At one point of time during the UPA-2 regime almost all big decisions were getting delayed as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn’t want to take them on his own, and that led to a long spell of policy paralysis. The responsibility of finding solutions to the problems facing the government and the Congress party both was on Pranab Mukherjee, who was the finance minister and also the chief troubleshooter of the UPA. So, if the home ministry and the Planning Commission were at loggerheads over extending the mandate of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), it was to be first resolved by Mukherjee and then was to be taken to the Prime Minister for approval. That not only caused delays, as Mukherjee, more often than not, was hard pressed for time, but also created a lot of confusion within the government and outside.
The situation, no doubt, has changed in the one year of the current NDA regime, with Narendra Modi at the helm of affairs as the Prime Minister. The biggest change that has taken place is that he talks directly to the officials and also to his Cabinet colleagues, and there is only one power centre (and not two as in the UPA), and that is him. Once he is convinced about a particular decision, it is taken, and this is why the decision-making is quick. Talk to any of the secretaries and they will tell you how they can be called any time by the Prime Minister’s Office and how they are always on tenterhooks.
It goes beyond just this. If railway minister Suresh Prabhu, chairman of the panel on railways’ revamp and NITI Aayog member Bibek Debroy, senior Union leaders of the railways, and Prime Minister Modi share such confidence that they can directly talk to each other if they have to discuss something, there can’t be a better time for changing the way the railways is being run for years. And this, it is claimed, is just one example of how things have a better chance of moving now. The believers in this theory would obviously ignore the poor company results in the last quarter of FY15, historically low credit growth and sluggish GDP growth scenario in FY16, and would like to give the government more time to ensure an improvement on these counts.
On the face of it, though many may not agree, this is a working government and the prospects look better than they looked in the UPA-2 tenure. But the real question to be asked is: is this one-man show enough to fix problems and spur growth? The answer is a big ‘no’.
Despite the government’s success in getting the Bills on insurance, coal and MMDR cleared in Parliament, the more important ones such as on GST, real estate and land are still hanging fire. And even though the joint committee (of Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha) report on Land Bill and the select committee reports of Rajya Sabha on GST and real estate are being seen as vehicles which will carry through these Bills in Parliament in the monsoon session, the task will remain as difficult as it is right now without breaking the opposition ranks, and GST in any case is set to miss the April 1, 2016, deadline.
The fact of the matter is that the Prime Minister’s projection of himself as someone who will find a solution to every issue that has plagued the country for decades—be it in the bureaucracy, politics, the judiciary, or the states—has backfired on two counts. One, it has tethered a scattered opposition against the government. Two, and this is a much bigger issue, there has been a complete lack of second-rung ministers/leaders who could be seen as doing their work in a competent manner independently. The result is, in the party (BJP) and in the government, one man is the supreme authority and he (or what he endorses) has been the final word.
This is another extreme from what we saw when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister, when Cabinet ministers were pulling government in different directions. Call it Modi’s bad luck, someone who could have altered this scenario to a certain extent, finance minister Arun Jaitley, has been goofing up even his main job. The mishandling of the minimum alternate tax (MAT) on FIIs for previous years—even though it has been scrapped from FY16—indecisiveness in tackling retrospective tax amendments, and the failure to clear the transfer pricing mess, all suggest there is little or no progress in reducing the tax terror that the BJP promised in its manifesto. A panel announced under Law Commission chairman AP Shah is now being projected as some sort of a panacea for solving all these issues.
The good part is that, before the government begins its big-bang show on the achievements of its first year by projecting Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, Make-in-India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Smart Cities and the creation of NITI Aayog to further cooperative federalism as major successes, Modi has realised that he needs to change his track now and start showing that the cooperation of other parties, or for that matter media, is equally important.
Modi’s visit to Saifai, the native village of Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, to attend his grand-nephew’s marriage ceremony earlier, was the first indication of this realisation, but the real clincher has been the passage of the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh with the support of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), though in lieu of a R3,008 crore assistance, and his invoking of the ‘Team India’ call sharing the dais with the TMC chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee last week.
Not getting the TMC in its fold in the very beginning has been a big mistake on the part of the Modi government, and with BJP president Amit Shah’s ambitions in West Bengal proving to be a misadventure, it is good that, although late, this has been realised. Building on this, if the government wins over parties such as the BJD and the NCP—J Jayalalithaa coming back as Tamil Nadu chief minister could be another positive for Modi—there could be a reversal in the outcomes seen in the first year.
While this will help—both Modi and Shah have started showing more openness towards the media and the leaders of other political parties—another fault committed at the time of government creation also needs to be corrected. Leaders such as external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, LK Advani and even Yashwant Sinha, who have been sidelined in the name of promoting youth, still hold immense clout in the political circle and can be of great help managing the floor in Parliament.
The biggest plus with former NDA Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was that he could carry people with diverse views and ambitions together in the Cabinet and also in Parliament. Modi will have to forget the past if he wants to deliver on his promises and find ways to forge alliances with all those who can help him do this. It requires relinquishing one-upmanship—hard for a man who has brought his party back to power, almost single-handedly. But there is no other choice!