Is the new Indian government lacking lustre?

James Crabtree, FT Correspondent in India, wrote on Monday about the Modi government’s lacklustre start. I had mixed feelings on that headline. Perhaps, on balance, he is right. It is not a bad start but a lacklustre start, may be. More than the absence of big ideas (which is not as bad as is usually perceived), it is the lack of communication and a perception of inertia and inaction that are worrisome. The Prime Minister may be active in social media. But, more direct engagement with the public might be more effective?

Nonetheless, I can list a few good things that the government has done:

  1. On Railway passenger fare hikes, they rolled back steep hikes but the hike is there.
  2. The Railway budget was a good start to fixing the mess there. More private participation and privatisation on the cards.
  3. Minimum Support Price (MSP) – they made the smallest increase in recent years – 2% weighted average – and no rollback on that one.
  4. Parliament Research Service (PRS) India says 60% of MGNREGA payouts to be linked to asset creation in agriculture (“The government has amended the eligible projects under MGNREGA to mandate that 60% of the work taken up in a district should be for the creation of productive assets linked to agriculture.”). I think this is as big a positive news just as the continuity on the Food Security Act is a big negative.
  5. The government has quietly reinstated Aadhar and DBT.
  6. Some labour law amendments have been passed at the Centre and in Rajasthan.
  7. The Congress has not been given LoO status and some governors have been asked to go.
  8. The PM has ignored many media baits – on Sania Mirza row in Telengana, on Shiv Sena MP stuffing Roti, on Pune Techie murder, on Saharanpur, etc.
  9. We have a good NSA now.
  10. Settled a sea-water dispute with Bangladesh and now attention is being given to Nepal and to Bhutan. Good work actually. The government is also playing both Japan and China well – a nice ‘Silsila’ going on there, to India’s benefit.
  11. Inputs from a friend who visited Delhi recently and government offices, in particular: physical cleanliness is visible and there is a sense of accountability among government servants which was missing for decades. He added that he personally saw the difference in the look of the Sarkari offices (“It is inconsistent to blame bureaucratic lethargy/lack of accountability for many things on the one hand and then say it is ‘cosmetic’ and ‘trivial’ when someone actually gets them to work.”).
  12. The abolition of all GoM and EGoM
  13. There is quiet behind-the-scene work on passing the Goods and Services Tax Bill.

In contrast to James Crabtree’s cautious comment, Bibek Debroy pulled no punches in a withering critique of the government. I was a bit taken aback by the harsh tone. Perhaps, he had his reasons. Even though I felt that he was a bit too harsh, I also felt that articles such as his serve a useful purpose. The government’s detractors inside the government would be nervous. One friend wrote to me privately that ‘bureaucratic capture’ best described the current government. Bibek Debroy alludes to that in his piece.

My guess is that the budget presentation was a big opportunity to make an impression but the government missed it. I was harsh on the budget. In many respects (fiscal deficit, food security), it represented continuity with the UPA regime and that is troublesome. That is consistent with ‘bureaucratic capture’, actually.

Perhaps, as another friend suggested, had the Planning Commission being revamped or closed or renamed, etc., that would have been both a reform and a headline grabbing news. It would have silenced and pleased many observers.

On balance, the government is not off to a bad start. The problem may be more with the optics than with the substance. On the other hand, the monsoon was off to a bad start but it is improving. Both are good news to me.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Is the new Indian government lacking lustre?

  1. Dear Ananth,

    Among the many articles commenting on the start made by the new government, your title is perhaps the most accurate. What the new government has mostly lacked is “lustre,: or the “wow” factor. As you have pointed out via the list in the article, the set of actual positive achievements is not all that bad. Of course the budget, in particular the lack of corrective action on fiscal profligacy and subsidies, is a big negative. But even allowing for that, overall the score card has to be deeply on the positive side. If the new government has lacked showmanship, and some persons are disappointed by that, does that say something about the government, or about those who are disappointed?

    As the fate of the Insurance Bill shows, having a majority in the Lok Sabha is only half the battle. The NDA also needs a working majority in the Rajya Sabha too. Perhaps they need to wait for two years until Congress is wiped out at the state levels too, so that the changed numbers get reflected in the composition of the Rajya Sabha. That is a plausible hypothesis. But if that is indeed the case, that point should be communicated to the public at large, so that they go and vote out the Congress in the upcoming Assembly elections.

    I disagree with you slightly that abolishing or revamping the Planning Commission would send out a strong signal. To me that is precisely the sort of headline-grabbing but inconsequential gesture that the government should avoid. The Planning Commission can be rendered into a toothless tiger without drawing too much attention to that fact, and that is what *should* be done, in my view, not a public humilation or worse, a public execution.

    Coming now to the two specific articles, Crabtree lost all credibility with me when he equated the lacklustre budget with the blocking of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). So he is, in the final analysis, just a shill for the kind of Western economic imperialism that is touted by the likes of FT and Economist. Debroy’s column was overly harsh. In particular I was put off by his commet that “ennui has already set in.” Is it realistic to expect that the new government would set right in 73 days all that the previous government did wrong in 10 long years, or 7300 days? Just do the arithmetic. Critics like Debroy are expecting the new government to work at *one hundred times* the speed of the previous government! Come on!

    If articles such as these prod the new government into taking some steps to massage the bloated egos of some opinionators who are perceived to be sympathetic to it, that would be a good thing. But by and large I feel rather unmoved by these criticisms.

    I have a few comments on your list. The numbers are yours.

    4. This is welcome news and I have not seen it reported anywhere! If a similar tweak could be made about food security, the purpose would have been achieved without raising anyone’s hackles.

    5. It is good that the new government has recognized that Aadhar can be of use to it, and did not let blind partisanship enter into the picture.

    6. I was under the impression that labour reforms at the centre level have only been cleared by the Cabinet and not actually brought to the legislatures. Am I wrong? Hope it will meet a better fate than the Insurance bill.

    11. Your friend’s observation is spot on target. Far too many Indians, especially of the “educated” variety, are far too negative.

    Warm regards.

    Like

    1. Thank you for taking time to post such a detailed comment, Dr. Sagar. Yes, I too was surprised that the tweak in the MGNREGA was only known to me after I received the usual monthly news bulletin from the Parliament Research Service (www.prsindia.org). The hope is that a similar tweak will be applied to the Food Security programme, as conceived by the UPA. Your point about Planning Commission is well taken. I agree with you.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s