Modi: A Watchman in Control

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Given its very high ratings, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the 2014 general election was rather predictable — and still it caused a sensation: The BJP managed to win as many as 282 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of the bicameral Indian parliament, and virtually become the sole political leader in the ‘world’s largest democracy’. Compare this with the 159 seats that the BJP, also known as the Saffron Party, ended up with after the previous vote in 2009. The dramatic improvement was attributed by many to the charisma of leader Narendra Modi, who took over as prime minister. Now, the self-proclaimed chowkidar, or watchman, looks back at what was done during his first term in office. Expert views are mixed, with some considering it very successful and others expressing doubts.

Let’s be honest: Modi is a brilliant speaker and remarkable politician. In the run-up to the 2014 vote, he redefined the pre-election campaigning. He was ready to answer any questions, didn’t sidestep controversial issues, and kept on telling Indians that they were the inheritors of a great country and the millennia-old Hindu culture (which, according to Hindu communalists, have bestowed nearly all major inventions upon the mankind, from the airplane to plastic surgery) and must help India ‘regain’ its proper place in the world. Modi tried to strike a chord with common people, peasants and blue-collar workers, emphasizing that he’d started as a chaiwala, or tea server, at a railway station in Gujarat and managed to work his way up. His plan was to show empathy.

With more than half of the population under 35, it’s also important that Modi focused on the young – the internet, Twitter, and gadgets were key elements of his campaign. For example, he was the first in India – and probably in the world – to use 3D holograms at pre-election rallies, taking them to remote locations across the country. As a result, multiple Modis could address voters in different parts of India at the same time. Not to mention that to ordinary Indians, a hologram itself was like magic.

It was only natural that this inventiveness carried over to his premiership.

Soon after moving into office, Modi launched one of his first initiatives, Make in India, to attract foreign manufacturers to the country. This immediately fueled talk of Modi trying to steal the title of the ‘world’s manufacturing hub’ from China and persuade foreign companies to set up production in India. In August 2014, the prime minister delivered his now famous speech marking the 68th Independence Day, saying: “From the ramparts of the Red Fort, I would like to call people of the world to ‘come, make in India’. From chemicals to pharmaceuticals, ‘come, make in India’. Paper to plastic, automobiles to agricultural products, ‘come, make in India’, from satellite to submarine, ‘come, make in India’”.

Modi’s confident that India has all that is necessary for this program: a lot of cheap labor, a class of English-speaking engineers with no language barrier, and a large and young population eager to learn. The government believed that being a market larger than all EU countries combined would attract foreign manufacturers.

However, the situation with foreign investors hasn’t changed dramatically, as BRICS Business Magazine learned from an anonymous source at a business association working with international partners: “Modi’s government wasn’t first to raise the issue of attracting foreign investment – nor has it done much better.” According to the source, the progress might be checked by India’s business climate, which is still troubled due to an unstable legislative framework where laws are “often changed on the go”, protectionism, and a complicated bureaucracy, to name a few. “That’s not to say the government isn’t trying to change this, but it has to do more if it wants to attract more manufacturers than China or other countries. Currently, India’s business climate is just totally different from China’s – and not in a good way.”

In October 2014, Modi’s government launched another high-profile campaign – Swachh Bharat, or Clean India. The prime minister urged people to come together and clean up the litter-filled streets, giving the country a fresh look by 2 October 2019 – the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement.

This was supposed to discourage people from dropping any more litter themselves. Every Indian who volunteered for the campaign would’ve had not only to pick up a broom and clean up a chosen area but, more importantly, also invite nine friends or family members who would clean another street and invite their nine friends, and so on. In that manner, the campaign should’ve spread throughout the country.

However, the zeal of street-sweeping celebrities gradually burned out. Although some areas, as in central New Delhi, did became cleaner, a ‘clean India’ is not even on the horizon. The government, too, realized that a ‘revolutionary push’ alone won’t make any difference and that long-term targeted measures are needed – with no connection to anniversaries or public holidays.

Another focus of the program is the construction of public toilets. Sanitation remains a pressing issue in India, where a lot of people – even in urban areas – still relieve themselves in the open and many dwellings simply lack a toilet. The greatest difficulties are faced by women in conventional rural communities, where they have to wait until it’s dark to avoid being seen by strangers. According to various estimates, some 40 million ‘toilet facilities’ have been constructed since the campaign’s launch three years ago.

Revolutions on a cosmic level

In 2015, Narendra Modi called for ‘color revolutions’ in the country (which have nothing in common with those in the former Soviet Union). The revolutionary part is about boosting output in a number of industries, and the color one links them to the four colors of the national flag, which has saffron, white, and emerald green stripes with a deep-blue 24-spoke wheel in the center.

‘The Indian flag has four colors, and I want to bring four revolutions to India. Saffron is a color of energy, and we must have an energy revolution in India. Our country used to always speak of megawatts, but today we are talking about gigawatts, namely 175 GW of renewable energy,” said the prime minister.

“The second revolution will be the white revolution, referring to animal husbandry and how we can increase milk production. The third is the green revolution – how we can improve agricultural productivity, while the fourth is the blue revolution, by which I mean blue water and skies, which are free of environmental dangers,” he added.

However, Modi wasn’t first to put color revolutions on the India’s agenda. At different points in its history, 15 colour revolutions were announced, with some as early as the 1960s or even late 1940s, including a black (to boost oil production), a brown (to boost leather and leather goods production), and two red ones (to boost meat and tomato production, respectively). He just wanted to revive the old revolutionary mottoes.

