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KEEPING FAITH IN CHANGE

- The new government must respond to the striking mandate for it

For many months to come, both media and academia are certain to focus their minds on the question: what does the mandate of 2014 imply? No doubt there are those who perceive every election as just another Indian tamasha and refuse to be drawn into assessing their larger implication. However, while such cynicism may be justified in view of how, say, the paribartan mandate in West Bengal was operationalized, there may also be a case for harbouring the belief that not all politicians and political formations are wilfully disingenuous and that they often try to live up to their poll commitments.

It would be fair to say that there were not too many stalwarts of the Bharatiya Janata Party that believed that the avowed objective of its Mission 272+ would not only be met but even exceeded. Proceeding on the understanding that its footfall was limited to approximately 300 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP’s principal objective was to manage a high strike rate of above 75 per cent in its catchment areas and coast to a majority on the strength of its regional alliances. By the final week of April, it was sufficiently clear that the Congress was crumbling and that India would have a BJP-led government at the Centre but the sheer magnitude of the victory was insufficiently anticipated. Indeed, till the very last, a small section of both the BJP and the wider Establishment harboured the belief that the selection of the prime minister was negotiable.

The electorate’s clear endorsement of a Narendra Modi-led sarkar killed all possibilities of backroom deals and unprincipled horse-trading. India reposed its confidence in a leader who had crafted his reputation on a number of attributes: as a decisive leader with a reputation for personal integrity, as a champion of entrepreneur-led economic development and, to a lesser extent, as a symbol of ‘subaltern’ Hindu pride. In a campaign that centred more on leadership than on issues, Modi came out on top because his style and approach was so markedly different from that of both the incumbent and his chosen successor. India, it was sufficiently clear, voted to be governed differently. Doubtless, the policy details of this alternative approach were not spelt out in any meaningful form. However, the mere fact that the electorate had to first clear out cobwebs of demonology surrounding the leader from Gujarat suggests that the inclination of the electorate was for a radical rupture with the past.

As the Narendra Modi government prepares the finishing touches to its first budget to be presented by the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, on July 10, it is important that it doesn’t lose sight of the central meaning of the mandate it received two months ago. The reminder is necessitated on two counts.

First, the environment of New Delhi often has a numbing effect on the radical impulses of even the most sincere and well-meaning of individuals. The tentacles of the Indian Establishment may not be as far-reaching as that of some Western democracies but what defines it in an otherwise turbulent region is its innate preference for conservative gradualism. Bold prescriptions that presume a generous measure of discontinuity are instinctively shunned and the raw enthusiasm of newcomers is invariably blunted, often with Yes Minister-style subterfuge. Modi, no doubt, has had a 13-year-long experience of using the bureaucracy far more effectively than the babus used him. However, the same can hardly be said of many other senior ministers whose approach to governance can be best summed up by Murli Manohar Joshi’s quip: “It’s our turn now.”

Secondly, thanks to the opaque nature of the government of India, parties that come to power after a long spell in the opposition are often not aware of all the information that facilitates official decision-making. Consequently, new ministers are often confronted with an information overload on assuming office and more often than not made to feel that their earlier rejection of particular government policies were based on a blend of impulsiveness and a paucity of information. At a recent seminar involving the so-called ‘strategic community’, a member of the outgoing Congress Establishment assured an audience keen to learn about the thinking of India’s new government that an earlier adventurism had been replaced by more “considered” judgment after exhaustive briefing by those in the know. Regardless of whether this belief that the new decision-makers have been adequately socialized or not, the point remains that the main thrust of a well-entrenched Establishment is to ensure that change, if at all it is necessary, is very gradual.

It is to be hoped that in crafting the budget, the finance minister is sufficiently mindful of the decisive pro-change mandate of the general election. There is, quite undeniably, a huge burden of shoddy inheritance that Jaitley has to bear. His scope for manoeuvrability is certain to be curtailed by the realities of the fiscal profligacy that has ensured that the fiscal deficit is spiralling out of control. According to one newspaper report: “The Centre has reached almost 50 per cent of its fiscal deficit target for the full year in just two months of FY15 on the back of heavy non-plan spending on interest payments and oil subsidy combined with marginal revenue collections.” In real terms, this implies that many of the ambitious infrastructure upgradation plans that the Modi government regards as imperative to kick-start the larger economic recovery are likely to be delayed. It also implies that the section of the BJP that desires more, albeit better targeted, populism is likely to emerge from the budget speech somewhat disappointed, a state of mind that will naturally be exploited by the Congress and other Opposition parties.

For the Modi government, the inheritance problem and the likelihood of a deficient monsoon can be handled in either of two ways. It can travel down the same path of the United Progressive Alliance government and focus on more subsidies and doles to counter the short-term effects of inflation and rural deprivation. Alternatively, it can shift the focus of the budget from fire-fighting to long-term moves to improve the environment for entrepreneurship and business in India. This involves bold steps to lessen bureaucratic hurdles, the rationalization of taxes and adopting a philosophy that puts more money in the hands of individuals and families. No doubt, Jaitley will have to pay heed to the immediate crisis, particularly since there is the all-important Maharashtra assembly election scheduled for later this year. However, as a veteran election organizer, he would also realize that knee-jerk government schemes don’t necessarily lead to a positive electoral outcome. Had that been the case, the Congress, which made Rajasthan the laboratory of all its welfare schemes, would never have been defeated so conclusively in that state.

In the long run, the Modi government has to take some risks and be faithful to the set of convictions that won it the 2014 election. However, to travel along this course also involves having to relentlessly explain the logic behind each and every initiative to the voters. Reform and communications are totally inseparable, as both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan realized so many years ago.

For Modi, the budget has to be a small but indispensable part of a larger story to reshape the assumptions governing India’s development route. The socialistic path involving a top-down, State-regulated approach has more or less become the common sense. The Modi government has to unshackle both the economy and the mindset governing it. Otherwise it will not be faithful to the decisive mandate it received from the Indian voter.