Why PM Modi must own the rail fare hike; reforms need leadership

The BJP did not cover itself in glory by first taking the bold decision to raise railway fares and freight and then slinking away, blaming the UPA for it. The party must take political ownership of this move, and Modi must lead the reform agenda

R Jagannathan June 21, 2014 14:11:20 IST
Why PM Modi must own the rail fare hike; reforms need leadership

Last night (20 June) one saw an unedifying spectacle on TV channels. After taking the bold decision of raising passenger fares by 14.2 percent and freight by 6.5 percent to fix the Indian Railways’ weak finances, BJP party spokesmen were busy distancing themselves from it.

Why PM Modi must own the rail fare hike reforms need leadership


The decision was taken by the UPA, they bleated. We are only reluctantly implementing what they wanted to do. Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda had this pathetic line: “I was forced to implement the order of my predecessor. I am only withdrawing the withholding order.”

The point is, no government can be “forced” to do something it does not want to do, especially if the decision is bound to be unpopular. If the Narendra Modi government wanted to avoid a passenger fare hike, it could have done so and claimed credit for it. But since it did not do so, it means it decided it had to implement the fare hike. So trying to pass the buck to the UPA is a self-defeating approach. Once you are in power, you have to take ownership of a decision, even if it is politically convenient and correct to blame the previous government for bringing us to a pretty pass. You have to take the political flak that comes your way and roll with the punches, but you cannot slink away.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi must follow up the bold decision on rail fares and freight by claiming authorship for it. He must own up the fare hike and the additional inflation to follow. Leaders cannot distance themselves from the consequences of their actions. In Goa last week, Modi had warned party workers about the hard decisions coming up. Having delivered on this promise, Modi must follow up and tell the people why this decision had to be taken, and why more bitter medicine may be coming their way in the short run. He can also tell them how the long run will be better. There will be difficult days before achche din.

The simple point is this: it was only because the UPA failed to take the tough decisions in time that the economy is up the creek today. The electorate understood that India needed someone decisive, and saw Modi as the man who could lead the country. Can Modi now pretend he is all about taking the easy decisions and not the ones he was elected to do?

The feisty, combative Modi we saw at the hustings was a great communicator. This was what brought him to power, as people saw him as a brave doer, someone who will do good things for the country. Having won the electoral battle, Modi cannot now lose the larger war of governance by letting the minions offer unconvincing explanations for what is going on.

The war to revive the economy is one Modi has to lead from the front, owning, explaining, and coaxing people to join in the fight all the time. It cannot be fought from behind the scenes. The biggest mistake India's political leadership has made since the economy was opened up in 1991 was to de-market reforms and try to pretend they were never in favour of change.

If reforms are a bad word in politics nearly a quarter century after we have all benefited from it, if reforms are forever going to be done only by stealth and subterfuge, we might as well have re-elected the UPA to blunder along, moaning and groaning and whining about it. What we expected from Modi was change and open leadership, confident in his actions and taking the people along in this fight.

Minimum government, maximum governance is not possible without getting the people to march along with you. You can have minimum government only with maximum political leadership. If Modi believes that the fight for reform and change can be fought behind closed doors, he is seriously mistaken. He has forgotten the lessons of his own victory in May.

Modi won the elections because he was out there in the battlefield, day in and day out, giving his opponents hell. A Modi in government cannot withdraw into a shell. Already, his political opponents are sniffing a comeback chance. If he wants to be the harbinger of change, he has to lead the change. He cannot shrink from this challenge.

With the announcement of the rail fare hike, the political battle will begin in earnest. One presumes that this bold decision will be followed by many others in the energy, labour and land acquisition areas, all of which will be politically tough to sell and pull off. If anyone can do it, it is Modi. But if even Modi can’t do it, we might as well remain a banana republic that gets pushed around by the world and its own internal political mafia.

The people of India voted for Modi because they saw him giving 100 percent, when Manmohan Singh was wimpishly wringing his hands in impotence. In government, Modi can't be seen as anything less than 100 percent leader, however hard he may be working behind the scenes, putting in 18-hour days and giving his ministerial colleagues and bureaucratic staff sleepless nights.

The hard work in the PMO and ministries is vital, but a visible Modi is even more critical to pull off success in the economic challenges we face now. He must be seen, heard and be at the centre of the fight to revive growth and economic vitality. The war cannot be won without being in constant communication with the people.

Despite a poor performance as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh will still be remembered for 1991 (even though Narasimha Rao must get greater credit for it). Modi will have no such luck. If he falters as PM, no one will remember him as a great Chief Minister of Gujarat. He has to be Maximum Prime Minister. It is all or nothing.

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