The power of one: How PM Modi has modified India

When Narendra Modi was the CM of Gujarat, he was viewed not only as a visionary but, more importantly, a great implementer. If it had not been for his vision, he could not have undertaken the great Narmada project providing irrigation and drinking water to Kutch and Saurashtra, which were starved of water for centuries. Notwithstanding its daunting finances, he was audacious enough to see through the successful implementation of this iconic project. Gujarat’s economy has witnessed transformative changes under his leadership.

During his first term as PM, he oversaw multiple new initiatives of a far-reaching character, including the Swachh Bharat Mission, Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, among many others. Though Swachh Bharat has led to the construction of over 9 crore toilets since 2014, I believe that focusing on the debilitating influence of open defecation—which millions of people had historically believed was healthy—on health and hygiene particularly for the young and the vulnerable, and subsequently moving away from it needed a mindset change. The challenge will be to keep these toilets functional, ensure availability of water and have additional arrangements for treating the waste in a scientific way.

Undoubtedly, access to toilets, improved road connectivity, improved cooking mediums that are environmentally friendly, as well as inclusive banking will bring about far-reaching changes in the rural society. All these initiatives, more than their immediate tangible economic and social benefits, represent mindset changes.

While the Jan Dhan Yojana is a national mission of financial inclusion, which follows an integrated approach to provide banking services to all households in the country, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code has proved to be a game changer as it takes the issue of non-performing assets (NPAs) head-on. The code allows either the creditor or the borrower to approach the National Company Law Tribunal to initiate insolvency proceedings and obtain time-bound resolutions. Indians, for long, had become used to never-ending litigations, fostering among promoters a culture of unaccountability in meeting their debt obligations, and among banks, the habit of ever-greening, which means giving further loans to those from whom repayments are due and thereby buying more time before formally declaring them NPAs. The working of the IBC needs to be constantly monitored and suitable changes made so that the clogging up of too many undecided cases can be eliminated.

It is not unnatural that critics find PM Modi’s style authoritarian, as we are witnessing a rise of dominant leaders all over the world, like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Boris Johnson, to mention a few. If the Westminster model is in terminal decline, so be it. In the end, what matters are the preferences expressed by the people through a democratic process and a renewal of their mandate through periodic elections.

Analysts have given varied answers to repeated questions about the factors leading to Modi’s resounding win for a second term. The PM himself gave a short response in his inaugural address at the recent Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in December 2019. In his characteristic simple style, he said, ‘People express[ed] their support for me in a renewed mandate and that is why I got elected for a second time. It was as simple as that.’ Obviously, in any second term, electoral expectations are much higher and only time will tell if their expectations aligned with the outcomes.

Modi is popular but not populist. During two of his conversations with me and then much later with the Finance Commission, he narrated his commitment to macroeconomic stability. He mentioned that in the Gujarat election campaign of 2007, when he was descending from the stage after a public meeting, he was surrounded by mediapersons wanting to know his reaction on the Congress manifesto, which announced free water, free electricity and farm loan waivers. They also asked if he, too, had any plans to improve on these populist promises. In fact, he was being encouraged to make similar promises by some of his own key advisors within the BJP itself. Instead of yielding ground, he addressed a press conference thereafter to categorically announce that he would not give free water, free electricity and farm loan waivers. Instead, he announced that he would give higher economic growth, better quality of life and an improved security environment. People would benefit more from improved long-term sustainable incomes than populist measures, which were short-lived and fiscally irresponsible. Indeed, it is his commitment to probity in public expenditure that has repeatedly veered him away from fiscal profligacy.

The second thing that has struck me is his elephantine memory. If he has told you something, you would be making a terrible mistake in coming to the conclusion that he has forgotten either what he has told you or the context in which he made that remark. As an example, he had, at the beginning of my tenure as the chairman of the Fifteenth Finance Commission, mentioned several aspects of monitorable performance criteria that needed closer attention and the need to ensure that outcomes could be tangibly related to the resources that were being made available. Recognizing the constitutional nature of the commission, he was meticulous in suggesting that these be examined on their merits. In subsequent meetings, he clearly remembered and recounted what had come up in our initial discussions.

One of the spectacular successes of Modi has been in the area of cementing foreign relations. Considering that he had no prior exposure to Delhi, the success achieved in strategizing partnerships with key global allies like the US, Japan and European countries has been a high point as also his ability to balance conflicting relationships with Russia and China, while deepening relationships within the BRICS and G20 countries.

Finally, I am amazed at his energy level, which would be daunting even for somebody much younger than him. I met him once in an election meeting for the 2015 Bihar state election campaign in Purnea, for which he had flown overnight after attending a banquet overseas. He had not slept a wink, except perhaps on the aircraft, had changed his clothes at the airport and looked daisy fresh at the meeting. How many people can cope with this overwhelming schedule, not only in terms of physical endurance but sequencing their thoughts and never losing a sense of the target audience that they were addressing?

Excerpts from the book, ‘Portraits of Power’, published by Rupa (Rs 595).

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