A year into his presidency, George W Bush – whose malapropisms were by then already legendary – pulled out his first grade report card at a White House dinner which showed a string of As for writing, reading, spelling and arithmetic.
“So my advice,” he announced to laughter all around, “is don’t peak too early.”
Judging by the performance of his first 100 days as prime minister of India, Narendra Modi appears to have taken that advice to heart. Voted in to power with the kind of mandate no Indian leader has enjoyed for nearly three decades, he is making haste, but very slowly, confident that people are willing to wait a little for the “acchhe din”, or good days, he said were coming.
Though he represents the “Hindu nationalist” tradition in Indian politics and was seen by many as a politician who had profited from religious polarisation during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, voters gave Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a majority in parliament because they believed he would curb inflation, generate jobs and revive the economy, while making India more secure.
Apart from ambitious announcements, however, what people have seen so far is too little by way of tangible progress on the “growth and development” front, and too much of the communalist politics that Modi had said there should be a “10-year moratorium” over. Taken together, the first 100 days have seen both fair portents and dark omens. Which will eventually prevail depends on what kind of prime minister Modi wishes to be.
Generalisations apart, there is a distinct approach that has emerged already in Modi’s attitude towards the economy, politics, society and foreign policy.
Modi’s economic strategy has three elements. The first is to kick-start mining and manufacturing by expediting clearances for projects that are being held up for environmental and other regulatory reasons. A lot of the initiatives in this area have happened below the radar, without any loud announcement or heraldry and have largely gone unreported except in the business press. M Rajshekhar of The Economic Times has a useful summary.
“Thus, in its first 100 day, the government has ‘exempted coal mines’ expansion projects from public hearings. It has done away with the need for consent from village councils for prospecting in forests. Ministry officials no longer inspect mining projects on less than 100 hectares of land. Mid-sized polluting industries can now operate within 5 km of national parks and sanctuaries – as opposed to the 10 km limit imposed by the Supreme Court…A bunch of industries – like coal tar processing units, etc – [are now allowed] to get clearances from generally lax state governments… It reconstituted the National Board of Wildlife’s standing committee such that it no longer has any independent wildlife or ecology experts. And, about a month ago, it changed norms used for defining forests as violate or inviolate – diluting them so as to allow mining over a greater chunk of the country’s forests”.
As a corollary, since many of these projects are in tribal areas where Maoist insurgents are active, the government has declared its intention to further militarise states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
The second element of Modi’s economic strategy involves concrete policy initiatives designed to generate results over the next five to 10 years like encouraging foreign investment in the defence and insurance sectors, a push to build roads and physical infrastructure, and the launch of signature initiatives like Jan Dhan, an ambitious scheme for financial inclusion that some economists believe will help strengthen the banking system and increase the national savings rate over the long haul.
The third element involves creating the impression of prioritising the social sector through grand declarations of intent – housing for all by 2022, sanitation for all by 2019 – even if the provisions in the Modi government’s first budget create little headroom for the expansion of public expenditure in these areas. On education, there is a preoccupation with prestige projects like creating new Indian Institutes of Technology (never mind the fact that existing IITs are unable to hire qualified faculty) instead of identifying and fixing systemic problems.
On the political front, Modi’s approach has been to consolidate and centralise his own power and authority over the government and the BJP, and to find ways of disciplining or moulding independent institutions and watchdogs so that they do not undermine or circumscribe the functioning of the executive.
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This Modi “power vertical” exerts its greatest force within his government – where even senior colleagues like Home Minister Rajnath Singh do not have the right to take even relatively minor decisions – and the BJP, where the PM has placed his trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah as party president. But the force slowly radiates outward, buffeting bodies like the University Grants Commission, the Central Board of Film Certification (which agreed to ban a film after initially clearing it because of government objections), and schools (which have been asked to keep all pupils behind after hours so that they can watch the PM speak live on Teachers’ Day, September 5 ).
Where the power in the Modi vertical dissipates is at the walls of the Supreme Court, whose independence is constitutionally guaranteed. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that one of the priorities of the government in its first 100 days was to push through the creation of a National Judicial Commission that will give the executive a say in the selection of judges to the Supreme Court and various High Courts. Most recently, Modi’s decision to appoint a retired chief justice as governor of a state – something that has never happened before – lends credence to the fear that what the PM is attempting is nothing less than a reconfiguration of the relationship between the executive and the judiciary.
Of a piece with this quest for full-spectrum dominance in the political arena is the shouting down of Congress chief ministers by Modi supporters when they speak at events where he is present, and the BJP’s refusal to accord the Congress Party the formal designation of the opposition in parliament. Though legal experts are divided on the validity of the Congress’s claim to the position of leader of the opposition since it won less than 10 percent of the Lower House’s total strength of 543, the government had the discretion to be magnanimous in victory. That it chose not to be despite the electoral evisceration of its principle rival is a telling comment on the Modi strategy of governance.
If there is one arena where the Modi government and the prime minister personally are seen as having done poorly in their first 100 days, it is in their failure to control BJP leaders and members engaging in hate speech and divisive politics.
Although the Uttar Pradesh assembly does not go to the polls till 2017, the party knows Modi’s “development” mantra may not work a second time around and has begun a strident campaign accusing Muslims of seducing and raping Hindu women. This campaign of demonisation of Muslims has made many non-BJP supporters of the prime minister nervous, since they know such attempts to disturb the social fabric and harmony of UP and India will eventually result in violence. Modi’s studied refusal to condemn MPs and senior leaders of his party who have indulged in inflammatory rhetoric is a reminder of the past that the prime minister has tried so hard to make the country forget. Is it an early sign of the forces that might be unleashed if Modi comes to the next general election with only a slender list of economic accomplishments to his credit?
On the foreign policy front, the first 100 days of Modi have seen continuity with the past but with a renewed and welcome emphasis on the region.
The PM followed up the meetings he had with South Asian leaders the day after his inauguration with productive visits to Bhutan and Nepal; he has also made an attempt to mend fences with Bangladesh – a country he had spoken against during the campaign – by sending External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Dhaka. The only disappointing regional note has been the false start with Pakistan. Despite a promising meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Modi allowed himself to be blindsided by the political embarrassment the Pakistani side caused him in meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders barely a week before the foreign secretaries from both countries were to talk to each other in Islamabad. India cancelled the talks and now the relationship has gone into a holding pattern that will not allow an easy descent.
Of course, Modi’s visit to Japan has been highly successful. India secured a promise of generous Japanese economic assistance, while Japan must have felt reassured by the critical words the Indian prime minister used in private and public to describe China. Even though it is wary of this obvious bonhomie, Beijing is keen to upgrade its own relations with Delhi and is likely to pursue an active agenda when Xi Jinping visits India later this year.
Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, New Delhi. He was formerly the Editor of The Hindu.