The third anniversary of Narendra Modi being sworn in as prime minister was celebrated on May 26 with all the bombast that has come to characterize a nationalist administration built around the image of one man, backed by his chief henchman, Amit Shah, the arch Hindu-nationalist president of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi went to Assam in the northeast of the country to open India’s longest bridge and, along with statements from Shah and various ministers, paraded a series of extravagant claims about what has been achieved in the three years. Many of the assertions are difficult to verify, whereas critics produced an array of more easily accessible points on which the government has failed, not least on the growth of authoritarianism and intolerance that does not fit with the traditions of a country which prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.
The most telling event of the day demonstrated how priorities focus on Hindu nationalism, even if that runs counter to the country’s economic interests. This was an announcement of a ban that had been gazetted earlier in the week severely restricting the sale of cattle for slaughter at livestock markets and animal fairs.
Billed as a protection of animals measure, it in effect supported opposition to beef eating, which the BJP’s more Hindu fundamentalist and sometimes violent activists have been spreading across the country with bans on the slaughter of India’s sacred cows.
The measure included buffaloes, which are widely eaten as beef, as well as other cattle. This will hit Muslim meat and leather traders, as well as many farmers who raise money by selling cows for slaughter after they have ceased producing milk. Experts have warned this could upset the economics of milk production and undermine India’s US$5 billion a year buffalo meat export market.
Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government condemned it as a “fascist and anti-federal move” adding, in a reference to people even being killed by beef-ban vigilantes, “Cattle slaughter becomes illegal at a time when manslaughter happens in the name of cow.”
That political jibe illustrates how the government’s critics believe its primary aims are skewed towards the Hinduization of India, even though Modi’s top priority is building an economically strong India that earns respect and influence internationally.
Foreign policy lapses
Today (May 29) Modi flies to Germany for two days of talks with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and her ministers, and will then go on to Spain and Russia. His foreign trips and overall policy have not yielded the gains that had been hoped when he made high profile visits around the world in his first year in office. Many multi-billion dollar promised deals and investments have failed to materialize.
Good rapport with US President Barack Obama did however help to strengthen relations with the US, while growing ties with countries to the east, notably Japan and Australia, could form the basis of a bulwark against China’s aggression.
Modi has tried to counter China’s wooing of India’s immediate neighbors, and has achieved some success with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but he has been inconsistent in dealings with Pakistan and relations have worsened. This has exacerbated stability in India’s northern state of Kashmir, which is mired in the worst social unrest for many years with the government doing little to ease tensions.
At the same time, Modi seems to have abandoned attempts to develop co-operative relations with China, which holds virtually all the cards in the bilateral relationship and can use its closeness with Pakistan to destabilize both that country’s relations with India and life in Kashmir.
On May 26, Modi tweeted that his three years in power had seen concrete steps that had “transformed” people’s lives. “Sath hai, vishwas hai, ho raha vikas hai” – “There is cooperation, there is confidence and progress is being made.”
The economy is strong with around 7 percent growth and various measures are in train such as the introduction of a long-delayed goods and services tax, but the contrasting view to what Modi said has been summed up well by the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf, who has been studying India for over 30 years and is widely regarded as one of journalism’s best economic commentators.
Writing in the Financial Times, he says that the government “has shown insufficient energy in tackling both the immediate problems of inadequate private investment, excessive debt and feeble banks, and the longer-term problems of dreadful education, lousy healthcare, weak infrastructure, corruption, regulatory incompetence, excessive interference and government waste.”
Modi has posted graphics on various sectors such as agriculture, mobile banking, teledensity, women empowerment, electrification, and solar energy and included some of his favorite branded schemes such as Make in India and Digital India.
Make in India is said to have generated a “giant boost” to investments in electronic manufacturing that has multiplied 10 times. There is however little evidence that the campaign has had much success in its primary aim of boosting manufacturing industry jobs, even in defense manufacturing where there is most potential.
On Digital India, Modi’s tweets claimed that the country’s optical fiber broadband network had increased to 205,404 km. from just 358 km. in 2014, but a recent study by the Center for Equity Studies shows that much of what was promised three years ago has not materialized. Only 37 percent of the optical fiber needed to reach 250,000 gram panchayats (village and small town councils) has been laid.
One of the biggest failures has been cashing in on what is called India’s “demographic dividend” with two-thirds of the population under 35 and providing jobs for new entrants in India’s labor market.
Writing on thewire.in news and analysis website, M.K. Venu, a leading economic columnist, says that there has been a “sheer decline” in the creation of new jobs in the organized sector which includes textiles, metals, leather, gems and jewelry, information technology, call centers and automobiles from an average of 950,000 a year between 2009 and 2011 to 155,000 in 2015 and 231,000 last year. Venu reckons that unorganized small business new jobs will have followed a similar trend.
Modi repeatedly says he has “zero tolerance on corruption.” That seems to have had an impact on central government ministers and the top grades of bureaucrats, but not on the lower levels of government employees, nor in most state governments. A new bankruptcy code could have some impact, but the government has made no attempt to introduce a Lok Pal anti-corruption ombudsman that was planned by the last Congress government.
There is also scant evidence that its dramatic demonetization project last November, when the validity of 86 percent of banknotes was canceled overnight, has had a permanent effect on corrupt deals, money laundering and general graft, though there are some reports of, for example, real estate companies being more cautious about taking large payments in cash.
Piyush Goyal, minister for power, coal, and mines, reports that the number of villages without reliable access to electricity has been reduced from just over 18,000 in 2014 to around 4,000, and says he is aiming for the whole country to have round-the-clock access to electricity by 2019, three years ahead of an official government timetable. There is however no way that power will be in widespread use throughout the villages, even though it if it reaches them.
Overall, the LocalCircles survey showed that the 44 percent of the people said the government had met their expectations with 17 percent saying the expectations had been exceeded and 39 percent being dissatisfied.
The real question however is whether Modi will be able to say in two years’ time that he has delivered on what he was elected to do, namely change the way that India is run by making the machinery of government cleaner, more effective, and less bureaucratic, and whether he has created jobs and opportunities for the young.
“My prime minister is focused on speed and scale, he doesn’t like small targets,” Goyal told the Financial Times.
That must also mean that he does not like slow small results, which inevitably leads to extravagant claims of success, but there is no other national leader, or potential leader, to challenge Modi. The political opposition is weak, despite a current attempt to unite on the choice of India’s next president, so he is on strong ground.
Currently it looks therefore as if the BJP has a good chance of being re-elected in 2019. No one knows however whether the growth of often intolerant Hindu nationalism, which horrifies India’s liberals and strikes fear among Muslims and some other minorities, will affect people’s judgment on how well Modi has done.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at www.ridingtheelephant.com