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Is Modi of the Right-wing or Left-wing? Is that even a relevant question to ask?

Modi tenure began by seemingly reducing government interference; and letting the market control distribution; but after Rahul Gandhi’s “suited and booted” jibe, the government has set about trying to acquirie a pro-poor image.

opinion Updated: Feb 10, 2018 19:55 IST
Mark Tully
Mark Tully
Narendra Modi,Modicare,health insurance
The headline-grabbing budget announcement of the world’s largest health insurance scheme, 500 million poor and vulnerable people to receive what the Prime Minister has described as “robust health-care”, has enabled the opposition to revive the ideological right versus left argument(Mohd Zakir/HT PHOTO)

The budget has reopened the question of the BJP’s colour: is it blue for Right-Wing or red for Left? At the outset the BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to be living up to the business community’s expectations favouring the private sector rather than the State and the public sector to deliver services and economic growth, leaving the market to control distribution. But then came the row over the land acquisition Act amendments which would have made it easier for industries to purchase land but reduce safeguards for landowners. That prompted Rahul Gandhi’s portrayal of Modi and his government as “suited and booted”, a jibe which appears to have gone home. Certainly the government then set about acquiring a pro-poor image.

The headline-grabbing budget announcement of the world’s largest health insurance scheme, 500 million poor and vulnerable people to receive what the PM has described as “robust health-care”, has enabled the Opposition to revive the ideological Right versus Left argument. The Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the Congress’ Ghulam Nabi Azad, attacked the health scheme as “only benefitting insurance companies”, and said, “the Centre should focus on building more government hospitals to provide effective treatment to the poor”. But the situation is not as clear cut as that. The finance minister also announced the provision of more government hospitals and medical schools. At the same time, the announcement that farmers would get 50% more than the cost of their inputs for their kharif crops could hardly be described as letting the market fix the price.

So is Modi Right-wing or not and is that even a fruitful question to ask? Listening to a discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival on greed and human aspiration strengthened my conviction that arguing whether Left or Right, socialism or capitalism should be, or indeed is, the creed of a government is not the argument which should be held. At first it seemed the discussion would turn into just that ideological argument with the brand strategist Ambi Parameswaran challenging the Leftist argument that advertising encourages greed by maintaining it as aspiration which it encourages.

Aspiring is essential if a nation or an individual is to change and make progress but there are aspirations and aspirations. On the morning I am writing this column, the front page of one of my newspapers is covered with an advertisement for a group of private schools. The headline is ‘Saga of Success Continues’, and under it are pictures of three “toppers”. This seems to me to be creating an aspiration for the worst form of education which is all too prevalent in India – obsessively competitive, winner takes all, and totally exam-focused.

Another member of the Jaipur panel, Gurcharan Das, formerly the multinational Procter and Gamble’s managing director worldwide for strategy, and now a prominent advocate of the private sector as a supplier of services with the government as a guarantor of quality, quoted the large number of parents opting for private rather than State schools as evidence of the superiority of the private sector as a provider. On a broader issue, Das advocated forgetting about the inequality market economics has created and concentrating on creating opportunities. He reminded us that concern about inequality had once led to the government imposing a personal tax rate of 100%.

The sociologist Dipankar Gupta said Das was repeating the familiar canard that socialism creates poverty and came back with a firm defence of the State as a provider of services particularly education and health. But he regretted that the discussion seemed to have become an ideological debate between Left and Right.

Stephen Green, the British peer, who was group chairman of HSBC and then trade minister summed up the discussion by reminding us that Deng Xiaoping had said: “Capitalism has its plans why shouldn’t socialism have its markets.” That seems to be a warning against being restricted by ideologies. Later Stephen Green also reminded me that Deng had said: “It doesn’t matter what colour the cat is so long as it catches the mouse.” Doesn’t that mean we will judge Modi wrongly if we see his policies through red or blue tinted glasses, rather we should see how effective they are.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 10, 2018 19:52 IST