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The intentions are good, the execution patchy

The year that began with 'paisa wapsi' ends with 'ghar wapsi'. There has been little meaningful discourse so far, writes Mohan Guruswamy.

ht view Updated: Dec 30, 2014 23:07 IST
UPA

The year 2014 was a tumultuous one. India got its first truly and fully non-Congress government, in the sense that it was not sustained in some measure with the support of former Congressmen. Thus, it might well be the year when India's nationalism changed direction from being all-inclusive and benign to being restricted and more assertive.

The year began in the midst of noisy and well-directed anti-corruption and anti-establishment campaigns, led by the likes of Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Ramdev, seeking the enactment of an inquisitory jan lokpal bill armed with draconian powers. The rise of a well orchestrated middle class anger against the perceived failures of omission and commission by the UPA regime dominated our discourse and it showed in the results of the Lok Sabha polls.

The BJP-led NDA romped home with 336 seats. The BJP itself won 31% of votes cast and 282 seats or 51.9% of all seats. Incidentally in 2009, the UPA won just 262 seats with 37.2% of the votes. Quite clearly our first-past-the-post system hugely exaggerates or understates mandates. The last time a single party won a simple majority was in the 1984 elections just after Indira Gandhi's assassination when the Congress won 404 seats with 49.1% of the votes. To that extent this is still a minority government in office despite twice as many voting against it than for it. Clearly the challenge for the BJP government is to expand its support.

The two successive UPA terms saw India's GDP expand from around $750 billion to around $2 trillion, growing at an astounding average of 7.4%. Poverty also saw a substantial reduction from 39% to about 21%. What detracted from this was the dismal growth of 4.5% in each of the last two UPA years. Sadly for the Congress, voters have short memory spans. The election that followed in this surcharged atmosphere was the most expensive one this country has witnessed. According to some estimates, the two major parties spent Rs 20,000-30,000 crore on the elections. People seem to miss the irony of a party coming to power on the basis of huge and unaccounted expenditures to defeat a government perceived to have become corrupt.

Narendra Modi himself addressed 437 major public meetings and travelled over 300,000 kilometres crisscrossing across 25 states. In addition, he participated in 5,827 'interfacing' meetings by holographic and two-dimensional video projections. For months together he occupied the prime time on most TV channels and even Doordarshan found it difficult to ignore his dominant presence. It was as if Modi was running for president rather than the BJP seeking a mandate to govern. The problem now is that he seems to be running a presidential-style of government when our political arrangements don't allow for it.

In 1952, on the eve of General Eisenhower taking over, United States President Harry S Truman ruefully commented that he felt sorry for him. Eisenhower, he said, was a General used to giving orders and having them followed. It will take him time to realise that the presidential office has little power but enormous authority. He has to use that authority to preach and convert people to support his policies. He has to carry Congress, the media and his own party. But like a true General Eisenhower will issue orders and find them not being fully complied with. The office of PM too is somewhat akin. A chief minister by contrast has enormous powers. A chief minister can give land, bestow favours and dispense patronage. A chief minister runs the government by exercising power. A PM by contrast has to make do more by using authority than power. So far Modi has had problems with exercising that authority. He is now facing increasing discord in Parliament, more criticism from the media and greater dissonance within the BJP and the RSS.

The Modi government took charge of a much-slowed-down economy. In the first quarter under the new government growth had risen smartly to 5.7% with all sectors giving cause for optimism. However, the afterglow was soon lost as GDP growth tumbled down to 5.3% with industrial production dipping significantly to 1.1% as opposed to the 1.8% year-over-year. But worse was the battering the corporate India's profitability took by plunging by almost 10% to 8.1%. The very people who showered Modi with generous pocketbook support now seem somewhat worried.

All other major indices also are now unfavourable. The current account deficit has ominously begun to increase in the second quarter despite the steep fall in oil prices. Tax collections, projected to rise by 25.8% this year, have only grown by 5.6% so far. Since growth in India is led by public expenditures, it looks unlikely that the Modi government will be able to retrieve the growth trajectory. Before the elections Modi promised that the decade of economic drift under the UPA would be rectified with some bitter medicine. He was clearly alluding to making government more effective and curbing wasteful expenditures and undeserved subsidies. The government has not been able to do this yet.

On the foreign policy front the performance has been much better. Modi, in true presidential style, has seized foreign relations as his exclusive domain, with the ministry of external affairs being relegated to caring for relations with the smaller and more distant countries. The peripatetic Modi has already visited nine countries and has met with all the Saarc leaders. The PM made visibly successful trips to Japan and the US. The improvement in relations with the US has been quite spectacular. Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit was blighted by the Chumar incident, vastly overshadowing the economic gains both sides hope to make in the immediate future. Even so the determination displayed by the Indian Army at the desolate heights of Chumar with matching eyeball-to-eyeball buildups showed the Modi government in good light. But more satisfying was the government's disproportionate retaliation in responding to Pakistan's resumption of firing across the border. This seems to have gone down well with most Indians who are now getting increasingly wary of Pakistan's unceasing and irrational hostility.

The last few weeks have been dominated by the controversy on conversions. Suddenly something that Article 25(1) of the Constitution guarantees, the fundamental right "to practise or propagate his or her faith and religion," is being challenged by the ghar wapsi campaign of the Sangh parivar.

So how did 2014 go? The year that began with paisa wapsi is now ending with ghar wapsi. This is a telling commentary on how public opinion is deliberately channelled for political gain. In that sense it was like any other year, with little purposeful discourse and plenty of acrimony.

(Mohan Guruswamy is a political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal)