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Out of my mind: A thousand days

He has done much, but in a lot of the media and among the opposition parties, there still lingers a combination of disbelief and denial that Modi, a chaiwallah, could be Prime Minister.

Written by Meghnad Desai |
January 22, 2017 12:51:58 am
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waits to welcome Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa for a ceremonial reception in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. Costa is on a week-long visit to the country. (AP Photo) Prime Minister Narendra Modi (AP Photo)

A government has 1,826 days if it lasts the full term. Narendra Modi is more than halfway through; nearly a thousand days. He has done much, but in a lot of the media and among the opposition parties, there still lingers a combination of disbelief and denial that Modi, a chaiwallah, could be Prime Minister. He has survived award wapsi and ghar wapsi, gau raksha, the tragic killing of Mohammad Akhlaq, the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the JNU fracas, even Sakshi Maharaj.

He is constantly conversing with the people — Mann ki Baat, Twitter, large public meetings around the country. Not since Indira Gandhi has such constant public contact been attempted by any prime minister. Perhaps more people have heard him live than any other Indian leader.

Modi has achieved a lot but still has a lot left to do. He has changed India’s profile abroad and championed the move towards the East, cemented relationships with the US. He tried his best to transform relations with Pakistan, but the dyarchy there whereby the Army (plus the ISI and jihadists) has as much power as the Prime Minister frustrated him. India will just have to live with a hostile Pakistan.

Ideologically, he is a moderate conservative. He has not tried to change the system radically. Indeed he likes the system as it is and wants to make it work better. Rather than reform it, he has set up new initiatives to improve it. Hence Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan accounts, Make in India, Mudra and various schemes of pensions and insurance for the poor. These are add-ons to the system without changing it. The inefficiency of PDS or MGNREGA has not been tackled.

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Modi will have to begin changing the system if he is to fulfill the hopes he has raised. Demonetisation showed that he is willing to take risks for what he believes in. He has tried to get black money back — from abroad, by inviting domestic tax evaders to own up, and then finally the devalorisation of old currency. This is a multi-pronged attack on corruption. The slow production of new currency and the muddle about ATMs caused more distress than necessary, but he has come through the experiment without too much damage. The economic cost will turn out to be small when it is fully known. The political cost could have been higher had the Congress not wrecked Parliament.

Now that Modi has tasted risk-taking, there are other reforms he could tackle. He has already spoken about simultaneous elections. If he were to deliver that, he could achieve a major breakthrough. It will take some years to come into effect, but it could change the quality of politics permanently. He could tackle labour market reform if he is serious about industrial growth. But I suspect he thinks it will be too much trouble. The vested interest of the organised labour unions is very powerful, though they represent less than 15 per cent of the labour force.

He could privatise PSU banks. He could replace the many inefficient anti-poverty programmes by universal basic income delivered by direct money transfer. In 2019, Modi will not face serious opposition. So he has a second term coming in which he can be bolder and make India free of poverty and injustice.

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First published on: 22-01-2017 at 12:51:58 am
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