Despite being Modi’s biographer and genuinely liking the man, I am not here to defend him. It is a fact that as we pass the two-year mark of the BJP administration in power, there are justified criticisms to be made. Overall the biggest complaint has to be the apparently slow and timid pace of change and reform – for, incidentally, nothing dramatically disastrous or unforgivable has occurred, despite such being endlessly predicted by Modi’s political and media enemies loyal to the Gandhi dynasty.
When I am asked, as I always am asked, the reason why Modi has not changed everything quickly and delivered India to its wonderful prosperous destiny already, I reply with an offering of a reality sandwich. First of all, Modi entered Delhi facing an entrenched and obstructive government bureaucracy that was bespoke-designed over many decades to serve the bigwigs of the Congress Party and the Gandhi dynasty. Very many careers were owed to and depended upon the established structure; forcing it to change was always going to be a Herculean task. The babus of government service constitute a complete society, unbelieveably loyal to that Gandhi dynasty, and changing their orientation would be a work of years and would require a master administrator.
Luckily, Modi is a master administrator; in fact he is much more an administrator than a politician, truth be told. He always repeated to me in Gujarat that he was not a very political chief minister, and after a while I began to understand what he meant. Modi spent most of his life as a ‘back-room boy’, concerned with the cogs and gears of government rather than the customer-facing front end of political posturing and rhetoric. He can do all that stuff, but his heart lies in organising, reforming, developing and implementing ideas. So, my answer to questions of slowness was that Modi was busy behind the scenes reorganising things – structures, procedures – that would bear fruit in the long term, and that in the short term it might appear that not much was happening, even though it was. I frequently used the image of a duck, floating serenely on the pond while beneath the water its legs kick ferociously. Slowly but surely the Gandhi dynasty would be dislodged from the institutions of government administration.
It was always going to take a few years before the fruits of Modi’s planning and reorganising (which began the minute he became prime minister, or even earlier), began to bud and swell on the boughs of the future. I think now there is evidence that a future harvest is beginning. We have seen already such things as the inculcation of a south Asian free-trade zone and the elision of land borders for trade between India and its neighbours, which will greatly encourage commerce and generate wealth whereas before petty customs rules destroyed them. Now, a 1400 km road linking India, Thailand, Myanmar in the interest of trade and international co-operation has also been started (some of it a repairing and remodelling of an earlier route that had fallen into disuse). This will help transform the economic fortunes of several nations and change the destiny of the region – again, in the long term, which is the horizon that Modi, unusually for a politician, always looks toward.
The masses of India now have access to bank accounts – something greater than 300 million new ones have recently been opened – saving the poor from exploitation by chit-wallahs and allowing them access to financial and capital markets for the first time. In the face of vicious and purely obstructive opposition by friends of the Gandhi dynasty in the Lok Sabha, the Goods and Sales Tax (GST) is nonetheless on its way through the parliament, as is the Land Bill, which will also give title to property on which the poor dwell and will allow them access to mortgages and investment funds. The GST will render obsolete the Roman-invented octroi system of local taxes that keeps half of India’s trucks parked up to save money. Federalism is being encouraged, with more power devolved from Delhi to the states, which Modi was always determined to allow – he said that local people know how to deal with local problems better than distant politicians. He told me that any mayor of a decent-sized Chinese city had the authority to instigate major building projects, but in India only Delhi could give the go-ahead. He told me that was ridiculous and that India should change.
Yet still the most important and eventually decisive changes happen behind the scenes. Modi’s government has been hampered by nonsensical timidity, most notably from the finance ministry, with its penny-pinching reluctance to do away with the retrospective tax imposts that frighten away foreign companies and investors. There has been too much respect and accommodation to the arrangements and personnel left in place by the Congress government – although it seems that after attempting to co-operate with them, Modi is now getting tough at last, as Minhaz Merchant argues, here.
And also now, after two years, we see things start to move – for example, along with the impending GST vote, we have just witnessed the passage of the bankruptcy bill, which will no longer spare the wilful defaulters and crony businessmen who enjoyed special treatment at the expense of the country, and will make winding up businesses – and the processes of doing business – much more open and speedy.
All this is helped by the gradual change of balance in India’s Upper House, the Rajya Sabha (similar to the Senate in the USA or House of Lords in the UK). It was packed with hostile Congress/UPA politicians, but the balance is changing as one-third is replaced every two years. Also, the BJP has just performed very well indeed in local state assembly elections, confounding the predictions of the media: ordinary Indians are clearly proving more patient and confident than journalists with regard to Modi and the BJP.
Modi’s long-term diplomatic strategising is also yielding results – most recently the agreement with Iran to set up a port facility in Chabahar that will mean India can trade with Iran, Afghanistan and countries further west, including Russia and Europe, without having to deal with Pakistan’s obstructiveness. It is a brilliant riposte to China’s project in Gwadar, and grins at the Pak-China port from just across the border, negating Gwadar’s strangulating effects on India. It’s nice to think, too, that although President Obama’s agreement with Iran has done the USA no good, the lifting of sanctions against Iran has certainly had great benefits for India. Modi must be smiling at how things have turned out.