India’s Modi Trims his Sails

If Narendra Modi has learned anything since becoming India’s prime minister, it must be that the country changes slowly and that bombast does not work, at least not all of the time and less in India than it does abroad.

That became evident when he delivered his second prime ministerial speech on Aug. 15 in Hindi from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort on the country’s 69th independence day. He was dressed more soberly than last year, exchanging a flowing bright red turban for a more subdued orange model that matched with a calm cream kurta and jacket

There were fewer extravagant claims and less egotistical bravado in the unusually long 90-minute speech, delivered in the 29C sweaty heat of Delhi’s humid monsoon season. That is scarcely surprising coming at the end of a three-week session of parliament that conducted virtually no business because of Congress Party-led opposition tantrums. Urgently-needed sales tax reforms pushed by Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party-led government were not passed, partly because the government would not compromise with the Congress on some points.

He and his team also seem to have lost the plot on their once determined plans to speed up industrial and infrastructure projects by reversing key sections of land acquisition legislation that was introduced by the last Congress-led government. The parliamentary disruption, which I described on July 22, continued with Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, stopping both houses of parliament operating because of corruption and ethics allegations involving three top BJP politicians.

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The only winner out of this shambles was Rahul Gandhi, who has found his voice leading the protests, though his limited abilities were exposed a few days ago when a photo of his detailed speaking brief was splashed across twitter [above].

Arguably the Gandhis are working against the national interest by blocking parliamentary proceedings (which the BJP did to them before the election). They have however successfully made Congress heard, punching far above its weight with only 44 members in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, and they have shown Congress has the power to take on the government. As Ajit Doval, Modi’s national security adviser said in a different context recently (he was referring to India-Pakistan border fighting), there is no point in having power if you don’t use it!

When Modi spoke from the Red Fort ramparts a year ago, he was capturing a national mood of hope and desire for change following his landslide general election victory, but that mood has been dissipating since last November when the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, not economic development, dominated the news.

Many of Modi’s dreams have failed to become reality. Perhaps the most significant is his job-creating Make in India campaign that was aimed at attracting masses of foreign manufacturing investments with relaxed and efficient regulatory procedures. But though foreign investment has increased, there has been little discernible improvement in procedures and, despite multi-billion dollar project pledges collected during Modi’s foreign visits, there have been no large scale job-creating manufacturing plans.

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Modi climbs Red Fort ramparts to deliver speech

That failure seemed to have ended a week ago when Foxconn of Taiwan, which makes components for Apple and other electronics companies, announced a dramatic US$5 billion investment plan that would generate 50,000 jobs in five years. The Business Standard however quickly pointed out that Foxconn has failed to implement similar grand plans in Brazil and Vietnam.

Perhaps realizing Make in India’s limitations, Modi announced a Start-Up India; Stand up India initiative to encourage young entrepreneurs, especially among the lowest castes. Modi said, rather hopefully, that this would give a new dimension to entrepreneurship and help in setting up a network of start-ups in the country.

Picking up some other plans from his speech last year, he claimed that the promise of toilets in all schools as part of a Clean India campaign had been “almost fulfilled.” The Center for Science and Environment however responded that the campaign was only running at 25 percent effectiveness and that, at the current rate of progress, would be completed by 2032, not Modi’s targeted 2019.

Along with the Make in India and other Modi schemes, this shows how difficult it is to generate change in India and, as I have written before, it now looks as if this will not be the transformational government that voters, hoped for last year.

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This might be broadly acceptable politically if there were no other downside, but the government is developing an arrogance and self-aggrandizement that often comes unstuck. Modi is failing to solve problems before they become crises, most recently over changes for armed services’ pensions that he should have dealt with today but didn’t.

Potential success on subjects such as India-Pakistan relations and ending rebel activities in the northeastern state of Nagaland have recently been over-sold and risk failure. At the same time, the government has been bullying non-government social activists whose activities it dislikes and restricting personal freedom. Last week it even mishandled an attempt to block access to internet pornographic sites.

The next verdict on the government’s performance will come during October when assembly elections are held in the state of Bihar. The BJP will be competing against two regional parties that have the Congress as a minority ally. Modi still has strong approval ratings in national opinion polls, but his image will take a beating if the BJP does badly, as it did in Delhi assembly elections earlier this year.

Modi left after his speech today for the easier role of prime ministerial foreign visits where he can shake other leaders’ hands and woo enthusiastic Indians living abroad. This weekend he is in the United Arab Emirates, and at the end of next month is going to the US west coast where he is billed to address some 20,000 Indian-Americans in San Jose, California. A much bigger adoring crowd is expected in London where he is due in November.

Modi has undoubtedly raised India’s profile abroad and last year inspired the hope of change. The question now is whether that is the end of the story or just the beginning – can he find a way over the next three or four years to turn voters hopes into reality? He hasn’t begun to do that yet, and his problems are getting bigger, not smaller.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the bottom right of Asia Sentinel’s homepage