India: One year after change of the political guard

Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP government receive a mixed response on the delivery of pre-election promises.

BJP One year
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated cleanup programmes while expanding business [AP/Press Trust of India]

Varanasi, India – Millions of Indian voters helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi rise to power last May when he promised to overhaul the economy, end corruption, and create jobs in the country.

Modi sought a mere 60 months to bring about vast changes that he said Congress – the former ruling party – was unable to deliver over the 60 previous years. 

On Tuesday, the one year anniversary of a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, many of these voters are evaluating Modi’s performance.

In the sweltering summer heat of Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, boatman Chidan Nisad and silk weaver Mohammad Iliyas remember Modi’s visit last year to launch the “Clean India” campaign.

Chidan Nisad says he's hopeful that Modi will clean the scared Ganges River [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]
Chidan Nisad says he’s hopeful that Modi will clean the scared Ganges River [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

“Modi cleaned the steps leading down to the Ganga [the Ganges River]. Have you seen any leader do it?” asked Nisad, 38, sitting at Assi Ghat where Modi was photographed with a broom in what became an iconic image carried by newspapers around India.

Modi has sanctioned in two phases almost $6.3bn for the revival of the Ganges since last year. “His [Modi’s] promises are visible and it’ll be interesting to see how he cleans up the Ganga,” Nisad said.

Nearby in Madanpura, a congested Muslim neighbourhood of silk weavers, 68-year-old Mohammad Iliyas is finishing up a woman’s sari under the tungsten bulbs hanging from the ceiling of his tiny workshop.

His main worry is the “slump in the trade”, which he said, has hit daily-wage workers “badly”.

“One year isn’t enough to measure a government’s work. But it’s also true that ever since the BJP rose to power, Banaras Sari business is witnessing a depression,” Iliyas told Al Jazeera.

Mohammad Iliyas, a Muslim weaver said business hasn't been good under the new government [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]
Mohammad Iliyas, a Muslim weaver said business hasn’t been good under the new government [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

“Others may have seen the ‘good days’ Modi promised, we are yet to taste them,” said the weaver.

Men outside a popular Papu tea stall in Varanasi also debated Modi’s performance.

Lawyer Suresh Chandra said India hasn’t seen any political scandals in BJP’s first year, but he added “people are hoping for too much in a short time”.

Deepak Kumar, a law graduate, derided Modi’s announcement of building 100 smart cities as “elitist”, saying the “middle class will have no space in such cities”.

At an estimated cost of about $1 trillion, Modi plans to build 100 smart cities. The key to the plan is to attract investment while providing jobs for the million or more Indians who join the workforce each month.

After the last Congress term – which left behind a trail of scandals and a sluggish economy – Modi’s government appears to be off to a reasonably good start. 

“As both the captain and moral guardian of his team, Modi has ensured top-level corruption and extortion have almost disappeared from ministerial chambers,” said political analyst Ashok Malik in a HindustanTimes article

“This is a sea change from the excesses of the Congress period, and has been noticed,” Malik wrote.

Modi plans to build 100 'smart cities' to attract investment and create jobs [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]
Modi plans to build 100 ‘smart cities’ to attract investment and create jobs [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

Since coming into power, Modi’s government has courted foreign direct investment (FDI) in the defence, construction, and railway industries. The administration has announced labour reforms, deregulation of diesel prices, and trimmed subsidies.

Investment announcements reached a new high of $63bn by December 2014, and according to the BJP, growth in the manufacturing and services sectors surpassed that of other BRICS nations.

Modi also announced defence projects worth $12bn under the “Make in India” campaign prioritising nationally produced weapons to reduce more expensive foreign imports.

On a recent trip to South Korea, the 19th of Modi’s foreign visits – most by any politician in a year – the prime minister pitched for more FDI in his country, indicating it is now easy to do business in India with inflation tamed within India’s 7 percent growth rate.

“His [Modi] job is to sell India as he’s trying to do. Investment decisions, however, take time. On this it will be too early to judge Modi’s performance,” Mohan Guruswamy, economist and former adviser to the last BJP government, told Al Jazeera.

“But downed inflation also means a drop in demand. Look at phones, cars and real estate sectors. Household consumption has come down to 7 percent from 15 percent since BJP was elected. This means consumers have lost confidence.”

Politically, one of Modi’s biggest achievements, surprising both critics and backers, is BJP’s foothold in the disputed region of Kashmir, where it now shares government with a regional party.

On his crusade against corruption, analysts say, Modi has been able to crack a whip on bureaucracy and the hurdles it creates for development.

Economist Mohan Guruswamy said it's too early to judge Modi's performance [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]
Economist Mohan Guruswamy said it’s too early to judge Modi’s performance [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

A recent fighter jet deal with France is just one example, said an interior ministry official who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media. 

“The way the Rafale fighter jet deal was done has astonished many,” the official said.

“Babuism [official impunity], which was dominant since independence, has been [brought under control] and made accountable. Officials have to report every development in an ascending order. I observe it in my office these days.”

For Modi’s critics, it is the fall in oil prices that accounts for India’s economic boom since May 2014, more than any government effort. India imports 80 percent of its oil.

In the first year under the BJP, however, forcible conversionschurch attacks, anti-minority comments by right-wing politicians associated with the BJP, the ban on Leslee Udwin’s film India’s Daughter, sour relations with Pakistan, all generated sizable political heat.

Modi’s plans to facilitate land acquisition for businesses and dilute environmental regulations have also garnered criticism from farmers.

“This government appears more willing than its predecessor regime in diluting rules and norms that are meant to preserve the environment and safeguard the rights of tribal and forest dwellers,” Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, political commentator and documentary-maker, told Al Jazeera.

“The government tried to bulldoze amendments to the land acquisition act despite not having a majority in the Rajya Sabha [Upper House of Parliament], had to promulgate a controversial ordinance thrice, made nine amendments to the law, and has now had to backtrack by referring the issue to a committee of Parliament,” Thakurta explained.

At Assi Ghat in Varanasi, Modi launched the 'Clean India' campaign last year [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]
At Assi Ghat in Varanasi, Modi launched the ‘Clean India’ campaign last year [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

Critics also say Modi and his close aide Amit Shah make all major decisions, and policy decisions are not shared with other ministries. 

The media has been given little access to ministries, insulating the party from any “bad press”, critics say.

“Modi rose to power on the strength of communication with people. Now he only appears on … Twitter, blogs, and radio shows. There is a great disconnect and the party members realise it,” Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of the book Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, told Al Jazeera. 

“This government has some achievements to show in the first year, no denying. But none of it, I feel, has a signature of Mr Modi,” said Mukhopadhyay.

Modi’s effort to make it simpler for corporations to buy land to boost India’s economy has pitted his government against the NGOs who want to scrutinise his moves.

Last month, nearly 9,000 licenses of charities charged with not declaring donations from abroad were cancelled, while action against Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation were launched.

“Last time it was found that foreign money was diverted by NGOs to stir protests at Kundakulum nuclear power plant,” said Guruswamy.

“Frankly speaking, no government would tolerate it.”

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Source: Al Jazeera