One wonders if Narendra Modi has his priorities right. Two critical state elections – in Maharashtra and Haryana - are underway where the BJP's position is far from rosy and he is heading for the US for a five-day official visit that will yield little of substantive value.
Apart from the ego trip of visiting a country that earlier denied him a visa and some flag-waving at an Indian community meeting and some entirely ephemeral political statement-mongering with President Barack Obama, Modi will largely be wasting his time in the US.
Consider the itinerary: Modi lands in New York on 26 September, so nothing will happen that day. The next day, he visits Ground Zero and Central Park and addresses the UN General Assembly (photo ops, and yawns); on Day 3 he will interact with the Indian community (speech, cheers), and also attend a dinner hosted by the Indian ambassador (handshakes, photo-ops); on Day 4 he is to deliver a policy speech at the Council of Foreign Relations, will schmooze with Hillary and Bill Clinton, and have dinner with President Obama once he reaches DC in the evening. On the final day (30 September) he will hold substantive talks with the Obama team, lunch with Veep Joe Biden, and meet congressional leaders before winding it all up with an Indo-US Business Council meeting.
If you see anything earth-shattering in this five-day agenda, let me know. None of these engagements may go beyond optics and even if there is some agreement on things that do matter to India (easier visas for software people, etc), a delay of a month or two would not have made a difference.
Right now, India is in a major military standoff with the Chinese in eastern Ladakh, but Modi has left behind a defence minister who is in and out of hospital and additionally holds the more important charge of finance. If this problem is not more pressing than a trip to the US, I beg to differ.
Consider the political and economic crises he is yet to address back home. His party is making a hash of all its alliances and Modi says and does nothing. We know he works hard in the PMO, but none of it is going to make a big difference to India's economic fortunes without serious changes to growth-retarding laws like the Land Acquisition Act, the Food Security Act, the Forest Rights Act, and the Right to Education Act. All well-intentioned laws, but they were legislated without any kind of serious thinking by the UPA. They failed to win UPA the election, but failure to change them could cost the BJP the next one. Modi’s party is showing no alacrity to mend things.
Getting these laws changed will need a lot of opposition support in the Rajya Sabha or even the Lok Sabha, but Modi's party is busy alienating all its allies and putting up the backs of potential friends like J Jayalalithaa by a foolish emphasis on Hindi Divas and such-like programmes.
While I applaud Modi's efforts to speak in Hindi to emphasise a distancing from English elitism, his followers think this is an open invitation to push Hindi down unwilling throats. A Hindi Divas is fine, but a Tamil Divas, a Marathi Divas, and a Bengali Divas are more important things to emphasise for a man who was the chief minister of Gujarat before he became PM. The latter symbolism is far more important for the BJP’s future in the south and east than tomtomming Hindu Divas.
Having been elected on the plank of development, all - not just some - of Modi's actions must be focused on growth and jobs. But his party's outliers are busy messing up the country's politics by talking of 'Love Jihad' and making aggressive statements that smack of majoritarianism. Even the goodwill created by Modi's statement to CNN, that Indian Muslims will live and die for India, will not be enough to erase the divisiveness generated by rabid elements of the parivar.
Even if we are to dismiss the fringe elements as loudmouths who will make no difference to the BJP’s popularity or Modi's growth agenda, one does not see how Modi is using his mandate effectively to put India back on track. I see no evidence that the NDA government is using the good fortune of falling global commodity prices, including oil, by reforming the subsidised energy regime.
Instead of reforming subsidies, Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan is actually talking of increasing entitlements under the Food Security Act. And Modi himself, in the name of inclusive banking, has opened the doors for what could turn out to be another freebie-oriented scheme – the Jan Dhan Yojana, which comes with free insurance and overdraft facility upto Rs 5,000 per account. The only way this scheme can be prevented from becoming a loan mela is to use it to push cash transfers instead of physical subsidies, so that the new accounts generate some money that is anyway being spent by the government.
It would be comforting to believe that some reforms will come after the elections, but what if the BJP does not fare as well, given its penchant for losing allies in its post-16 May hubris? If that happens, there is every danger that the BJP will lose whatever enthusiasm it now has for reforms and tough decisions.
And has Modi even focused on his core vote-winning idea of federalism? He railed against the Delhi Sultanat in his election campaign, but isn’t he creating another Sultanate by centralising decision-making and not implementing a federal plan? Federalism ought to be at the top of his agenda, regardless of whether he is able to cobble together a majority in the Rajya Sabha to change the anti-growth laws legislated by the UPA.
In fact, if the Modi-Amit Shah plan is to make the BJP the biggest national party in India, overshadowing the Congress, their best bet is to push federalism. Consider the impact of the break-up with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Uddhav Thackeray will find it easy to paint the BJP as a Gujarati-led party and reinvigorate the Sena’s claims to be the Marathi voice – something that it seemed to be losing to the Raj Thackeray-led MNS. The only way the BJP can salvage regional pride in Maharashtra post-split, if that comes to be, is by creating a strong local leadership and promising greater powers to the states.
But we are not seeing much movement in the direction of federalism. As the Scottish vote showed, sub-nationalism will keep rearing its head unless the sense of grievance it feeds on is extinguished by devolving greater powers to the states. Also, reforms will be much easier to do in states once federalism becomes the norm – as Vasundhara Raje is proving in Rajasthan.
Narendra Modi’s real strength is that the nation believes he is good for the country, and his very presence in the PMO is reassuring that things will change.
But Modi is in danger of getting carried away by foreigners’ adulation and lose his grip on India. It would be tempting to justify the five-day US extravaganza as intended to bring in foreign investment, but as the UPA found out to its cost, it is Indians who must first believe in investing in India. As Swaminathan Aiyar wrote in his Times of India column last Sunday (21 September), “If Indians are not rushing to invest in India, will foreigners really do so? Based on Chinese briefings, newspaper reports claimed that Xi (Jinping) would pledge $100 billion of Chinese investment in India. Actually only $20 billion of deals were signed; the rest was apparently hype.”
Modi’s US trip too is unlikely to yield much gain beyond the optics of political camaraderie. A five-day trip is a waste of Modi’s time when he has so much work to do back home.
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Updated Date: Sep 23, 2014 14:55:40 IST