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Shashi Tharoor In His New Book Explains Why Modi Government Is An Utter Failure

"The saddest people in India must be those outside the core BJP fold who took him at his word & believed his commitment to ‘good governance’ & the transformation of the country."

How then, as a fair-minded Opposition MP, does one look back at the Modi years? What can one make of a man who speaks of tolerance and accommodation while condoning hate speech by party members he has appointed as ministers? How does one interpret a PM who speaks of ‘minimal government, maximum governance’ but is in the process of running the most centralized, top-down, bureaucracy-driven, personality-cult dominated central government since Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule?

What conclusion can one reasonably derive about a leader who says, ‘the government has no business to be in business’ but has never said a word to question the anomaly of his government owning and running airlines and hotels? How can one interpret the intentions of a prime minister elected on a promise of delivering results, whose very fine speeches and liberal pronouncements appear completely disconnected from any tangible action plan, adequate funding or execution capacity?

Economics is clearly a vital prism to understand the answer: after all, numbers cannot be partisan. Mr Modi came to power boasting about his prowess at economic development, telling the nation he had been a successful CEO of Gujarat Inc. and was ready to do for India what he had done for his state.

Against that yardstick, we have a checklist of spectacular failures, headed by a GDP growth rate that fell by 2.2 per cent as also the twin, self-inflicted blows of demonetization (a bad idea implemented badly) and the botched rollout of GST (a good idea implemented badly). Manufacturing has contracted, exports have declined, growth in industrial production has slowed, and agriculture is stagnating (or worse, given the annual rise in the number of farmer suicides). Credit growth stood at 5.3 per cent in 2016-17, the lowest in over sixty years. After declaring ‘no more tax terrorism’, the Modi government inflicted tax demands on entire new categories of victims, shaking investor confidence.

The Paradoxical Prime Minister: Narendra Modi
The Paradoxical Prime Minister: Narendra Modi And His India by Shashi Tharoor

A government that promised 2 crore new jobs a year—8 crore in four years—has generated precisely 18 lakh jobs in that time, most of them classified by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as vulnerable employment, and the thrasonical prime minister has been reduced to claiming that pakoda-sellers on sidewalks should also be counted in the employment figures. The unemployment rate has gone up from 4.91 per cent in 2014 to 6.23 per cent in 2018. India has more unemployed people than any country in the world.

During the campaign a popular slogan was ‘Bahut hui mehengai ki maar/Ab ki baar, Modi sarkaar!’ The BJP government earned a windfall of US $40 billion or `233,000 crore in its first three years, thanks to a collapse in benchmark crude oil prices from $108.05 to $48.82 (May 2014 to May 2017) whose benefits it refused to pass on to the aam aadmi. Instead it levied in extra taxes what might have been saved at the pump, failing to produce a stimulus to the economy; it is estimated that the government earned `4.5 lakh crore every year since 2014 through excise on petrol and diesel alone. Given the subsequent rise in global prices, the Indian driver was left stuck with record high prices at the pump, even as the rupee tumbled to record lows (crossing `71 to the dollar in August 2018).

Then there was the disastrous experiment of demonetization, to which this book devotes an entire chapter. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, demonetization cost India 15 lakh jobs between January and April 2017 alone. As I point out, it achieved not a single one of its objectives as announced by the prime minister; indeed, 99 per cent of the money that was demonetized has now come back into circulation. Worse is the intangible damage done to investor confidence in India’s economy; the fear of similar surprises has intimidated investors and depressed demand. Demonetization was such a spectacular failure that Prime Minister Modi chose not to mention it at all in his final pre-election Independence Day address in 2018.

Instead of being a game-changing government, the BJP has turned out to be a name-changing one.  

The only successes it can point to are of schemes that were initiated by the UPA and often criticized at the time by the Opposition BJP: MGNREGA (which the PM sneered at, but now seeks credit for increasing its funding, even though states complain the promised subventions from the centre have not come); Aadhaar (which Mr Modi vowed to dismantle but has instead made compulsory, in many cases linking it to such things as credit cards and mobile phones that often have no links to government benefits); Direct Benefits Transfer, attractively renamed Jan Dhan as if the BJP had not criticized its adoption; Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, now packaged as ‘Swachh Bharat’ with lower outgoes but five times the publicity budget; FDI in retail, the Financial Inclusion Scheme, liberalization of insurance and GST (Goods and Services Tax) itself, all of which the BJP had ferociously opposed and now wants to be congratulated for adopting.

