Barack Obama took oath as President of the United States on January 20, 2009. Just nine months later, in October the same year, an award jury, bedazzled by “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, awarded Obama the Nobel Prize for Peace.
One commentator, reacting to the announcement, expressed surprise on why Obama had not simultaneously received the award for Chemistry since “he’s just got great chemistry” with people!
The farce of giving the award so early, without any achievement, now so obvious in hindsight, was apparent to most people even then. But consider this. As per the Nobel Prize award committee website, to be considered for the peace prize, nominations must be received no later than February 1 of that respective year. So this means that someone must have nominated Obama for the prize within 10 days of him assuming office?
If you thought this was too freaky to be ever repeated again, then consider what is happening to Modi. He assumed office on May 26, 2014. We are in the first week of August. A little over 60 days have passed in what is going to be a government of over 1800 days. And the commentators are already out with their verdict, damning the government for not living up to the mandate at best and having betrayed it at worst. On social media, some who campaigned for Modi are now calling him incompetent and have even accused him of promoting nepotism! If Obama was nominated for the Nobel Prize in just 10 days of being in office, the exact opposite of getting a Nobel seems to have happened with Modi—he has already been compared to Manmohan Singh and his government labeled as UPA-III.
It is not as if this premature judgment of the Modi government is driven by malicious intent. In fact the opposite seems to be the case. Many of the critics are those who are well wishers of Modi, if not the BJP. So why is this happening? Are there two sides to the story, one of the Modi government and another that his supporters-turned-critics are seeing?
First, there have been governments which deliver dramatically on their promises within days of assuming office. Mulayam Sigh Yadav had promised to scrap the anti-copying law within minutes of taking office during the 1993 UP elections. He delivered. More recently, Kejriwal of AAP promised to deliver subsidised electricity and water in Delhi. He delivered within days.
But history shows that such governments rarely last a full term; indeed it is not even their intent to give lasting governance, thus the need for such flashy stunts. Invariably they leave a mess when they demit office, as residents of Delhi realised after AAP’s short-lived circus.
The Modi government had, in contrast, not promised any short term agenda of 30 days or 100 days (unlike say UPA-II in 2009). It is a government elected for five years and intends to govern for five years. The Modi government has promised to run bullet trains and not reduce governance to bullets.
Second, governance is often a boring exercise and the process is never as exciting as the end result. The dramatic increase in girl child school enrollment and simultaneous decrease in school dropout rates in Gujarat became a selling point in 2012. However, before that, there was a decade of almost unnoticed effort with initiatives such as three-day camps in mid-June ever year, when the entire government machinery would shift to villages. The story captured everyone’s imagination only when the decadal comparisons became known.
Yesterday, there was a long debate in the Rajya Sabha on the power sector with excellent speeches by many members culminating in an important policy laden reply by the power minister. How many people followed it?
Third, the disenchantment seems to have first started from the absence of so-called big ideas in the General Budget. Just yesterday, the Union cabinet cleared 49% FDI in defense with a provision to go even higher in high-end technology hardware, 49% in insurance, and up to 100% in railway infrastructure. These are transformative decisions with the potential to fundamentally alter the economy and spur job creation unlike ever before. About time the notion that the budget is the only platform for major policy announcement is disabused.
But even in the budget, there are policy announcements which will have a far reaching impact but seem to have been missed by analysts pronouncing judgment. Take for example the decision on transfer pricing. As per the KPMG report, approximately $66 billion is locked in tax litigation and roughly 50% of these are on transfer pricing alone. The initiatives announced in the budget have been hailed by almost all in the industry. A stable and predictable tax regime, reduction in tax litigation and other such measures are important steps in improving the “ease of doing business”, in which India currently ranks at a pathetic 134 out of 189 nations. This was an important promise made during the election campaign and something which Modi delivered even when he was running Gujarat.
Fourth, the two terms of the UPA government were spent entirely in doing just two things on foreign policy—chasing delusional peace with Pakistan without imposing costs on it for waging war on India and trying to unsuccessfully become an ally of the United States. Every other region was ignored and even nations well disposed towards India seethed at the neglect.
Contrast this with the early moves by the Modi government. Ajit Doval, an operations intelligence man all his career, is now the National Security Advisor. His expertise is decisive action. Counter intelligence capacity dimmed by a decade of neglect will take time to rebuild. But rebuilt it will be and deployed without hesitation if necessary.
By unanimous view, the Nepal visit by Modi has been a huge success and has reversed a decade of drift in the relationship. It is not mere coincidence that this visit was preceded by Bhutan.
One of Modi’s central promises was of providing twenty-four hours electricity to almost all homes by the end of his term. As it becomes increasingly difficult to start new hydropower projects in India in the face of virulent NGO activism, Nepal and Bhutan can contribute enormously in this effort through their own hydropower generation. Indeed, Modi hinted as much when he said in Nepal that it can become a developed nation by merely selling power to India. Do these moves look like that of a UPA-III?
If so much activity is going on then what explains the palpable disquiet in the expert columns and voices on social media? What is the other side of the story? In one word—world class.
The campaign that Modi ran since the beginning of 2013 was not about making compromises with situations, accepting the substandard, or being content with mediocrity. It was about making citizens dream about an India which was world class in its infrastructure, in its institutions, in its practices, in its policies, in its delivery, indeed in every sphere. And how was this campaign message spread—through a truly world class communication campaign. From the brilliant use of social and digital media, to the monumental scale of rallies physically addressed, to the use of innovative technology like 3D rallies, to the absolutely mesmerising advertising—everything about the campaign was setting global standards. The citizens experienced this just a few months ago and this exposure to world class communication methodology was also not a flash in the pan but a sustained experience for more than a year. It had become part of daily life. It had become the expected, the new normal. It is this that has changed since Modi assumed office in June this year.
Compared with the election communication messaging by the Modi-for-PM team, the messaging by the same team now appears underwhelming. The human psyche, once used to a certain standard, only aspires to go higher or at least maintain status quo. It is the perceived downgrade that is at the core of the criticism expressed and is manifesting itself in disquiet and sometimes criticism. The yearning is for a return to the standard Modi had already set even before he assumed office.
This article was first published in DNA on 7th August, 2014. Here is the link.