Prime Minister Narendra Modi has started his second year with a reasonably positive track record. He, however, faces four clear challenges that he needs to urgently address if he aspires for a second term. First, the biggest challenge he faces is with regard to the aspirations and expectations of domestic constituencies, business and industry – and from the international community. This is unprecedented in terms of both scale and speed. UPA-2 had regrettably earned the tab of ‘stand-still governance.’ Both within India and abroad, there was clear frustration at the manner in which UPA-2 demonstrated utter disregard for India’s future. When Modi spoke of better days, it was hugely appealing to a population that had only seen the Indian economy slide for five years. In the biography of individuals, five years can be an interminably long period.
Consequently, expectations in terms of what better days meant were considerable in terms of both scale and speed. Five years of inactivity had made people impatient. They needed to catch up on lost time. This was fast-forward aspiration. The demand was to cut red tape, create a forward-looking budget and to put in place incentives that would spur economic activity and create jobs. But more importantly, the demand truly was to get all of this done overnight. As the past one year has demonstrated, this is a Herculean task and constitutes a significant challenge for the Prime Minister and his cabinet. If the second year of his governance does not show a positive turnaround, the Opposition and the international community would, most certainly, dub him as being high on intentions and low on delivery. He is confronted with a genuinely serious challenge.
The second challenge is with regard to the bureaucracy and this is, to a considerable extent, a consequence of his personal style of functioning. Known to be a person who makes up his own mind, he has so far only succeeded in springing surprises on the bureaucracy and clearly leaving them out of the loop when he makes public announcements. While this might win him applause from crowds in Madison Garden and the Sydney Olympic Stadium that he appeared to revel in, it does not necessarily translate into approvals. The yardstick of good governance is verifiable translation of promises. Today, there appears to be – at least in terms of perceptions – a serious shortfall between promises and delivery. Consider, similarly, the strong manner in which the government has made its intentions clear with regard to zero-tolerance towards corruption. With the repeated allegations of corruption during the previous regime, this anti-corruption move has been largely welcomed. However, corruption cases, as we all know, are difficult to prove and where, indeed, traps have successfully ensnared officials and others, these are few and far to have any significant impact in curtailing prevalent levels of corruption. Focus on Swiss bank accounts, while important, ignores how deeply corruption has become an integral part of our everyday biography.
Challenge from colleagues
The third challenge is from his cabinet and party colleagues. At one level, clearly irresponsible statements by many of his party members have been a cause of serious concern because of the manner in which they have been perceived as imposing a Hindutva agenda and challenging the secular fabric of India. The Prime Minister has chosen to keep silent on every occasion and opted for an alternative course where he has, through his own public statements and personal meetings, sought to assuage fears among minority communities. While this is good, it is not good enough because it does not unambiguously demonstrate clarity on how the Prime Minister himself thinks.
More serious is the manner in which chest-thumping took place after the Special Forces’ action in Myanmar, especially because words of bravado and public boasting, including threats to neighbouring countries, were made by those who were clearly not directly in the know of the things. The army, the NSA and the Prime Minister’s Office did precisely what they needed to do: they did not comment or issue long-winded statements. Every country that has carried out such operations issues a bland statement: ‘An operation was carried out successfully by the Special Forces, which suffered no casualties.’ The media and others are then left to draw their own conclusions. Bizarrely, however, this became a media circus with wild statements and hypothetical threats. Modi needs to recognise that his cabinet colleagues lack maturity and understanding. Unless he is able to curb their enthusiasm for making press statements, his own credibility is likely to be seriously undermined.
Modi has given sufficient evidence to demonstrate that he possesses all the tools to be a master tactician and strategist. But as Capablanca, the great chess genius advised, ‘Play chess backwards; start from the endgame.’ Strategies and tactics or ‘the how’ works only when you first have clarity on ‘the why’ and ‘the what.’ After a year of governance, sadly, the Prime Minister appears to have been so fascinated by his own style that he has mistaken it for content. This is his fourth challenge and one which is self-imposed.