The UPA’s skill development mission has been renamed the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana; the National e-Governance Plan is now ‘Digital India’; the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana has been rebaptized the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana; the UPA’s Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme has become the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana; and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has been shrunk to Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation—while the Modi government pretends these are all new schemes launched from the imagination of its visionary leader.

One must concede that the Modi government creates better acronyms than its predecessors did—AMRUT is markedly more euphonious than JNNURM, for instance—but it cannot demonstrate better results on the ground. Other promises have been dashed with impunity. The PM grandiloquently pledged to bring back the nation’s ‘black money’ stashed abroad and put `15 lakh into every Indian’s bank account; neither has happened. During the sarkar of the man who promised to be the country’s chowkidar, or watchman, there have been over 23,000 bank frauds amounting to `1 lakh crore since 2014.

On the watch of the leader who said ‘na khaunga aur na khane dunga’ (won’t take bribes, nor let others take them) there have been a bewildering variety of world-class scams—from the Vyapam scandal in Madhya Pradesh to a PDS scam in Chhattisgarh, a GSPC scam in Gujarat and a mining scam in Rajasthan, as well as the suspected defence scam on the purchase of the Rafale fighter aircraft—even as his own foreign minister bypassed official channels to seek protection for an Indian fugitive in London and the Panama Papers were given a quiet burial. Before 2014, Narendra Modi had supported the demand for an anti-corruption ombudsman, or Lokpal—but four years later, he had still not appointed a Lokpal.

Shashi Tharoor at Bangalor Literature Fest
Shashi Tharoor at Bangalor Literature Fest (Credit: Twitter@ShashiTharoor)

The prime minister’s priorities—as reflected in his Budgets— do not match his rhetoric. Agriculture has stagnated, with the agricultural growth rate dropping to 2.4 per cent per annum between 2014–18 compared to an average growth rate of 5.2 per cent per annum the preceding four years. A staggering 36,420 farmers committed suicide between 2014 and 2016; figures for 2017 and 2018 were still awaited from the government at the time of writing, but judging by media reporting, the suicide rate will certainly be worse.

The central government’s Budget spending on education has declined dramatically during the Modi regime, from 4.57 per cent of the government budget in 2013–14 to 3.71 per cent in 2017–18, and from 0.63 per cent of GDP in 2013–14 to 0.47 per cent in 2017-18.20 The private sector makes up for some of it, but not nearly enough. The plight of India’s women graphically illustrates the emptiness of many of the prime minister’s slogans and speeches. He announced a scheme to support the girl child through enhanced education—Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao—but 90 per cent of the funds allocated last year remain unutilized.

In 2018, horrific rape incidents in Kathua and Unnao (and their politicized aftermath, with BJP leaders rushing to protect the accused) are a stark reminder of how unsafe India has become for women. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) found that, overall, rape cases had seen an increase of 12.4 per cent from 34,651 cases in 2015 to 38,947 in 2016.

In just one year, India slipped twenty-one places on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap index, from 87th to 108th—behind even our supposedly notorious neighbours China (where aborted female foetuses have contributed to a gender imbalance) and Bangladesh, where Islam has allegedly made the society unfriendly to women. Sadly, not only does India remain unsafe for women, but in the Modi era there have even been ministers who have supported or tried to protect perpetrators of such violence towards women.

Today, India ranks 148th in the world for the number of women in Parliament; Pakistan ranked 89th and Bangladesh 91st. The UPA’s Women’s Reservation Bill, which would guarantee women 33 per cent of the seats in Parliament, still languishes in the Lok Sabha where Mr Modi has a brute majority.

Among Mr Modi’s most emotionally-expressed commitments was to the Ganga River, which he often describes as his ‘mother’, saying she has ‘called him’ to serve her. But his Namami Ganga scheme to clean up the grossly polluted river is a spectacular failure, and India ranks 177th in the Environmental Performance Index out of 180 countries. Modi’s own constituency of Varanasi is a byword for dirt, grime and unmanageable waste.

