. People either liked him or hated him then. The ‘likeable’ Modi staked his claim for India’s top job and secured it. The ‘disliked’ one was also part of the package. Reconciling the two views has perhaps been one of the biggest difficulties faced by team Modi but it was not impossible. Millions of Indians belonged to no side – it would have been wise and dextrous to work with intelligent opposition and friends to reach out to all instead of feeding the piranhas. The enemy lurks within.  It is not enough to condemn politicians who divide, especially on religious grounds. They must be expelled or made to pay. The Prime Minister cannot grow if he has to keep a constant watch over his shoulder.

The recent state assembly elections have mirrored this unease and adventure. While its rival the Congress party has been repeatedly shown the door since 2014, the BJP has been welcomed and shunned, like a sea-saw. The emergence of new leaders most recently in Assam, the Grand Alliance in Bihar, the rise of the AAP party in Delhi and the hold of the traditional Dravidian parties in the south suggest India is increasingly moving towards clear not fractured mandates.  In this are clear signals that the country will also fight back attempts by politicians to fracture or maim the society for their narrow political ends. The Modi government would do well to stick to the straight and narrow, and lead, not mislead.

And now I come to what I believe is a major chink in the government’s armour. Modi the communicator and the outsider came knocking two years ago on New Delhi’s doors. Instead of bringing in fresh air, new dialogues and new perspectives, he has settled for accommodation.  Instead of speaking to us, he talks down at us. One of the biggest failures of this government has been the absence of a credible conversation between the government and sections of society that make a democracy. The academia, civil society, media, private sector and public institutions do not have healthy and regular dialogues through their mediums because the space created by the new leader is a foreign one. It is different, it is challenging and ambitious, so it must be accommodated swiftly lest it engages with the unknown is how status quo works. The very notion of intelligent opposition seems foreign to people who run and make up Modi’s image and speak on his behalf. Their benchmark of success seems to be to do better than Rahul Gandhi. That is ample comment on their ambition. 

Modi is the captain of a ship that has to course correct simultaneously on many fronts even as it cuts new path. That’s like working on a Remington and a Mac at the same time in ten languages. This is no easy task in a country of 1.2 billion people and he has asked the electorate to give him ten years. People understand that and I would even suggest that they also want ten years of friendship, peace, clarity and growth. What they don’t understand is continued internal animosity, the engineered outrages or responses to them, the constant chatter about India happening, India moving, India flying etc. coming from politicians as lives of most Indians has not yet changed for the better. What is completely unacceptable is the licence to say outrageous things – two years into business the government must find a way to bloc hate traders. What is completely unacceptable is the licence accorded to politicians in the ruling coalition to say outrageous things – two years into business the government must find a way to weed out hate traders. 

A recent survey showed that an overwhelming number of Indians, especially the young, repose high faith in Modi. They will give Modi ten years if he and his cabinet perform, get work done and talk less – all prerequisites to grow with India and Indians any leader should aspire to. Indians voted for an empowering government, not one that patronises. Do your job Captain, and let people decide if they want you back or not. Create jobs and more jobs – that’s one way of genuinely reaching out to hearts and heads in 2019.

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