Judge Modi by his work, not persona

Columnist  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Oped

The most devastating is that the magazine is convinced that Modi does not have the capacity to be a reformer.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: AP)

In the week that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is travelling to the US, The Economist has carried a negative cover story that will not please him. The magazine’s view is important because it is a conservative, business-friendly publication seen by world leaders as being authoritative on the subject of economy. It is also seen as not being quick to judgment, and that makes its view on Mr Modi particularly damaging.

I think the cover was a little unfair and too tough on Mr Modi and on India, but perhaps mine is the view of someone who comes from a culture where symbolism is important. The cover features him riding a tiger made of paper and is headlined “Modi’s India: The illusion of reform”. The accusations in it are many.

The most devastating is that the magazine is convinced that Mr Modi does not have the capacity to be a reformer. It feels the record shows that Mr Modi is “not so good at working systematically to sort out the underlying problems holding the economy back”. Instead, “his reputation as a friend to business rests on his vigorous efforts to help firms out of fixes — finding land for a particular factory, say, or expediting the construction of a power station.”

As evidence, it says that the ideas that he is currently working with in the fourth year of his administration, such as the Goods and Services Tax, are mostly the product of previous administrations and not his own. The magazine concedes that Mr Modi is energetic, but occupied by “launching glitzy initiatives on everything from manufacturing to toilet construction”. He is bold but directionless. Demonetisation was “brave” but not a “sound policy” and “a lack of planning and unclear objectives mean the exercise has damaged the economy”. The magazine fears “more erratic decision-making as the government aims to prove it is ‘doing something’”.

The lack of concentrated focus and strategy has meant that India’s economy is currently growing at a slower pace than it was three years ago. The advantages that India has of low oil prices and a young population are being lost as “Modi, in short, is squandering a golden opportunity”.

Going over the record, there are not many linings of silver in the dark cloud. The Economist has decided it has found an answer to the question of whether Mr Modi is “a Hindu zealot disguised as an economic reformer, or the other way around”. It believes that he is “more a chauvinist than an economist”. As evidence, it writes that the government has “created havoc in the booming beef-export business”. The language used after this is particularly strong and will upset many in government and its supporters. “Under Modi,” The Economist writes, “debate about public policy, and specially communal relations, has atrophied. Hindu nationalist thugs intimidate those who chide the government for straying from India’s secular tradition, or who advocate a less repressive approach to protests in Kashmir”.

This has happened in an atmosphere where Mr Modi “himself has become the object of a sycophantic personality cult”. There are other judgments on intolerance that readers who have followed the recent controversies will not find surprising.

The magazine’s report will delight those who oppose Mr Modi and this government, and they will see their views vindicated by a neutral and informed observer. However, The Economist’s judgment should concern all Indians, whether or not they support Mr Modi. If it is true that we are in moment in time when the few economic advantages that we hold are being lost, our focus must be on that rather than on finger-pointing. And it would be helpful if the government were to acknowledge its shortcomings, if not its failures, on some of these issues. Unfortunately, I do not see that happening as we enter the last two years of Mr Modi’s first term in office.

Tailpiece: I had written a couple of weeks ago in this column of the Congress as being the source of most of the problems we face today on the side of intolerance. I had said that P. Chidambaram was saying things today about AFSPA that he could have corrected when in power. He sent me a message expressing his disappointment at what I had written. He said: “I had pleaded for repeal of AFSPA when I was HM or at least amending the offensive clauses. The matter was discussed in the Cabinet Committee on Security. Draft amendments were prepared by national security adviser and myself. The PM was supportive, but I failed to convince the defence minister. I have spoken and written about the subject.

“The proposal to lift AFSPA from several areas of Kashmir was discussed many times by Omar Abdullah and me with the Army. The defence forces and the defence ministry refused to budge. Omar has spoken and written about our joint efforts. All this is in the public domain and seems to have escaped your attention.”