Another high-profile initiative is the country’s space program. It seems like Modi makes it a rule to announce a new program or campaign every time he delivers his Independence Day speech on 15 August. In 2018, it was his promise to send the first Indian crew into space by 2022, when the Republic of India will celebrate its 75th anniversary. Later, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) unveiled at a press conference that a crew of three would spend about a week on a low-Earth orbit, with India’s most powerful launch vehicle – GSLV Mk III – to be used as the carrier rocket.

The name of the spacecraft – Gaganyaan, or Skycraft (from gagana, the Sanskrit word for ‘sky’) – is already on everyone’s lips in the country. It follows a naming convention used for key space projects in India, such as Chandrayaan (lunar exploration) and Mangalyaan (a Mars orbiter).

Banknotes and peasants

The list of initiatives goes on – and quite a lot have largely failed. The first major blow to Modi’s reputation as prime minister was dealt by the demonetization of the 500- and 1,000-rupee banknotes, the highest and most popular at the time. In November 2016, he gave Indians just a few hours to dispose of the old notes – a move similar to what Soviet Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov did in 1991. ATMs were shut down, and each person could exchange only a limited sum of money by 30 December 2016. Modi said the goal was to tackle corruption, implying that the honest people would have no problems explaining the nature of their funds. Exchange requests were reviewed by special committees.

Banks across the country had to deal with endless queues and a severe shortage of cash. Saving for a wedding or a large purchase and then losing everything in the blink of an eye pushed some people to take their own lives. Most puzzled were the foreigners, as an economy that relied on tourism simply ignored their interests. There was no exchange mechanism for non-Indians, and many people who’d converted significant amounts of US dollars into rupees were just clueless about what to do. While some hotels in places like Goa were still accepting 500- and 1,000-rupee banknotes, elsewhere tourists left with stacks of useless pieces of paper were often required by hotel and guesthouse owners to pay in ’normal’ money.

Obviously, this campaign hasn’t come close to being a panacea for corruption. In fact, it hit everyone but the corrupt. According to local media, many of them did find ways to exchange banknotes. (The government, however, insists that everything went ‘as it should.’)

The introduction of a goods and services tax in 2017 was also controversial. It was supposed to end the chaos over national, local, direct, and indirect taxes, levies, and duties and, for the first time in India’s history, consolidate the tax legislation, which had been varying from state to state. This should’ve streamlined the complicated taxation, facilitated the flow of goods inside the country, strengthened the domestic market, and spurred the economic growth.

Instead, it gave rise to many problems, with protests and strikes breaking out in some regions. Nobody seemed to understand how to calculate the tax, nor could they tell who shall pay what – not even the civil servants in charge. The opposition accused the government of ill-considered action.

But what really matters is that there are still poor peasants and farmers. Unfulfilled promises to improve their living conditions triggered a wave of demonstrations across the country.

Even the capital was affected in November 2018, when thousands of peasants from all over the country arrived in New Delhi – many of them carrying red flags with the hammer and sickle – to demand that the government abolish what they called unfair taxes, increase purchasing prices for agricultural products, waive the interest penalties on electricity and fuel arrears, establish a public pension scheme for peasants and farmers over 60, and make some other concessions.

Surgical strikes at poverty

All in all, Modi is approaching the end of his first premiership as the man who’s launched a number of high-profile campaigns but failed to keep some important promises.

Indian commentator Kapil Trivedi told BRICS Business Magazine that “Modi, nevertheless, remains a popular politician. There’s a widespread view that five years is not enough to implement changes of this magnitude and that the prime minister is trying to do something, which sets him apart from his predecessors.

At the same time, if the ruling BJP fails to at least show willingness to address the key issues – first of all, the problems of the poor peasantry – launching surgical strikes and intensive propaganda campaigns might prove insufficient to maintain popularity.”

The ruling party understands it, too. In a manifesto published between the end of the 16th Lok Sabha and the 2019 general election, it promised to financially support farmers, fight rural poverty, establish a new pension scheme, and provide other benefits.

But the key focus of Modi’s new program, as the manifesto suggests, would be “giving a free hand to our security forces.”

On 14 February, amid reports in the Indian media of the ruling party’s decreasing popularity, a suicide bomber attacked an Indian military convoy in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, killing 45 people. Radical group Jaish-e-Mohammed, or the Army of Muhammad, claimed responsibility for the incident.

Modi was expected to respond – and he did. On 26 February, a group of Indian Mirage 2000 aircraft carried out a strike in Pakistani territory, targeting the militants’ camp near Balakot. It was the first time since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 when the Indian Air Force bombarded Pakistani and not disputed territory. The very next day, the Pakistan Air Force struck Indian military facilities, leading to the countries’ first major aerial fight in 48 years. New Delhi and Islamabad later claimed to have shot down each other’s aircraft. An Indian pilot was shot down, but Pakistan soon returned him to India.

Traditional and social media turned into a real war zone, with both sides claiming victory. Arguments over the quantities of aircraft downed by each are still going on. But does it really matter who won the battle in the sky? The prime minister’s popularity has surged, and that’s what counts most.

“Modi stressed the need for a more muscular national policy, and now he’s shown what he meant”, points out journalist Ranbir Singh. “Actually, it was used to deal not only with Pakistan but also with China. As you may remember, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in the Doklam standoff in 2017. And New Delhi did all it could to present itself later as the victor. In other words, Modi shows determination and power – and voters like it.”

The Balakot air strike was the icing on the cake of Modi’s first term in office. His popularity went up again, and sharply so. The results of the seven-phase election will be announced on 23 May, and he may well end up winning.

However, everybody in India clearly understands that relying on surgical strikes to maintain popularity in the long term is not an option. The chowkidar needs to move on and tackle other problems. And this time, bombs alone might not help.
Indian history shows that this country doesn’t like sharp changes or revolutions. It likes smoothness. Therefore, advocates of slow but consistent steps in a chosen direction are often more successful here.

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