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Narendra Modi ends 2016 on populist note; 2017 must be about delivery, not intent

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's thanksgiving speech was expected to hit the populist note. It did. His address to the nation on completion of 50 days of demonetisation on New Year's Eve lacked the zing though. Disappointment was in store for people who expected him to reveal impressive numbers to justify what he has put the country through. What he offered instead was a whole of motherhood statements, full of noble intent but finally neither here nor there.

On 8 November, the day the prime minister startled the country with the announcement of demonetisation, the mood at the queues outside ATMs was one of happy anticipation. People resented the inconvenience but were willing to back Modi. The perception was that the nation’s big war on black money, terrorists, counterfeiters and whatnot had begun. It cannot but have a happy ending. On 31 December, after Modi made his speech, the popular mood was sombre and confusion. Nobody seemed sure what exactly had changed in the country.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

It was, as the prime minister would have it, a ‘purification drive’ but who had to give the test of purity? “There’s no global precedent of what India has done,” Modi said, adding, “people have redefined the concept of sacrifice.” Yes, both are true. Last month, Venezuela had to postpone its move to make illegal high-value notes after widespread protests, rioting and looting. The Indian citizens displayed patience, a great deal of it. The last 50 days have passed off with no major incident of violence or protest. People have made sacrifices indeed, but to what end?

There are different ways to read people’s patience. It could be interpreted as cooperation or as an expression of the sense of resignation. Did people have an option but to stand in depressingly long queues in any case? What the government believes to be willing cooperation could actually be a forced one. So before launching into the self-congratulation overdrive in the New Year, it would be well advised to be careful.

The prime minister said demonetisation had dealt a serious blow to black money, terror financing and tax evasion. In the absence of hard proof, there’s no way to dispute or accept the claim easily. One would still give the prime minister of the doubt. After all, such a massive move could not be without its small benefits. But one would advise him to ensure that next time he undertakes such a measure, he must consider the match or mismatch between the scale of his action and the intended benefits from it. Surgical strikes should not feel like carpet-bombing.

Modi has a penchant for the dramatic. It shows through in his big-ticket actions and the speeches that he makes.

Nothing wrong with it, but what is dramatic may not be effective always. Stunning people through loud measures might work for some time and create the illusion of activity and the movement forward but in the long run, the measures have to show in clear results. What is sorely lacking so far in Modi’s regime are results that can be felt. Despite the huge noise about economy and development, nothing has changed substantially in the country from the UPA II days. He still enjoys immense popular goodwill but there’s the risk of it draining out.

And speeches alone won’t help his cause. He is a gifted orator alright but he might have used the gift far too often. After Saturday’s speech, there was a feeling that either the prime minister is tiring of making speeches or people in general are tiring of hearing him speak. He has said the same things far too often. The novelty factor in his speeches is wearing off too. In 2017, he should be more economical with words and more expressive in terms of results.

This, however, is not to raise questions on the abilities of the prime minister to deliver. He is still the best bet for a country looking for transformative reforms. He is still the best among leaders available in the country. But that should not give him the delusion of infallibility. Demonetisation is a lesson. He should study it with extreme seriousness.

Updated Date: Jan 01, 2017 11:07 AM

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