Governance and governance outcomes are a continuing process. Artificial time slices like a hundred days or six months have at best some symbolic value. So, what yardsticks would be appropriate, both in absolute and relative terms, to assess the first six months of the Modi government?
Expectations outstrip reality — changing reality often entails societal changes — a painstaking process. Outcomes invariably manifest themselves when a critical mass is reached. So, what are the significant milestones of Modi’s performance in his first six months? How valid is the persistent critique that many favourable trends are favourable stars (Not achhe din but achhe sitare) or that the new policy initiatives are a repackaging of ongoing policies and that the focus on foreign policy neglects domestic concerns?
There is no doubt that softening oil and commodity prices have enabled a smoother transition to a deregulated administered regime on energy and subsidy rationalisation. However, this ignores the basic fact that the low equilibrium of sub-5% growth rate, raging inflation and unmanageable current account, jobless growth and systemic neglect of the manufacturing sector were the outcomes not of external factors but failures of internal policymaking.
The decisions to rationalise expenditure more aggressively, de-regulate oil prices, increasingly move to technology-based cash transfer and Digital India, faster rollout of Aadhaar, making banking inclusive for all through the Jan Dhan Yojana, re-emphasise skill inculcation and signal changes in labour laws are important policy choices made by the Modi government. Similarly, if some of these initiatives originated earlier they sadly remained in a shambles.
A lot of explaining needs to be done on why vast sums of money for cleaning rivers, sanitation and drinking projects remained clogged in processes and procedures with poor project management. It is also in the logic of events that no matter who sows and how they are nurtured the usufruct is enjoyed by he who harvests. On the diplomatic front, recent history rarely witnessed such sweeping engagement with proximate neighbours, the Far East and Trans-Atlantic powers in building trust and chemistry on economic and foreign policy. And equally in accepting, recognising and leveraging the new-found confidence and enthusiasm of the diaspora community.
It is sad that it took us so long to realise that the Indian diaspora is no longer seeking compassion and assistance but with their new-found prosperity they can become important partners in the political and policy changes of their host countries. The Modi era, which has just commenced, has three other significant dimensions.
First, many of the far-reaching initiatives like the movement for a Clean India, improving personal hygiene, providing safer toilets, cleaner rivers and improving sanitation build not only virtuous cycles via improved health and higher productivity but catalyse societal changes.
Changing age-old prejudices, predilections, and attitudes are predicated on enhanced consciousness and leadership. They also seek to align national pride with economic gains.
Modi realises that economic reforms without societal acceptance have neither synergy nor sustainability. Second, fostering a more purposive governance milieu by rejuvenating administrative processes and procedures, emphasising meritocracy in appointments in the bureaucracy, banking and financial system, minimising levels of decision making and a commitment to protect bonafide decisions by amending laws that inhibit decision-making like the debilitating provision of the Special Police Establishment Act, making officials criminally liable even when they have little personal gain.
Third, a collective commitment to improve project implementation, seek outcomes rather than outlays, reinvigorating public private people partnership, seek faster rollout of infrastructure (30 km a day of roads) by resolving issues like environment and land acquisition, resolving pricing issues on gas, better alignment of power and coal reforms (while recognising the role of the private sector in commercial mining).
These will improve the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector and, in combination with an integrated skills development programme, create gainful employment. However, the Modi leadership faces multiple governance challenges in the coming months. The will to stay the course on difficult issues particularly societal changes. Social attitudes are not malleable to short-term stimuli. Re-energising the administrative rubric, making them accountable through punishment and incentives and not allowing the vigil to wane.
The ability to harness bipartisan support for legislative changes and, in some cases, resorting to joint sessions of Parliament. There is important legislative business beyond Insurance and Coal Mines Bills such as the introduction of the GST, and restructuring of entitlement-driven schemes.
On the economy a deeper commitment to policies on macroeconomic stabilisation, amendment of the FRBM Act seeking approval not ex-post but ex-ante on altered targets, monetary and fiscal policy truly combining growth imperatives with inflation moderation, enacting legislation in the financial sector suggested by the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission and changing the tax milieu to make it non-adversarial.
Can this Budget become transformative through greater transparency in budgetary processes with more meaningful consultation with stakeholders? On education and health, will the entitlement-driven laws be amended to secure better outcomes and more meaningful engagement with the private sector, which has resources, management and innovation but remains hobbled by a senseless RTE Act.
Finally, making India a better place to live, with better ambient air quality, improved ease of doing business, and harnessing more meaningful partnership with states. Quite often simultaneous incremental changes can become transformative. A year may be more realistic period to judge how transformative the first 365 days of the Modi era have been.
Thomas Jefferson said, “That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” Ideally this is what Modi’s leadership seeks to achieve.
NK Singh is a member of the BJP and a former Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal