‘Modi effect’ gets Delhi working, but reforms prove elusive

Published August 25, 2014
INDIAN Prime Minister Narendra Modi joins hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma at the sixth BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, on July 15.—AFP
INDIAN Prime Minister Narendra Modi joins hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma at the sixth BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, on July 15.—AFP

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shaken up India’s ruling elite in his first 100 days since taking power, but has so far struggled to deliver the bold reforms needed to kick-start the economy.

Modi swept to power in May on a tide of hope after years of political stagnation and slowing economic growth in the world’s largest democracy.

Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide election win gave them the strongest mandate in a generation.

But the new government’s first budget was short on big-ticket reforms, and it ended its first parliamentary session in power this month without managing to push through even modest legislative changes.

“When Modi came to power, people had huge expectations of him and people thought that things would happen right from the first day,” said Manoj Joshi of the New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation.

“But he has been a bit slow and cautious and we haven’t seen anything dramatic in budget or policy announcements.” Modi’s bold election promise to lift millions of Indians out of poverty through market forces took a further bashing when his government’s refusal to compromise over its food subsidies threatened a trade pact agreed by all 160 World Trade Organization members.

Inflation remains high at nearly eight per cent, while industrial output expanded by an unexpectedly slow 3.4pc in June, dimming prospects of a quick economic recovery.

But Modi’s first Independence Day speech, delivered from the walls of the Red Fort in Delhi without a script or the usual bullet-proof screen, was hailed as a political tour de force.

He spoke out against violence against women and vowed to provide toilets for all within a decade and enable the poorest of society to open bank accounts.

“People may criticise me for talking about toilets from the Red Fort,” he said.

“But I am from a poor family, I have seen poverty first hand. For the poor to get dignity, it has to start from here.”

Economist Bibek Debroy of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research says such ambitions will take time to fulfil.

“He has made it clear in all his speeches that he doesn’t believe in setting 100-day goals or agendas, nor is his government here for 100 days,” said Debroy.

“Some things that need to be done for change require institutions and mechanisms that haven’t yet fallen in place.”

‘Modi effect’

When it comes to cleaning up those institutions, few fault Modi’s efforts.

A plan to abolish the country’s Soviet-style national planning commission has been widely praised.

And his effort to clean up New Delhi’s corruption-tainted and inefficient civil service has proved even more popular.

Bureaucrats used to wandering into the office when the fancy took them have been told in no uncertain terms to be at their desks by nine, while afternoons on the golf course are a thing of the past.

One senior minister is even rumoured to have received a call from the prime minister’s office when he was at the airport on his way to London for a family trip, ordering him to cancel.

It has come to be known as the “Modi effect” after the prime minister, a vegetarian and teetotaller who describes himself as “labourer number one”.

The humble title belies Modi’s reputation as a strong leader who has stamped his authority on government and ended the sense of drift that prevailed under his predecessor Manmohan Singh.

Under Singh, ministers would regularly speak to the media off the record to criticise the coalition government’s policies. Now, journalists say, access to ministers is strictly controlled.

“All this is nothing but a sign of extreme centralisation of power around PM Modi,” said Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan magazine.

Modi has refocused India’s diplomatic efforts on neighbouring countries after years of neglect and amid growing Chinese influence in the region.

But early indications of warmer ties with Pakistan were dashed on Monday when India cancelled high-level diplomatic talks after Islamabad’s envoy held a meeting with Kashmiri separatists.

Some of the fiercest critics of Modi’s move to engage with his Pa­k­­istani counterpart Nawaz Sh­­a­rif, who has made improving ties with India a cornerstone of his lea­dership, came from conservative right-wingers in his own camp.

It was an illustration of the difficulty Modi faces in pleasing his diverse support base — although an opinion poll by Hansa Research published this week by the India Today Group found that 70pc of voters were happy with his performance so far.

Sadanand Dhume of Washington-based think tank the American Enterprise Institute believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Modi has started more slowly than expected, but most early signs are encouraging,” said Dhume, citing efforts to reduce corruption and improve the quality of governance and a “newly energised” diplomacy.

“As decisions pick up steam, this government may well fulfil its potential to transform India.”—AFP

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2014

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