ON May 26 a year ago Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister after winning a mandate that looked massive in terms of seats won. Those were the heady days of “Har Har Modi”, the perfect culmination of an orchestrated pro-Modi frenzy in the run-up to the general election. To Modi supporters, that was the “end of history” moment and the wait for the Golden Age (achhe din) began. Like Alfred Tennyson’s lotus-eaters, they dreamt that “this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon”—the shore of Hindu Rashtra, the promised land of Vedic wisdom and civilisational purity. After all, it was once upon a time, before foreign invaders spoilt its religio-cultural serenity and much before the West began to see the early rays of Enlightenment, a land of thriving civil aviation, plastic surgery, nuclear technology and other scientific and technological wonders. The fact that the wave rested on a weak 32 per cent vote share failed to discolour their dreams. To a section of voters completely disillusioned with the Congress, Modi’s rise to power was a sign of hope. The country would finally be free of corruption, theorised as the only stumbling block to development, and the “Gujarat model” would be replicated at the all-India level. To those living in Shining India, smart cities and bullet trains were the escalators to their global dreams and destinations. The common man’s expectations, modest as always, were quality education, sources of livelihood that are permanent, sustainable and secure, and affordable health care. To big investors, Indian and foreign, ever in need of booster doses of “confidence”, Modi was the latest messiah. In short, one man’s election victory changed this land of doom and gloom into a land of great expectations. Before that defining moment, we Indians had been ashamed of being born in India as Modi himself said recently in a self-congratualtory mood in a narcissistic moment.
The post-election scenario was best described recently by none other than Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan. “This government came in with tremendous expectations and I think the kind of expectations were probably unrealistic for any government,” he said in response to questions after his address to the Economic Club of New York recently. Prime Minister Modi’s image was that of “Ronald Reagan on a white horse coming to slay anti-market forces”, he said, quickly, adding that such a comparison was “probably not appropriate”. Such a comparison might have been inappropriate, but there is no denying that unrealistic expectations stemmed from the unrealistic promises made by Modi in his campaign speeches, aided in no small measure by the larger-than-life image created by techniques borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s country.
Among the expectant citizens, the first section to voice concern was industry, which wanted Modi to modify people’s expectations. Modi took the cue. Within a month of assuming office he sent out a pre-Budget message that indicated the shape of things to come.
“I need to take some harsh decisions and administer some bitter medicine in order to resuscitate this patient. The medicine may hurt some of you but I ask for your support at this time.” That was the first sign of his climbdown from the high pedestal of hyperbole and rhetoric that he took during his high-decibel, high-spectacle electioneering.
As Raghuram Rajan himself pointed out in New York, Modi was sensitive “to investors”. That he was sensitive to investors and not to other segments of the population became clear from the Union Budget that promptly announced a 5 per cent reduction in corporate tax (even as the great Indian middle class was expecting an income tax exemption miracle) and from the speed with which he ventured upon labour “reforms” and wanted to have the Land Acquisition Bill passed in Parliament. Captains of industry backed Modi to the hilt on the land Bill. However, “ease of doing business” and “make in India” coming at the cost of workers’ rights, the farming community’s livelihoods and the environment’s sustainability quickly dissipated the affected sections’ hopes of acche din. In the forefront of opposing these moves was the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a Sangh Parivar affiliate, forced as it was to take into account the real-life concerns of its members, not the imagined grievances born out of a false sense of Hindu victimhood.
More disappointing, not to say shocking, for many Indians with secular concerns was the rapid morphing of Modi’s development debate into the Hindutva tantrums of leaders of various shades of saffron in the Sangh family, and the deafening silence of the development man at the helm. May 26 was the acche din they were waiting for, from the margins of Indian politics, for about six decades. A government led by a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activist and with absolute majority is the ideal opportunity for dusting up the core Hindutva agenda and putting it into practice. Even a section of industry, which played no small role in sanitising Modi of grave charges of conniving at the Gujarat pogrom, was shocked out of its “growth obsession” to make statements such as, “The RSS is certainly diluting the focus and it is uncalled for… it is detrimental to the development agenda... the government should do some straightening out… the ghar wapsi agenda for any section of society will create a huge dent in the growth agenda.”
The silence of the Prime Minister on the right-wing fringe’s majoritarian frenzy would have come as a surprise only to unsuspecting sections of people remaining uninitiated in politics, and not to political observers who know that the centre and the periphery of the Sangh Parivar are bound by a world view that is majoritarian, obscurantist, inegalitarian, socially non-inclusive, patriarchic and illiberal.
Corporate India’s unease in doing business of late also stems from what it sees as a policy paralysis inflicted by the bureaucrat-driven and overcentralised administration run essentially by an omnipotent Prime Minister’s Office, and also the welfarist noises from the government.
One year down the line, Modi looks like a leader at the receiving end of impatience born out of unmet expectations. Industry wants the government to move faster on the growth track.
HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh, described as the guiding voice of Indian industry, said:
“I think there is still a lot of optimism among the people of the country and among the industrialists and entrepreneurs that the Modi government will be good for business, for progress, for reducing corruption. They think this government means business on all these fronts…. However, after nine months, there is a little bit of impatience creeping in as to why no changes are happening and why this is taking so long having effect on the ground.”
One year down the line, industry is impatient. Workers and farmers are increasingly restive and the middle class is increasingly disillusioned. The Sangh Parivar is dissatisfied. Expectations and disenchantment are directly proportional to grandiose promises.
Which constituency’s concerns and aspirations will he, or can he, address?
In this issue’s cover story, Frontline , which has consistently critiqued Modi’s style and substance, tries to answer this question on the basis of the policy trajectory that his government has taken in the areas of politics, the economy, foreign affairs, legislation, institution-building, environment, science and technology, civil society activities and defence.
R. Vijaya Sankar