At the very dawn of 2016, the terror attack in Pathankot punched deep holes in Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s striking strategy to build bridges of amity and understanding with Pakistan. But at the same time, Modi continues to enjoy people’s confidence that the new year will witness his tireless strivings concentrating on the implementation of countless schemes and programmes his government has initiated.
As a topmost priority, it is imperative that the country builds required capacity for timely pre-emption and lethal deterrence to acts of terror, far beyond the rhetoric and familiar sloppy and chaotic, dilettantish and uncoordinated responses. We have had countless promises of a paradigm shift after Kargil, after 26/11 and after umpteen other ignominies that were inflicted on us. We must ask ourselves, how terror infiltrations seep through layers of security at our borders, fenced, videoed, manned; and how terrorists straddled through—despite prior intelligence alert—to high-walled, highly-protected, strategic Pathankot airbase within five months of the attack in Gurdaspur. What a testimony for an aspiring world power that the car with a beacon ferrying the terrorists was waved through check posts, and saluted. Why mustn’t every vehicle, with no exception, be scrupulously checked as a routine in such areas?
A common refrain endures that the aam aadmi, clutching at the hope of “acche din”, seems disheartened. Despite the Prime Minister’s spirited call for Swachh Bharat, municipal sanitary services remain as lackadaisical as ever; laws and rules still shackle citizens as fiercely; judicial system works as tardy; healthcare and schooling remains as pathetic; and traffic gridlocks as awesome. There is no change in the attitude of petty bureaucracy nor among senior echelons—wrapped in VIP culture, perpetrating the familiar feudal mai-baap sarkar. There is no sign of any scaling down of gargantuan bureaucracy. A country of poor multitudes, India has an aristocratic work ethos.
Not that the Modi government has not much to its credit within its short span of governance. He won people’s hearts, changed their mood, lifted their morale. With incredible energy and zeal, the indefatigable Prime Minister has been clearing the decades-old accumulated inertia and muck, and has been changing the narrative and charting an ambitious agenda of action—Digital India, Smart Cities, Swachh Bharat, Nirmal Ganga Aviral Ganga, Make in India, Jan-Dhan Yojana, Housing for All … All of it would perforce entail long gestation. It enjoins upon Modi that his long-term vision must not preclude short-term fixes.
Notwithstanding the countrywide Modi magic then having remained undiminished, the 2014 Delhi Assembly elections revealed that it alone couldn’t sway the electorate—while he appeared vacillating in the face of Love Jihad, Ghar Wapsi, church vandalism, etc, local party leadership betrayed incompetence and insensitivity. Likewise, the party testified the futility of its flamboyant and negative campaign in Bihar centred around Modi. State elections need state leaders to be at the centre-stage. There were discordant events and incendiary avowals aplenty by several fringe elements. Slogans of development degenerated into vituperative exchanges. The BJP somehow ceded all credit for state governance improvement to its main rival.
An immensely complex and diverse country—in a way a “functional anarchy” as perceived by some foreign intellectuals—the Indian democracy calls for a vision, new and bold. For the Modi government, it may well be a moment for introspection on course-correction wherever warranted, to deepen the bonds with people, to open out to colleagues and opponents, and to build an environment conducive to speedy reforms and effective delivery. Let us not forget how astutely Prime Minister Narasimha Rao steered the country’s pioneering liberalisation policies against staunch opposition even within the Congress party, and how Atal Bihari Vajpayee deftly evolved sahmati out of bahumati of recalcitrant coalition partners.
Under a scanner, Modi has plenty to reflect. People ask, where is the government—when railway trains are disrupted with impunity as happened in Rajasthan and Punjab, or when crimes occur in Dadri or Bangalore, Varanasi or Mumbai? The Lalitgate and Vyapam ghosts were allowed to linger. The protest by military veterans at the government’s ambivalence in implementing oft-assured OROP policy left them baffled. A marginal scaling up in the latest appraisal demonstrates that the government’s resolve to attain the 50th rank in World Bank’s Doing Business vis-a-vis 134th now among 189 countries—like the much touted “maximum governance, minimum government”— remains a big challenge. Parliament, termed a temple of our democracy, has been desecrated by the honourable members with their bellicosity and petulance, where the Prime Minister largely remains an absentee. He should instead be seen creating banter bonhomie, steadily winning over even the recalcitrant members. His wit and repartee in his messages of hope during 2014 whirlwind electioneering won innumerable hearts and minds.
Modi cannot remain obsessed just with delusional approbation of diaspora in New York, Melbourne, Toronto, Shanghai, Dubai or London. For a Prime Minister, the real test is at home—involving relentless hard work, bringing about the promised changes, fighting fires that keep raging, cajoling, compelling and prevailing upon opponents as well as party-men. Different states, if visited annually for developmental plans and important issues to be coordinated, will facilitate fruition of cooperative federalism. A periodical letter to chief ministers, as was done by Jawaharlal Nehru, may keep them abreast of important happenings of national importance, letting them feel they are partners in the venture.
Why should the Prime Minister have allowed an impression to be generated that he has been over-promising and under-performing? As he admitted at the recent India-Africa summit, there looms “the shadow that falls between an idea and action, between intention and implementation…” His monthly Mann Ki Baat radio broadcasts are a unique PR stratagem. He may utilise the great gift of the gab he commands for frequent direct communication with the masses; he may well grasp the virtue to listen more, talk less, studiously save himself from sycophants. Why should benign features of GST, for example, explained in simple terms, have not been splashed, of course, with no photo of the Prime Minister? An abiding perception endures that Modi delegates little of substance. The country yearned for a tough and bold leadership; being decisive and bold is a great trait, but not ensuring all in the team deliver adequately is perilous. Modi must comprehend the limits of his energy and reach.
While holding scores of rallies in Bihar, Modi must have seriously confronted twinges of ubiquitous discontent, a stout yearning of the masses to provide them with basic necessities of paani, sadak and bijli,
also padhai, dawai and kamai. India’s aam aadmi is still patient, hopeful, forgiving—but for how long? Tired of rampant corruption and mis-governance, thwarting their opportunities and stunting their potential, the predominantly youthful India clamours for a radical rupture of suffocating bureaucracy and self-serving politicos. There is a clear, paramount need to let the countrymen feel an urgent impact of tangible gains simultaneously with programmes of durable redressal, specially promoting skills and generating jobs.
The Modi government can ill-afford to fritter away the enormous political capital countrymen willingly invested in him. Just two effective years to go for Modi’s first term as Prime Minister to end, it is imperative for him to focus on the tasks that will lighten up the current sullen mood around, buoying up the entire governance apparatus to deliver speedily and sincerely. With crucifying character of his job and the inefficiency of the government machinery, being the country’s chief executive involves responsibility over a centralised government under a punishing media gaze amidst adversarial political culture. The previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s masterly inactivity against horrendous scams and scandals in his government and his maun vrat is often compared with Modi’s silence in face of maniac avowals and overtures by myriad fringes, Hindutva thekedars. Let him be wary of Margaret Thatcher’s warning that those who stand in the middle of the road tend to get run over.
The author is senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, and was the first MD of the Container Corporation of India Ltd. Views are personal