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:
- On Railway passenger fare hikes, they rolled back steep hikes but the hike is there.
- The Railway budget was a good start to fixing the mess there. More private participation and privatisation on the cards.
- Minimum Support Price (MSP) – they made the smallest increase in recent years – 2% weighted average – and no rollback on that one.
- 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.
- The government has quietly reinstated Aadhar and DBT.
- Some labour law amendments have been passed at the Centre and in Rajasthan.
- The Congress has not been given LoO status and some governors have been asked to go.
- 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.
- We have a good NSA now.
- 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.
- 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.”).
- The abolition of all GoM and EGoM
- 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.