Modi government's talent deficit may be the biggest roadblock to delivery on ambitious vision
If the Modi govt intends to be any different from its predecessor, it must recognise and promote able leaders within its ranks while also inculcating the same in the civil service. Otherwise, it will find that India is too big to be fuelled by one man's vision alone.
After some 15 months in office, it has become increasingly apparent that the Bharatiya Janata Party lacks in-house talent to realise its ambitious vision for the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched several overarching schemes and improved on several others conceived by the UPA during his tenure so far, but the NDA government seems stumped for a vision.
To be sure, there are a few ministers who have proven equal to the challenge Modi threw at them during the election campaign — Nitin Gadkari, Piyush Goyal, Suresh Prabhu and Sushma Swaraj, among them — but there remain vast areas of administration and governance that remain unaddressed by this government.
Much editorial ink has been spilt of late on whether the Modi government has lost the plot after a year in office, and whether the NDA government is no more than a B-team of the UPA. However, these are different questions, affected as they are by the news cycle as well as emotion. The greater question is whether the BJP has a cadre of talented technocrats and policy mavens who can operationalise the grand programmes of the leadership.
One fumble of the Modi government has been in the cyber world. While Digital India is an audacious dream that addresses the nuts and bolts of dragging India into the Internet Age, several critical concerns have been raised regarding data privacy and security in services such as Aadhaar and the Digital Locker. These issues must be designed alongside the infrastructure, and not slapped on as an afterthought. More worrying is the Indian penchant for censoring online material on social media as well as the rest of the internet — and sometimes detaining the ‘offender’. The minister in charge clearly has little understanding of how the internet works, or for that matter, freedom of expression.
Another question mark is raised on the environmental front.
On the one hand, the Modi government wants to clean the Ganga, introduce an air pollution index, and plant trees, but, on the other, precious little has been done to curb vehicular emissions, dumping of industrial waste, and the massive dependence of India's energy sector on coal. While the environment is considered by many to be a 'soft' issue in comparison to industry and defence, the disgraceful quality of air and water in our cities, and its impact on health and the quality of life is difficult to exaggerate. Rather than aggressively restructuring environmental standards so that neither the ecosphere nor industrial growth is hampered, the responsible ministry and minister are missing in action.
During the election campaign, this government emphasised its resolve to tackle India's critical energy shortage. Admittedly, the minister responsible has set the ball rolling with several solar power schemes being announced. However, the country's energy policy still seems half-baked. Solar power remains unreliable despite India's favourable insolation, and cannot be the bedrock of Indian power generation; yet little progress has been made on boosting nuclear power, the only clean source of plentiful and reliable energy.
In fact, nuclear power remains under the purview of the Prime Minister's Office and has not even been consolidated within the power ministry, where a comprehensive energy strategy may be developed. Beyond the government's PR spin, nuclear liability remains a thorny issue. The fast breeder and advanced heavy water reactor programmes could do with some more political encouragement. Outside of its scientific community, perhaps India has no nuclear vision.
The development of smart cities has been another flagship project of this government. Cities have been named and some funds allocated but what exactly are the deliverables in a smart city? Genuine people-centric living would require fundamental changes in zoning regulations, massive expansion of certain city limits, substantial devolution of power to local authorities, and transparency — for starters. The concerned minister(s) have not volunteered their thoughts on these issues to the public yet.
In its short tenure so far, the Modi government has commendably started to clear the defence procurement pipeline. But there remain gaping holes in technical and manufacturing prowess, and these will take time to plug. However, the government might want to consider a thorough revision of the country's defence posture, including nuclear assets. Certain pending structural reforms, such as the appointment of a joint chief of staff, also need to be hurried along. The tepid regurgitation of non-alignment ideals a couple of years ago did not sit well with either this government's supporters or the country's international security partners.
Surprisingly, the Modi Sarkar's report card on foreign policy — a subject that was barely mentioned before the 2014 elections — is on the whole, quite good. Between the prime minister's national brand management and the foreign minister's ready response to citizens' woes abroad, India has done well in foreign and domestic eyes. Of course, the feel of a cluttered and overwhelmed thought process persists, but South Block is taking steps to rectify the shortcomings in manpower and intellectual heft. The only major failure in this regard has been the flip flop on Pakistan — Delhi is yet to put together a coherent Pakistan policy and is content to treat Islamabad like a spoiled child rather than the delinquent it has become.
There are several other sectors where this government has hardly moved. Agriculture is one important arena, as is the judiciary. Yet Modi's team has virtually ignored the former and treated the latter with kid gloves. The multiplier effect of a functioning judicial system on law and order and the economy would be enormous, perhaps to the extent that it might return some hope to optimists that rules and regulations matter in India. Yet the most visible legal mind in the BJP is sitting in a different ministry.
All this is hardly meant to be a litany of complaints against the present government, but rather a reflection on whether anyone else in the cabinet, barring two or three, has a vision for his/her ministry. Even if one is persuaded by the logic of the infeasability of big bang reforms and the Herculean task of nation-building that has been left incomplete since 1947, is it too much to ask of this government that ministers other than Modi ought to have intelligent ideas and an inkling of how to develop and implement good policy? If the NDA intends to be any different from its predecessor, it must recognise and promote able leaders within its ranks while simultaneously inculcating the same in the civil service. Otherwise, it will find that India is too big to be fuelled by one vision alone.
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