international analysis and commentary

Narendra Modi’s mixed records: ambition and gambles


Four years after he won one of the biggest political victories in modern Indian history, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has started his campaign for another term in office. Over the years, he has delivered some radical change, a couple of dramatic failures, all while keeping his reputation as the country’s most trusted political leader largely intact.

A recent brouhaha about a deal to buy Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation, in which Modi’s intervention seems to have swung the contract towards a controversial businessman whose company had little experience in such manufacturing, seemed like it would damage the prime minister’s anti-corruption reputation but the charges, complicated with mixed reports from within and outside French government, haven’t really stuck on him. . Even one of his most influential political rivals accepted that most Indians firmly believe that Modi, an austere bachelor in a country of rampant nepotism, is still largely considered clean. It is a common saying that at worst Modi might facilitate donations to his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but is unlikely ever to personally partake of ill-gotten wealth.

India’s Narendra Modi

After several years in which corruption at the prime minister’s office was the talk of town in New Delhi, Modi’s office can truthfully claim that there has not been any real evidence of malpractice. But that is not Modi’s biggest achievement. For a man who fancies grand events (he turned his May 2014 inauguration into a jamboree with major South Asian leaders attending), history might yet recognize Modi for a clutch of policies that do not sound fancy at all. Take convincing people not to defecate in public. Long considered a problem impossible to fix due to a mix of piety (many Indians used to think that having a toilet inside their home was unclean) and poverty, today the country is about 80% public defecation free. Furthermore, Modi’s incessant broadcasts on the killing of female children led to a four-fold fall in the gender gap due to an increased survival rate of little girls, according to the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UNIGME). Other UN agencies say both issues are bound to improve with the Modi government’s pledge to make the country public defecation-free by 2019 and to improve child nutrition standards.

The Prime Minister has also distributed millions of free gas cylinders in a country that faces one of the worst problems of indoor air pollution (often caused by wood- or coal-fired stoves) and rolled out the world’s biggest state-run healthcare scheme, called Modicare after Obamacare – only without the controversies of the American scheme.

But the potency of some of his best-laid plans have been waylaid by a kind of intrigue that governments in India are infamous for – or even by a simple a lack of proper planning. For instance, Modi brought in a much-needed bankruptcy law to hasten ease of doing business, as well as squeeze out money laundering, and yet under his watch some big ticket cases of fraud resulted in money being stolen from banks and taken to foreign shores. Bringing at least one of the persons responsible back before the elections next summer would go a long way in validating Modi’s reputation as an anti-corruption crusader.

Meanwhile, a long-awaited goods and services tax was championed as the cure for India’s Kafkaesque taxation system but has turned out to be especially knotty and irritating for many, especially small traders – a constituency that has been a traditional supporter of the BJP.

The Prime Minister’s biggest gamble, an overnight announcement of the cancellation of 80% of currency notes, as a particularly powerful attack on black market money is now known to have failed to fish out much of the illicit cash. Meanwhile, many of his colleagues in government and party worry that millions of the rural and urban poor are waiting for the elections to get back at the government for the debacle. In recent months, some of Modi’s most vocal opponents have been farmer groups and while rural demand seems to be picking up, not least because of a recent monsoon, no one wants to predict which way farmers might vote in India these days.

Equally challenging was a spate of deadly attacks, mostly on Muslims, by Hindu fundamentalists angry at the slaughter of cows, which many Hindus consider sacred and whose protection is advised under the Constitution. This has been a contentious issue in India since the 15th century and the dawn of the Mughal age, but the rekindling of extreme violence on the matter is seen as receiving tacit encouragement from the BJP. While Modi has spoken with anguish on the issue, many feel that his intervention was too little, too late. Hindu-Muslim tension remains a simmering issue that the Prime Minister has entirely failed to douse. The only silver lining around this cloud is that the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist
parent of the BJP that has sometimes been accused of propagating a “Hindu nation” that downgrades the citizenship of Muslims, has recently announced that no such nation can be imagined without the membership of India’s Muslims.

In foreign policy, Modi’s record is decidedly mixed. His strong pitch for re-imagining South Asia and especially India-Pakistan ties lies in tatters and the two nuclear-armed neighbors are back to a sniping state of cold war. The Himalayan state of Kashmir, over which the two have fought many a war, is once again up in flames and a BJP alliance government there, praised for political imagination when it started out with its quasi-separatist alliance partner, has collapsed.

With China, as with America, ties are hot and cold, with the camaraderie that the Indian Prime Minister once shared with Barack Obama (Modi used to refer to Obama as “my friend Barack”) a thing of the past. India is still trying to fathom what the Trump White House really wants and trusts less than ever that it would be a source of support in any conflict with China. Even though it often seems outwitted by China, and outgunned, Modi has had a few successes. Plus, China’s hegemony both in Sri Lanka and Maldives seems to be tottering with new regimes coming in with decided antipathy towards Beijing.

For a Prime Minister who came in with serious conservative chops, there is one thing Modi can be proud of as he goes out looking for votes again to try and win a second term in the national elections to be held in the summer of 2019 : it is under his rule that India has finally thrown out an old colonial rule criminalizing homosexuality, thus joining, at least in one way, the comity of progressive nations.