The Modi government suffered a minor “embarrassment” on Wednesday (9 March) when the Rajya Sabha forced a vote on the motion of thanks to the President and defeated the government. But given the overwhelming majority of the opposition in the house – a situation that will not change till end-2016 — it makes no sense to think of this as a defeat. The PM was happy to make his speech and the ruling benches made no great effort to avert this “embarrassment”.
The amendment, which was appended to the motion of thanks, says that constitutional provisions for making every voter eligible for election to local bodies should not be diluted, a veiled reference to the minimum qualifications prescribed by the Rajasthan and Haryana governments for village sarpanches. But this opposition “victory” was little more than a pinprick. It was merely intended to show that the opposition can flex its muscles when needed. The government side was happy to make its speeches and token attempts to stop the amendment and let things be.
Since the government sought to deal with the “defeat” in a low-key manner, the highlight of the motion of thanks was the Prime Minister’s address. Even though his plea for allowing the motion of thanks to pass without change went unheeded, we got some insights into what the real Narendra Modi approach to governance is. A small bonus, so to speak.
It was not one of his better speeches, and the Prime Minister seemed dispassionate about the points he was making. The rhetorical flourishes and small pokes at the opposition were few and far between. He poked fun at the Congress efforts to equate attacks on the party as “hamla” on the whole opposition; he took a sideswipe at the Congress for claiming credit for various policies launched (or relaunched) by Modi by pointing out that schemes started in the 1980s by Rajiv Gandhi had still not achieved much. He drew a subtle differentiation between those would like to get things done and those who like to take credit (“srey”).
But the most interesting part of his speech related to the insight – offered repeatedly in his various anecdotes – that he is a mover of little things here and there that collectively add up to a qualitative change.
The big disappointment for Modi’s supporters has been that he is neither a Reagan nor a Thatcher in the Indian context. Now, in the light of what Modi said about his approach, they should recalibrate expectations from him.
First, the Prime Minister is an incrementalist, and not a radical change enthusiast. He believes in moving little things regularly, rather than make big moves that make waves. Even though the Economic Surveys of the past two years have repeatedly used the word “incrementalism” in contrast to “big bang”, we have allowed Modi’s larger-than-life persona to make us continue to believe that he will do big things in big doses. This is not the case.
Second, he is a Big Concepts man, but his real strength is in executing Little Ideas – by removing this block, by easing that problem, by pushing that project, after taking a deep dive into specific areas. He is about detail, and not just the grand schema. To be sure, he likes making those big vision statements – Make in India, Digital India, Skill India, Startup India, etc – but what he actually does is fix the small things that matter.
For example, when he talked about doubling farmer incomes, few people believed it possible. But he talked of farmers doing specific things – using soil cards to optimise fertiliser use, earning money from growing sea weeds near the coastline, growing timber on the borders between two farms, and making price information from various markets available to farmers from 14 April this year.
Three, the Prime Minister also explained his approach to good governance in four simple points: transparency, accountability, decentralisation and efficient delivery. He established the transparency point by referring to the coal, spectrum and (ongoing) mineral auctions that fetched good money for state exchequers.
It was while explaining accountability that we got a glimpse of his ability to get into details while trying to solve problems. He apparently looked closely at 300 projects involving Rs 15 lakh crore of investment and studied the blocks that prevented them from taking off and tried to get them moving. One hopes he has got those moving.
As for decentralisation, perceptions about the concentration of power in the PMO have militated against this reality. Among other things, he explained how decisions on environment clearances were pushed down to regional offices and the states, and how the railways had devolved powers for tenders to the zonal divisions. At the centre itself, Modi has ensured that only decisions involving outlays of over Rs 1,000 crore come to cabinet; the rest can be decided by the ministries themselves.
Equally interesting was his approach to subsidies to the poor. He firmly rejected the left criticism that he was implementing the direct benefits transfer scheme in order to eliminate beneficiaries; rather it was about ensuring that only the right people received subsidies. He gave the example of Chandigarh, where there were 30 lakh people receiving subsidised kerosene. After Aadhaar-based identification, non-eligible users were being weeded out.
What all this indicates is that Modi is neither the right-wing radical reformer that his supporters hoped he would be nor the anti-poor, pro-rich, centraliser that his political rivals accuse him of being.
He is a steady incrementalist who believes in fixing what’s broke, and improving what’s not.