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Business News/ Opinion / An unsurprising first year in power

An unsurprising first year in power

A year after coming to power, Narendra Modi hasn't proved his critics wrong; he is failing his supporters

Photo: Graham Crouch/Bloomberg Premium
Photo: Graham Crouch/Bloomberg

Narendra Modi’s remarkable victory last year was possible because he made the Bharatiya Janata Party attractive beyond its core Hindu nationalist vote. From a low base of 7.74% in 1984—the first year the BJP fought elections in its current form—the party’s popular vote had risen to about a fifth of India’s electorate by 2009 (when it got 18.8% of the vote). Its share had otherwise hovered around 20-22%; its highest share had been 25.59% in 1998. Modi took the BJP’s vote to 31%, a 13 percentage-point shift over 2009.

Modi did so by attracting new voters, some of whom included those too young to know about the massacres in Gujarat in 2002.

Many felt India needed to respond robustly to terrorism and believed Modi would do what Manmohan Singh wouldn’t. This generation had grown up in post-reform India, taking an India of malls and cellphones for granted, impatient when the growth rate slowed. Modi also attracted many older voters who professed to be pro-markets and who felt the solution to India’s myriad problems lay in private enterprise. (Business can indeed create the prosperity that can help solve those problems, but solving those problems is not necessarily business’ responsibility). These new supporters gave the BJP that extra edge, which gave the party a parliamentary majority. To win in 2019, the BJP will need them and build on that vote. However, if the BJP returns to power in 2019, it will be because of the opposition’s failures.

A year after the elections, it’s surprising that many are surprised and disappointed with the government. I’m not.

Forget the unattainable rhetoric of bringing black money from Switzerland back home. Recall instead what the experts thought Modi would do: streamline the bureaucracy, make it easier to do business, and make development his priority. Other than progress on a nationwide goods and services tax, which the previous government had worked hard to legislate but which the BJP-ruled states—including Modi in Gujarat—resisted, there have been few concrete gains.

Even the amendment to the land acquisition law, which the BJP would like passed, and which is ostensibly pro-business, actually violates a core principle of free market economics—property rights.

It is puzzling to see the number of business leaders and economists, who seem to think nothing wrong with the idea of compulsory purchase of land, who cite the doctrine of eminent domain, as though it is a desirable doctrine even if the acquisition may not serve a public purpose. To disregard the customary rights of the poor and appropriate land they use or work on at a price that may bear no relation to what the market price might be a few years hence after the land has been developed (after being financed by loans and public debt) and allow gains to accrue to a private business, is hardly free market economics.

The foolish battle with foreign institutional investors over the minimum alternate tax is a fine example of what a business-friendly government such as BJP’s was not meant to embark upon. Several prominent business executives, bankers, economists and former ministers, in public and in private, are expressing disappointment with the government’s record. Well, now they know: Here is a leader who believes in marketing, not markets; in capitalists, not capitalism.

Beyond economics, there are those ill-tempered, illiterate remarks and campaigns from parliamentarians, ministers and other assorted sadhvis and mahants of the Sangh Parivar: fictitious phenomena such as love jihad, outrageous initiatives such as ghar wapsi, ludicrous claims about ancient science, juvenile assertions about Indian history, arbitrary extensions of the beef ban, and illiberal restrictions on TV networks or films have all emerged from that lot. Before the elections, a few intellectuals had parsed through Modi’s speeches and had this eureka-like conclusion: look, Modi 2014 is not Modi 2002; he doesn’t use divisive language; he talks of development.

How naïve could one get?

To be sure, with the exception of some silly claims on ancient science, as prime minister, Modi hasn’t made many nonsensical remarks. But he presides over the lot determined to turn India into a theocracy; what does his silence represent, if not acquiescence, approval, even encouragement, particularly for a leader known to exert control? Yes, he talks, on Twitter, at rallies, and on his radio show. But does he listen? There is style, not substance—taking selfies wherever there is a photo opportunity and changing clothes so often in a day that even Barack Obama notices it.

A year later, Modi hasn’t proved his critics wrong; he is failing his supporters. Instead of institutions, India now has acronyms; instead of strategies, slogans; instead of an inclusive government, there is an Indira Gandhi-like personality cult; instead of letting opposing views flourish, there is witch hunt; and she who questions him is deemed a traitor.

Sure there is buyers’ remorse. Recall what some of us said a year ago—caveat emptor, or buyers beware.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to

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Published: 20 May 2015, 04:08 PM IST
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