Shourie's critique offers pointers on what Modi must fix in his remaining 4 years
Arun Shourie may have criticised Arun Jaitley and his economic policy as directionless, but ultimately his critique of Jaitley and Amit Shah is about Modi's own shortcomings. But Modi has time to fix these shortcomings
Arun Shourie, Disinvestment Minister and later Communications Minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee's cabinet, has offered a devastating critique of the Modi government's performance so far . While he has noted Modi's achievements in diplomacy and other areas, but his criticism of the Modi-Arun Jaitley-Amit Shah power troika is ultimately a critique of Modi's own style of functioning. Is Shourie right? (Read the main highlights of the Headlines Today interview here, and the first part of an assessment of Arun Jaitley's and Amit Shah's performance here).
I have no doubt that Modi is the best person to be PM today. The government has considerable achievements to its credit. But when he looks back on his own performance over the last year, he will find that he could have done better. He should use the Shourie critique to recalibrate his government and reorient it towards better results in the remaining four years of his tenure.
The following are some pointers for Modi on where things may have gone wrong, and where he needs to fix things.
#1: Modi's discomfort with empowering competent people beyond a chosen few is worrying. The failure to put Arun Shourie in any job last year does not do him credit. Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari have strong credentials, and are competent administrators. Modi has to allow them to grow further and cultivate a higher profile in the interests of the nation. On the other hand, bringing in Manohar Parrikar in defence and Suresh Prabhu in railways are inspired choices. Piyush Goyal is probably doing a good job in power and coal, if one excludes his goof-up in trying to deny Jindal his win in the last coal block auction. Dharmendra Pradhan has done a good job at petroleum, and is clearly competent for the job. But if Modi is to make his next four years noteworthy, he needs to bring in five or ten more competent ministers, both at the cabinet level and minister of state, especially in critical areas like HRD, finance, etc.
#2: He has to focus on delivering what is within the centre’s capability to deliver and leave the rest. Most governments cannot realistically achieve all goals; they do best if they can change things for good in one or two important areas. Modi is spreading his efforts too thinly in too many places. The centre can definitely deliver in areas like defence, diplomacy, intelligence and internal security, macro-economic policy, communications, energy, environment and resource use. It can also simplify the rules of doing business (to the extent it is central rules that need tweaking). The rest of Modi’s job is exhortation and encouragement. Modi should encourage states ruled by his own party to ease the rules for doing business, and not stand in the way of law-making by them. He can’t do much if they don’t listen. His job is to provide leadership and vision (as in Swachch Bharat), but he cannot directly deliver in some areas.
#3: Modi has to understand the importance of compromise to get the opposition to pass important legislation. The fact is the Land Bill and GST cannot pass without opposition support. This means accepting delay as part of the process and working with the Congress and other parties to get a reasonable bill through. Here again, Jaitley has been a problem. The current GST bill is a moth-eaten one, and delay cannot make it worse, but possibly make it better. A moth-eaten GST bill may be better than no GST at all, but for a bill that has been more than 10 years in the making, surely another couple of months can’t do it harm? Ego cannot drive success for the Modi government. Humility will get more bills passed than machismo.
#4: For a man who said government should not be in business, Modi seems unconvinced on the benefits of privatisation. Granted, the current state of relationship with the opposition will not help him get privatisation bills through easily, but surely the articulation of a vision is important? Legislation to privatise banks and other public sector companies that are not strategic in nature can come later, possibly when the BJP’s Rajya Sabha numbers improve after 2016, but direction is almost as important as speed in some areas. Shourie is certainly right if he says the government is directionless in some areas – and public sector policy is one of them. Another inexplicable thing is the delay in deregulating LPG: having decided that direct cash transfer is the way to go, Modi can easily freeze subsidy levels at specific amounts and free LPG and kerosene prices. But he has been slow to move on this. With oil prices benign, this is the best time to deregulate. He cannot afford to miss this chance.
#5: For a man with great communication powers, the astonishing thing is how, in less than a year, Modi has lost the narrative on many issues. From land bill to secularism, the opposition is setting the agenda now. Shourie wrongly blames Modi for not addressing minority fears, but the fact is Modi’s statements reassuring Christians – once at a function in Delhi and another at the recent Unesco meeting in France – have clearly not changed the narrative. This is because the media is focusing on nonsensical statements by Sangh loud-mouths, neutralising his efforts, but it is Modi’s reticence to take control where it matters is also a problem. He simply has to be more forceful on this, and needs to finesse the Sangh by giving it some cultural space in return for reining in its recalcitrants. Reaching out to minorities does not mean Modi has to play to the usual pseudo-secular gallery. For example, why not propose an amendment to Article 30 – which guarantees minorities the right to run their own institutions – to give the exact same rights to majority-run institutions? Who can oppose this right to equal treatment under the law? Being intelligently pro-majority is better than being dragged into the usual tokenisms like offering chadders at Ajmer.
Arun Shourie may have done himself out of a future job with the Modi government with this interview, but Modi will be painting himself into a corner – and possibly setting himself up for failure - by refusing to listen to Shourie’s critique.
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