New Delhi: Far-right economists, some of whom appear on Mint’s opinion pages, had one view. Subsidies would go. State-owned firms would be sold to the highest bidder. Labour and tax laws would be reformed. Growth would return.
Left-leaning liberals, who too find a place in Mint, had another. History would be rewritten. Forests would be despoiled. The media would be muzzled. 2014 would become 1984—George Orwell’s version of it.
That was during the elections, once it became clear the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would form India’s next government.
Three months and a bit later, neither scenario has panned out entirely, although bits of both have; it is entirely possible that with time, one or the other may indeed come true.
Tuesday marks the 100th day since Narendra Damodardas Modi was sworn in as India’s 14th Prime Minister. There have been a rash of analyses to commemorate the event. Sure, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ruled India for 13 days, and then 13 months, both starting in 1998, and then again, for five years between 1999 and 2004, but the Modi government is India’s first, true BJP government.
The performance of a government and a man, both just getting started—many say, perhaps rightly, that Modi is the NDA and the NDA is Modi—can’t really be assessed in 100 days.
Still, 100 days is enough time to try and understand both man and machine.
The NDA took charge on 26 May, India’s strongest government in nearly three decades. Its dominant constituent, the BJP itself, won 282 seats, well over the 272 needed for a simple majority in the Lok Sabha.
The new government inherited considerable problems, mostly to do with governance or the lack of it, in the second half of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) 10-year tenure. The sense of drift was most palpable in the economic arena, where there were issues related to structure, sentiment and administration. Through an acronym- and platitude-rich campaign that resonated with the masses, Modi may have given off the impression that he could wave a wand and sort out the fiscal mess, stare inflation into submission, and put his shoulder (sitting atop a 56” chest) to the economy to get it moving again, but everyone, including the man, knew that was not going to be the case.
Modi and the BJP would have also known that it was not really going to be possible to push through all the radical reforms they wanted to. Despite its majority in the Lok Sabha, the NDA is in the minority in the Rajya Sabha.
There have been enough points of data in these 100 days to help understand what Modi the Prime Minister, and his new government, stands for. The piece that follows may merit revision after another 100 days because in the days and weeks that come, with the first session of Parliament over, Modi is certain to induct more ministers, shuffle portfolios, create the new Planning Commission alternative he has spoken of, and get a little more radical and imaginative. There may be yet another revision called for after coming state elections that the BJP wants to win, especially in Maharashtra and Haryana, that will necessarily entail populist measures but for now, this is what we know (and what we don’t).
In keeping with the spirit of the times, with a nod to both Modi and Buzzfeed, let’s look at 11 things we now understand about India’s new government and its leader.
1) The new NDA government is as flat an organization as it gets. There is one leader and that’s it. This is a significant change from the UPA where Congress president Sonia Gandhi was the political leader of the alliance that governed India; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the administrative head of the government; and most senior ministers saw themselves as leaders in their own right.
2) Modi believes more in hard work and administrative efficiency than big ideas. This is actually a good thing because, as Mint’s Anil Padmanabhan pointed out in a recent article for Mint Asia, the need of the hour is to fix governance and that is all about operational effectiveness (or OE as it is called in management lingo), not strategy.
3) Modi will tolerate cantankerous fringe elements, although he may not really subscribe to their extreme views. Will he act on their wishes and views? We don’t know.
4) The new government lacks bench strength and governance experience. It can’t really be faulted for either—both are built by being in power, and the party hasn’t been in power for a decade. Still, it won’t do to have one minister handle several important portfolios. The lack of governance experience also means some ministers are working on the basis of their understanding of what will please the boss—not exactly the best way to go about nation-building.
5) The environment and environmental issues are secondary to growth, at least for now.
6) Modi doesn’t forget; nor does he forgive. He runs a tight ship and appears to be keeping a close eye on what each of his ministers is up to.
7) Like many governments that came before it, the NDA doesn’t really believe there is any pressing need to communicate (which has surprised people who were swayed by Modi’s campaign into believing the man would over-communicate once in power). If anything, the only change has been the attempt to hide the lack of real communication through an overdose of banal news releases.
8) We do not know if Modi trusts external advisers (he did, during the campaign that brought him to power, but it isn’t clear if he does so now).
9) Modi is truly business-friendly, but he also wants to send out a strong message that his government doesn’t indulge in crony capitalism. That fits in well with the emphasis on OE and the intent to move more government processes online—where things work on the basis of rules, not exceptions.
10) The NDA’s values are those of Middle India. This is not a liberal government.
11) As the whole WTO (World Trade Organization) issue showed, Modi’s belief in free markets doesn’t necessarily mean he leans to the right on issues such as subsidies—the bugbear of all right-leaning economists. The NDA government is a centrist one that leans marginally to the right.
It was always clear, even before he came to power, that Modi would not be a prime minister in the Nehruvian mould. Many analysts, including several who supported him, believed he would be more like Margaret Thatcher (and then expressed disappointment when he didn’t go down that road). Based on the 11 points above, it is clear that India’s new Prime Minister believes more in the Lee Kuan Yew school of managing a country, as astutely pointed out by economist Sanjeev Sanyal in a column last month. That kind of micro-management, attention to detail, and emphasis on execution will not work in India, we’ve always been told. Can Modi prove that wrong?