The second Modi government is on its own, and it will be expected not to commit the blunders of its first term.
The one thing we will hear the Narendra Modi government and the BJP say now is, “We have the mandate”, to brush aside any objection, any criticism of anything that they would do. And the BJP would be partly justified too in saying so. Of course, the mandate is for implementing the BJP’s agenda. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has astutely kept the agenda vague with his hazy vision of building a “New India” by the time India turns 75 in 2022, whatever that means. It is unlikely that the Swachchh Bharat Mission (SBM) will be complete, or that the Ganga would have been cleaned up, or the digitisation of the Indian economy would be widespread, or Smart Cities would emerge either from the existing ones or from greenfield projects. These are all laudable goals, but the government does not have the material and intellectual resources to execute them. It is always good to have dreams and visions, however hazy. And Mr Modi has done well to place before the country the vision of a New India. This goal will see him through the second term, and with the flair of a propagandist he would trumpet the few things that he would be able to accomplish.
There is also the distinct danger that by invoking “We have the mandate”, the Modi government would take so-called “strong action” and worsen the situation than before. Of course, the government has the luxury of acting in a willful way, until the people protest. In case the government with the mandate would want to ride roughshod over the people’s complaints, then people will vote them out in 2024. It is to be assumed that governments with a mandate will not misuse their mandate, and that they would show enough tact though they have the power to do whatever they want to do. Home minister Amit Shah will be expected to tackle the illegal immigrant issue in Assam with a strong hand, and he has a free hand to do so. But he will have to use tact, which he is likely to use than not. That is what is really expected of politicians.
But there’s another thing that this second Narendra Modi government does not have the luxury of saying. It cannot blame the 55 years of Congress rule as a hurdle to implement their agenda. For the first two years of the first term in office, Prime Minister Modi and his colleagues referred to legacy issues — the problems they inherited from the second Manmohan Singh government. There was some justification in that excuse, but it became a lame one in the next three years. Then, Mr Modi and his BJP colleagues invoked the 55 years of “misgovernance” of the Congress, right from the time India became independent. It was partly valid campaign rhetoric, but now that the BJP is in power, Mr Modi cannot take shelter behind for his governance failures.
The first term of the Modi government had an advantage because it was compared to the ramshackle second government of Dr Singh. The second Modi government is on its own, and it will be expected not to commit the blunders of its first term. The inane platitudes of development that Mr Modi doled out in his speeches in the first five years would not stand him in good stead this time around. He has to get things done. His record on the economy in the first term is quite shaky, and that is reason that he fought the election on emotive issues like national security. Mr Modi is quite capable of conjuring another national security issue in the run-up to the 2024 election, but people may be less forgiving.
The economy is not in a happy position and that India still is the fastest growing economy with its sub-seven percent growth rate (6.8 per cent for 2018-19) is of little solace. Mr Modi’s mind is focused on rolling out welfare measures with a trace of native business cunning. This can be seen in the insurance schemes, either for health or for farmers, which does not involve government spending the whole amount. It is a contributory affair, and the schemes would lapse through no fault of the government. It is welfarism at its prudent best, but it is unlikely to change the lot of the people who need help.
What India needs is increased domestic economic activity, and stimulus packages from the government will not go too far in addressing the problem. The improved Ease of Doing Business rank is not of much use if there is no economic activity in the country. The lot of the people will improve not through government intervention but when people can stand on their own feet and do their own business.
A big lacuna in the first Modi government’s economic governance was the absence of private investment. The government cannot spend its way to economic growth for long. As of now, the Modi government has not done anything to address the issue. Mr Modi’s economic thinking is in the Congress mould, where the state has the dominant role. So, there will be very few steps where the state will allow the economy the breathing space it needs.
The world is a tougher place for India in 2019 than it was in 2014. Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s America are not going to be too friendly. There is tough bargaining to be done. We have seen Mr Modi and the BJP leaders and the right-wing policy wonks speak tough, but we have not seen them handle tough situations. India’s handling of Doklam has not yet been deconstructed sufficiently to be of any use in handling China on other fronts.
The time for Mr Modi’s euphoric declamations is over. It is time for dreary governance, where there is less room for photo opportunities.