As India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to visit Japan three months since taking office, how do we assess his tenure to date? He is proving to be practical, not ideological, pragmatic rather than dogmatic. So far he has neither delivered on the exaggerated expectations of enthusiasts nor vindicated the worst fears of detractors.
The clearest articulation of Modi’s vision came in the traditional prime minister’s Independence Day speech on Aug. 15. Typically prime ministers pronounce with pride on India’s shining accomplishments while sounding warnings to mischief-minded foreign powers. Modi broke from tradition in the substance of his address and the barnstorming nature of his performance in an extemporaneous 70-minute address in Hindi.
Modi began by saying he spoke as India’s first servant, not prime minister. Acknowledging the contributions of all predecessors, he insisted national upliftment was the duty not solely of government but the individual, family and collective responsibility of people. He attacked the mentality of mera kya (what’s in it for me?) and if nothing, mujhe kya (what’s it to me?). If every one of India’s 1.25 billion people took one step forward, he noted, India would move forward 1.25 billion steps. References to skill development, digital India, e-governance, balance between imports and exports, manufacturing, and the abolition of the Planning Commission were along expected lines.
The first surprise came when Modi raised the shameful specter of rapes and asked parents to take responsibility for the behavior of sons as well as safety of daughters. He attacked the preference for sons and sex-selective abortion.
The second surprise was when he raised the issue of cleanliness and sanitation, pointing to girls who don’t go to schools because there are no women’s toilets. He noted the indignity that “our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open” and risk assault by heading for the fields in darkness: “I come from a poor family, I have seen poverty. The poor need respect and it begins with cleanliness.”
Having written about these very issues in these pages, I was applauding in my hotel room in Jakarta as I watched Modi’s speech on YouTube a day later.
Modi brought up public squalor that spreads disease and revolts and keeps away tourists. He said tourism profits luxury hotels, but also the poor street hawkers, auto-rickshaw drivers and tea vendors, of whom he used to be one.
These are not the issues citizens are used to hearing from their prime minister speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort, but they are fundamental to putting India back on track. Rather than warning neighbors and foreigners against threatening harm to India, in the only reference to foreign policy Modi invited neighbors to join India in eliminating poverty from South Asia.
Modi challenged the dominant culture of chalta hai (this will do for India as a poor developing country) that was drilled into my generation. The new generation of aspirational Indians insist only the best will do with quality of goods and services from the public and private sectors alike. Modi referenced news accounts that civil servants were clocking into office on time since he took office: “It shows how low we have fallen” that this was newsworthy. While inviting foreign firms to “Come, make in India,” he exhorted Indian workers to aim for exporting products all over the world with “Made in India” as a badge of quality, not cheapness.
India has not seen the likes of Modi before. But was it just rhetoric at odds with actions? India’s and Pakistan’s foreign secretaries were scheduled to have met for official dialogue on Aug. 25.
As in the past, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit met first with separatist leaders from Kashmir to gauge their expectations, despite being advised by the government against it. Delhi then canceled the talks, to general criticism by both Indian and international media as being contrary to the good will generated in inviting all South Asian leaders, including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration.
But there is no necessary contradiction: Both gestures might signal there is a new regime in town and business is no longer as usual. If Modi finds a partner for peace across the border, he may be willing to cut deals. But actions that India finds provocative will have repercussions and consequences: gone are the days of shrugging haplessly.
By contrast the budget, presented before Modi’s inspiring speech, was so lackluster that it could easily have come from the previous government. Forceful measures are required urgently to reverse economic stagnation that has settled in deeply. Foreign direct investment was greatly expanded in some sectors, including defense, but not in the retail sector, which would create jobs and benefit consumers with a competitive lowering of prices and improvements in quality and service.
Despite cheap talk of “tax terrorism,” the intensely investment-deterring retrospective tax was not lifted. After the lost decade under the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi duopoly, each additional year of delay in instituting necessary reforms will make it harder for India to catch up to the rest of the world. Politically too-tough measures are better introduced early; each succeeding year in the five-year parliamentary cycle will circumscribe the political space ever more tightly for difficult policy settings in favour of populist gimmicks.
Modi also let slip a golden opportunity to negate lingering concerns over his role in the deadly 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots. During the holy month of Ramadan, all adult Muslims observe a strict fasting regime from sunrise to sunset. On July 17, a group of members of Parliament from Shiv Sena, a hardline BJP-allied Hindu party, unhappy with the food served to them, force-fed their Muslim catering staffer.
Modi should have taken to national TV to come down hard on the errant MPs and emphasized forcefully that India is a nation of many faiths, that he is the first servant of all Indians, that his government promotes the welfare of all sections, and that intolerant incivility has no place in modern India.
These are early days still. Perhaps Modi is replicating his Gujarat model of successful development and good governance — learn to walk before you start to run. Rather than rush headlong and in a headstrong manner, he first wants to study and understand the many and significant problems confronting the country, and then launch sustained drives to address and overcome them.
Even so, having talked the talk, he must walk the walk sooner rather than later by drawing on the exceptional mandate given to him: the biggest electoral mandate of any in human history.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.