A solid 75 not out

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 3 September 2014

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This article was published on ‘The Times of India’ on 3rd September 2014





Modi government has understood it needs to keep the scoreboard ticking without exposing stumps

To use a cricketing analogy for the first 100 days of the Modi government, while some had wanted it to try and hit a run-a-ball century, it can instead be described as having scored a solid 75 not out. That “not out” is important, signifying a build-up and consolidation of political capital that can be leveraged (or squandered) from here on.

These 100 days ought to be seen in two phases. The first, starting within a day of the election results, was focussed on dramatically changing the narrative. From the PM paying obeisance at Parliament, to inviting South Asian leaders to the swearing in, to asking bureaucrats for their suggestions, to cleaning up government offices, and keeping the new ministers disciplined, the message was loud and clear: there’s a new game in town.

Despite some detractors’ efforts to brand this government the UPA-III, there is not the slightest chance of anyone confusing Narendra Modi with his predecessor. As a candidate, of course, he was the polar opposite of Manmohan Singh. But as prime minister, it was crucial to demonstrate a few things early on: that he respected constitutional institutions, that he would reach out to neighbours, but also that the PMO was back to wielding ultimate political authority, and that it ran a tight ship that would brook no indiscipline or waffling. That effort has succeeded.

In phase two of the 100 days, after the initial change of narrative and consolidation of political capital, came the first indications of policy priorities that will determine the trajectory of this government’s tenure. Put together at short notice, the budget was termed lukewarm by some. But in fact it contained some significant indicators, such as a reorientation towards infrastructure reminiscent of the Vajpayee years.

Considering lack of a Rajya Sabha majority, the initial legislative thrust has been robust. Passage of the long discussed Judicial Appointments Bill, for instance, as well as introduction of insurance sector reform, was purposeful. In fact, as per an analysis by PRS Legislative Research, the recent Parliament session was the most productive since 2005.

Similarly, efforts on foreign policy have been energetic and largely successful. The commitment to rapport with neighbours is already yielding results, with very positive developments with Bhutan and Nepal. Even those who criticised the cancellation of talks with Pakistan may be compelled to acknowledge that in the meantime the civilian government there has run out of political capital necessary for any meaningful discussions. And with regard to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, there has been a good beginning. But persistence is called for, as well as a degree of generosity.

All this ties into a clear belief that India cannot afford the hubris of somehow trying to escape its neighbourhood while becoming an economic superpower. At the same time, it won’t let deja vu with Pakistan set the benchmark for ties with other neighbours.

Beyond the immediate neighbourhood, the very successful deepening of ties with Japan and the rumoured background work for a mega US visit is telling. These indicate India’s readiness to raise its geopolitical profile in line with its rising economic clout. Although this has long been anticipated and welcomed by many countries, it is something India has often been diffident about in the past.

With regard to the breakdown of WTO discussions, it is worth asking if India could have secured its concerns on food security while agreeing to the trade facilitation agreement. Or at least extracted an open-ended time frame for a deal on the former. If so, of course it would have been better to not let the talks collapse. But second guessing such strategic choices is always easier said than done.

Finally, the most important policy choices have involved rethink on Aadhaar and introduction of the Jan Dhan financial inclusion plan. The former was UPA’s single best idea from a decade ago, but sadly was not prioritised adequately, at least not until the window had passed when it could have delivered revolutionary dividends during UPA’s tenure. It is to the PM’s credit, considering his party had opposed it when campaigning, that he gave Nandan Nilekani the opportunity to make his case and then quietly co-opted it.

Consistent with that is the thrust on dramatically increasing the number of Indians with bank accounts. Jan Dhan is being criticised as utopian by some and populist by others. It is neither. It is, instead, a key building block to fundamentally re-engineering the manner and efficiency of how government delivers services to citizens.

The Utopian criticism assumes that Modi will falter in implementing his flagship programme. Time will tell. The criticism of populism attacks the inbuilt overdraft facility, as if freebie incentives for opening bank accounts are unheard of. In fact, the anecdotal free toaster giveaway to middle-class clients is part of worldwide banking lore. There are dramatic cost advantages of cash transfers to poor, and particularly rural, Indians. The potential for a win-win scenario, with citizens benefiting more even as government cuts costs, is immense.

To end with another cricketing analogy, governance is more like a Test match than a T20. And unlike our national cricket team, the PM seems to understand that the scoreboard should be kept ticking without exposing the stumps.