Three years of Modi govt: How the PM has transformed the political landscape, writes Swapan Dasgupta | Opinion
There is a common thread that binds the most ardent supporters of the prime minister, Narendra Modi and his most trenchant critics: Both see him as an agent of radical change. While his avid admirers have faith in Modi’s ability to be the vehicle of transformation — a process that goes beyond mere reforms — that will usher a self-confident, culturally assertive and economically buoyant ‘New India’, his foes are convinced that the NDA government is assaulting the Nehruvian ‘idea of India’ and replacing it with something narrow, regressive and even authoritarian.
Looking back at the three years of the Modi sarkar — the first government at the Centre to rule with a single-party majority since 1989 — it is apparent that the expectations of both sides remain unfulfilled. The third anniversary may have brought some good news about the economy — some 90 lakh new income tax payers, India’s market capitalisation of $2 trillion, record levels of foreign direct investment, made in India iPhones and the steady strengthening of the rupee — but the news from the ground is still mixed.
The Modi government has shown both energy and imagination in pushing through schemes that have a direct and immediate connect with the people. The road building programme, the steady progress towards 24x7 electrification of India by 2019, the huge energy savings through low cost LED bulbs, the rationalisation of cooking gas subsidies, the financial inclusion effected through Jan Dhan Yojana and the construction of nearly 35 crore toilets should count as major achievements. Equally, the deft handling of the GST legislation, the simplification of rules and procedures for business, the near-mandatory transfer of welfare entitlements by bank transfer, the transparency in the auction of natural resources and the corrective actions to make states more financially empowered are long-term achievements.
However, all these measures count as either good governance or reforms. Indeed, some of them have their genesis in the UPA regime that, alas, lacked the drive and the political focus to push them through. In terms of disruptive approaches that break with the old order, the Modi Government has exercised caution — no doubt due to the complication of numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Modi has, in fact, been charged by the pro-market Right of being needlessly incremental in his quest for change.
The government has, however, been positively disruptive in fighting corruption and changing the political culture. Demonetisation was unquestionably the biggest decision of the past three years. Its objectives ranged from fighting terrorism, crime and tax evasion to propelling India into the club of less-cash economies. That it has also proved politically rewarding was not apparent on the day the decision was taken and economic activity was temporarily disrupted. It was both a decision taken in secret by a very few and a huge leap of faith.
Demonetisation was also the clearest test of Modi’s political resolve. He was neither deterred by the complications of offending the BJP’s core support base nor paralysed into doing nothing by the confusion among economists of its consequences. There is an obstinate streak in Modi that has proved a big deterrence against political pressures for ‘accommodation’. In making the capital’s lobbying industry redundant, resisting the temptation to be part of the cosy social life of Lutyens’ Delhi, refusing to be swayed by media storms and in being inflexible in his insistence on rectitude, Modi has presented a distinctive style of leadership. Critics have pilloried him for an authoritarian streak but imperiousness born of exercising moral choices has always yielded returns. The argumentative public life notwithstanding, the Indian voter has an abiding fascination for strong-willed leaders.
At the same time the Modi government isn’t ideologically dogmatic in its strategies of governance. Modi has defied neat categorisation and this has been the source of much misunderstanding of both the man and his regime. As the basic parameters of his governance suggests, he has blended different impulses. He has combined a top-down approach with grassroots political mobilisation, lofty idealism with electoral expediency, statism with market impulses, self-help with state welfare and swadeshi with the global. Far from being a transient phenomenon — as many imagined he would be — he has completely altered the political landscape in a short span of three years. His governance is still a work in progress and it will take a longer time frame to comprehend its full impact.
As a senior BJP leader once told me: “Modi is not there to manage India; he is there to change it.” In fact, he is doing both.
Swapan Dasgupta is a Rajya Sabha MP, senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed are personal