National security was an area that brought out the most bombastic pronouncements in the election campaign four years ago. It has witnessed the most palpable failures. Our borders have been rendered completely unsafe in these years of BJP rule: repeated terrorist attacks, border ceasefire violations, massive infiltration of terrorists from across the border, incursion into Indian territory by Chinese and Pakistani soldiers and the frequency of terrorist attacks on Indian army bases and military installations in Kashmir do not speak well of the competence of our government in keeping us safe. The domestic record is no better, with the continuing incidence of Naxalism proving that the BJP’s claim of sorting out internal security issues is hollow.

Shashi Tharoor at Bangalor Literature Fest (Credit: Twitter@ShashiTharoor)
Shashi Tharoor at Bangalor Literature Fest (Credit: Twitter@ShashiTharoor)

Every proud Indian wishes to say a good word about foreign policy: I have long argued that there is no such thing as a Congress foreign policy or a BJP foreign policy, only Indian national interests which any government of any party must uphold. Unfortunately, though the PM has undoubtedly brought a great deal of personal energy to his extensive travels around the globe, which have enhanced his image and marked India’s presence on the world stage, few tangible gains can be seen for the country from his frequent flyer miles.

The government’s foreign policy record over the years of Modi’s sarkar has been marked by the absence of a coherent policy on Pakistan, where India’s approaches have featured more ups and downs than a child’s yo-yo; the incapacity to define and achieve a stable relationship with China, which continues to oppose India’s vital interests at every opportunity; deteriorating relationships with indispensable neighbours like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka; the alienating of a time-tested ally like Russia; the excessive deference to a right-wing administration in America; and indiscreet and vainglorious rhetoric on subjects like the ‘surgical strike’ against Pakistan and the raid on Myanmar, with the unwarranted TV bravado of ministers causing consternation in the neighbourhood.

The Modi government has meanwhile wasted its limited time and resources on grandiose statuary, announcing one large monument after another: the Sardar Patel ‘Statue of Unity’ in Gujarat, which will cost `3,000 crore, the Shivaji statue off the coast of Mumbai, which will cost `2,500 crore, and the statue to Lord Rama in Ayodhya, which will cost `330 crore. It is hard to see what benefit these statues will bring to the country. (The statues won’t even help fulfil Modi’s ‘Make in India’ slogan, since reports tell us that even the Statue of Unity of Sardar Patel in Gujarat has been outsourced to a foundry in China!) This is not to mention, of course, the `4,343 crore the government has spent on advertising and publicity the last four years.

It says something about the prime minister that his taste is for the extravagant and the flamboyant—for instance, agreeing to a wholly unnecessary Japanese ‘bullet train’ project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad that will cost `1.1 lakh crore and is doomed to unviability, considering the modest price of air tickets and the number of passengers who can afford a ticket on the bullet train, in a country where frequent railway accidents have occurred (even prompting the resignation of Modi’s railway minister) because of a lack of resources for track maintenance and basic safety of the railway infrastructure.

‘The bullet train is not moving’, observed Congress president Rahul Gandhi during his interaction with the Indian Journalists’ Association in London in August 2018. ‘You can have a fancy poster of a bullet train, but the cost of a ticket in a bullet train is more than an airline ticket. If we were offered the bullet train money by the Japanese, our response would be, give us the money and help us strengthen Indian railway infrastructure,’ Gandhi added.

The saddest people in India must be those outside the core BJP fold who took him at his word and believed his commitment to ‘good governance’ and the transformation of the country.

As I have written elsewhere, whether we grow at 9 per cent or at 5 per cent, we have to ensure the benefits reach the bottom 25 per cent of our population. Some of us deluded ourselves into thinking that Narendra Modi intended to do this, and to connect millions of our citizens in a functioning democracy to their own government: not just to announce entitlements that they are expected to grasp for themselves, but to create delivery mechanisms that ensure that these entitlements are not just theoretical, but real and accessible.

Excerpted with permission from The Paradoxical Prime Minister: Narendra Modi And His India, by Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company.

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