Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata government is now celebrating its first 100 days in power. Modi is now in Japan on his first big international visit as the guest of prime minister Shinzo Abe, who has given him an effusively warm personal welcome reflecting their rapport (left).
Two days ago it was announced that economic growth reached 5.7% for the three months to June, the highest for two years, and a big financial inclusion scheme to open bank accounts for millions of the poor has just been launched. A raft of defence contracts and tenders have been decided, with more Indian private sector involvement than has been allowed before.
This shows that the government is now moving into an action phase, though the economic growth of course was generated before the general election.
There is widely reported gossip about rifts among BJP leaders, and there are also concerns about the BJP’s right wing and its ideological partners pushing a nationalist agenda. This has surfaced most damagingly with suggestions that all Indians are Hindus, which marginalises the identity of minorities, notably Muslims but also others including Christians. Such suggestions do not fit with Modi’s current economic-oriented agenda, though he probably has to allow the right some slack to keep them content.
There will be a price to pay for the newly energised growth-oriented government that Modi is running. “Dirty growth is inevitable,” a leading Delhi columnist adamantly said to me the other day. Rules restricting coal mining in forest areas are expected to be watered down soon, along with the powers of a National Green Tribunal. The government has also avoided appointing the authorised number of independent members to the National Wildlife Board, though that is being questioned by the Supreme Court. Such developments will gradually unpick environmental protection moves started by the Congress government.
Modi‘s approach is to solve problems and implement decisions, unlike the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s leadership of the Congress Party that not only let growth drop by half from its peak of 9-10% in the last five years, but also failed to reduce the official poverty level below 30% in the 67 years since independence when it was mostly in power. The dynasty believed in modulating the impact of social issues rather than solving them, and Rahul Gandhi, the fading heir to the party leadership, even said to friends that, to stay in power, Congress should focus on aid schemes not economic reforms. Modi will continue with schemes, but he will also go for growth and for cleaning up the way that the government functions, including reducing corruption.
De Gaulle or Putin?
Commentators have likened him to Charles de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher and Vladimir Putin – all autocrats who wreaked change in democracies (albeit a managed one in Russia), plus Jawaharlal Nehru who set India on its independent path in 1947. He has also been compared by one writer to Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew, who managed development and social cohesion in China and Singapore.
Such a range of impressive comparisons illustrates the burden that Modi heaped on himself with his presidential style general election campaign, when he made himself the reason to vote BJP, not the party itself. He is an autocrat and is showing not only that he is in charge, but that his ministers and top bureaucrats – who have started working a full day from 9am till into the evening for the first time in years – are watched and monitored.
There have been often-repeated stories in the media about a minister, who was dining in a hotel with a top industrialist, receiving a phone call from Modi who showed he knew the name of the industrialist. Another minister on his way to an international airport in jeans was called and told to go home and smarten up. The names of the cities, hotel, and people change with the repeated-telling, but one story that has caused rifts is Modi allegedly cautioning the son of Rajnath Singh, the former BJP president and now home minister, for talking a bribe. I’ve also heard a story about intelligence officers manning corridors in at least one ministry, watching who visits ministers and officials.
The image of absolute authority was also shown by the way that plans for India’s and Pakistan’s foreign secretaries to meet were suddenly cancelled two weeks ago, and by the sudden cancelling of India’s pledged support (given by the last government) for a World Trade Organisation agreement on trade facilitation. In neither case did Modi seem to care who he was upsetting – including the US and other parties to the WTO agreement.
The India-Pakistan move has potentially re-set the terms for talks between the two countries because India is saying that they are strictly bilateral matter and should exclude Kashmir-based separatist organisations that Pakistan has talked to in the past. The message here is that Modi is in favour of improving economic and other links with India’s destabilised neighbour, but not having talks that get nowhere.
Modi’s visit to Japan – which follows his earlier regional trips to Bhutan and Nepal – is focussed on establishing a new bilateral relationship that will lead to deals covering nuclear power equipment, infrastructure investment, education, modern city planning, and defence and other manufacturing. A strategic bond is also being developed to offset the regional ambitions of China. Later in September, Modi will develop his approach to foreign policy when he meets China’s president in Delhi and the Barack Obama in Washington.
It is now clear that Modi will have a significant impact on the way that the central government works, indeed he has already started doing so. His ability to introduce new legislation however is restricted because the BJP and its allies do not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha upper house of parliament. They are unlikely to do so till 2018, according to a forecast by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Rajya Sabha seats are indirectly elected via the states, and the BJP and it allies would have to win six state elections between now and 2018 to achieve a majority, according to the analysis
That does not however stop Modi implementing policies that the last government failed to do and taking wide-ranging initiatives ranging from boosting the manufacturing industry to building highways and establishing effective schemes for the poor like the bank accounts.
This should continue to expand the growth that began under the last government, and bring back foreign investors who, though they are piling record amounts of money into the stock market, have been reluctant to bring in direct industrial and other investments.
It’s a new style of government and Modi is on a roll, though not everyone will like it!