What happened to Narendra Modi

Updated: Jul 21 2013, 23:46pm hrs
If you have noticed of late sympathy for Narendra Modi in this column, you would have noticed right. The reason for my having seen Modi in soft focus was because he articulated an economic vision for India that, I believe, can bring back hope to a country that needs urgently to emerge from the socialist tokenism of the past decade. The schoolchildren who died last week from eating mid-day meals are only a small and tragic symptom of how horribly things have gone wrong in the name of the poor.

Tokenism has been the leitmotif of Indian socialism always. So technically we have enough schools, hospitals, food, jobs, pensions and whatever else 'the poor' need. But, in reality, the schools and hospitals are just buildings. Food grain rots in the open and the guaranteed employment has gone mostly to those who already had jobs in agriculture. Half of India's children are malnourished despite thousands of crores having been spent on the largest school meal programme in the world. The greatest 'achievement' of this kind of economic policy is that we have created a handout economy and, because growth rates have halved, it is now unsustainable.

So, when Modi talked of a new way of doing things, a change of direction and a vision that had prosperity as its goal, and not just removal of poverty, it sounded like a beautiful new raga to the ears of your columnist. But now, he seems to have changed the subject, and in doing so, lost my sympathy and made me quite worried about how he has understood the message that ordinary Indians are trying to send him. On my travels outside Delhi and Mumbai, I have made it a point to ask people what they think of Modi and, as I have written before in this space, been quite astonished at how much support he has in rural parts. Not because he is seen as a mighty Hindutva hero, but because they believe he can make India prosperous and strong.

Nobody doubts his nationalism, his patriotism or that he is a Hindu, so why does he need suddenly to start proclaiming these things When the first hoardings of him appeared on Marine Drive last week, announcing that he was a Hindu and a nationalist, I thought it was the work of some misguided local knicker wallah trying to curry favour with the new leader. Then, more and more hoardings appeared across the city. Messianic images of Modi gazing into the skies with one arm raised and announcing that he was a Hindu and a nationalist. Why What for

India is in such dire economic straits that if we get another five years of 'socialist' policies, we will almost certainly go back to square one, or more specifically to 1991. This was the year we went broke and were forced to abandon central planning and socialism. The licence raj was curbed till the Sonia-Manmohan government revived it and drove away investors. So what India needs now is not Hindu nationalism or secularism, but a new economic vision and a leader who is prepared to rectify the mistakes that have brought us to a point when children die from eating school lunches.

For a while it seemed to me that Modi could be that leader. But, if all he has to offer is Hindutva, then he is as useless to this country as those who offer us the 'burqa of secularism' when we ask why things have gone so very wrong. By changing the subject, Modi has harmed nobody more than himself. He has offered the secularists and leftists who dread him a big, big stick to beat him with and given them good reason to shriek 'I told you so' daily from our television screens. Already, in Delhi's political circles, there is talk of how he 'peaked too early', and how in the end he is no more than a provincial leader who has not noticed that India is a little bigger and more complex than Gujarat.

India's tragedy is that those who are gloating openly over this have nothing to offer us except more of the same. Another five years of 'socialism' and you can be absolutely certain that India will go back to being the economic basket case we were when the economy never grew at more than 3 per cent annually and when, in the name of the poor, every important lever of the economy was controlled by officials incapable of making profits for government companies despite state monopolies, even in such simple areas as producing bread. We, who remember those times, can never forget that gooey, plastic taste of Modern Bread or those endless shortages of sugar and milk. How ironic that the Indian economy then was mocked for having a 'Hindu rate of growth'.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh