From fixing the economy to ensuring inclusive growth, from dealing with crushing poverty to upping the country’s infrastructure and from negotiating with tempestuous neighbours to managing the internal security situation, India’s new Prime Minister has got a lot on his plate ( By Rekha B. Roy )
On May 16th, India overwhelmingly voted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into power with single majority – a feat that no party has achieved since 1984. The euphoria, however, had largely centred around the personal allure of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and the longserving chief minister of Gujarat.
Modi’s achievements in Gujarat, one of India’s most well-developed states, have been the proverbial carrot that has been dangled in front of Indians (already on the boil at the slumping economy, high inflation, unemployment and a graft-ridden government) and had catapulted him to the top job.
“One might envy Narendra Modi his awesome electoral victory,” Mohan Guruswamy, an independent analyst wrote in The Citizen, an online journal, after the BJP won the national polls last month. “But the challenges he faces as India’s 17th Prime Minister are scarcely enviable.”
Right after taking office, Modi – famed for his 18-hour-long working days – instructed his ministers to set their agenda for the first 100 days in office focussing on good governance and greater transparency. His priorities also included boosting infrastructure, investment, education, health, water, energy and roads. But his first and most important priority is to fix the Indian economy.
Fixing the economy
Modi’s rise to power has been directly proportional to a slump in the Indian economy over the last few years. He will hardly get time to settle down before his government will have to present its first budget sometime next month. He will need to work on fiscal discipline and banking reforms and work out a plan for accelerating growth. His watchword “minimum government, maximum government” has grabbed eyeballs, but actually carrying it through on a national level – where there are diverse challenges – will be a tough task. “He is talking about limited government however growth is achieved by a government mechanism. It is not possible by a limited government but by adequate government. New policies, new reforms and reaching out to all are what he needs,” says D. Shyam Babu, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), India. “The bigger challenge for him will be to reconcile with this fact in his government.”
Reviving India’s manufacturing sector and creating jobs
There are 13 million young Indians who are entering the workforce every year and 100 million people are set to enter the job market over the next 10 years. Modi’s challenge is formidable, especially as growth has nosedived to below 5 per cent in the last two years. To create more jobs, reviving the manufacturing sector is his best bet.
And going by his past record in Gujarat, this shouldn’t be a tough task. Under his leadership, manufacturing tripled in Gujarat from $10 billion in 2003 to $29 billion in 2009. His pet project, the “Vibrant Gujarat” event, has successfully marketed the state to Indian and foreign investors. “He established simple rules: ‘We will not pay any incentives and will not accept any bribes. But I will provide single window facilitation, quality power and water, and will honor my commitments’,” writes William J. Antholis in his book Inside Out India and China. “These foreign investors include Ford, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter and Gamble, Nestlé, Hitachi, Hyundai, and Peugeot Citroën. But more striking is that India’s leading corporations have set up shop in Gujarat, choosing it above other Indian states,” he says
Long perceived as a right-wing, Hindu nationalist leader with a pronounced Hindutva agenda, coupled with a polemic past – many hold him directly responsible for the 2002 Hindu- Muslim riots in Gujarat that killed thousands of Muslims, although he was cleared by the courts many times over – Modi is in many ways an iffy figure for India’s Muslim community who account for 15 per cent of the population. But he had sought to address that concern right throughout his poll campaign. “It is the dream of BJP that no community or section of our society should be left behind,” Modi had told a public meeting in Mandala, Madhya Pradesh. “All communities should benefit from the development process.”
And yet, there are still concerns that the influence of the hardline Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parraine of the BJP – who are said to have micro-managed Modi’s very successful poll campaign – on him could stir communal tensions. The BJP poll manifesto had broached sensitive issues like building a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and bringing in the Uniform Civil Code which may not go down with a section of the Indian Muslims who abide by their own religious (Shariat) law. Modi himself had taken a tough stand on Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, saying he would send them packing once he comes to power while welcoming the Hindu refugees from Bangladesh as “family”. Winning the Muslim trust would be key to Modi’s mantra of “sabka saath, sabka vikaas.”
Dealing with ornery neighbours
The United Progressive Alliance government led by the Congress Party had often been accused of bowing to pressure from neighbours like China and Pakistan. However, Modi, who is believed to be a no-nonsense nationalist leader, is expected to flex some muscle in his international dealings. And if his beginning is anything to go by, this is one challenge he is confident of winning. He invited all SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Modi, however, still needs to spell out clearly his position on holding serious talks with Pakistan considering that the BJP has traditionally maintained a tough stand on Pakistan. In his dealings with China too, till now, Modi has maintained his own ground. The fact that Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile that operates out of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, was a prominent guest at his oath taking ceremony last month, was a clear message to China that he will not kowtow to them on the Tibet issue. And surprise of surprises, the Chinese didn’t throw a fit but rather sent their foreign minister on a two-day visit to the country soon after. “Common interests between the two countries far outweigh disputes,”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing a day after the minister’s visit was concluded. “We are natural partners rather than rivals and the Chinese and Indian dream integrate with each other.”
Dealing with poverty, upping infrastructure
Around 250 million people in India go to bed hungry every day. About 48 per cent of children under the age of five are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. The country produces 250 million tonnes of foodgrain a year, but its annual consumption is only between 220 million to 225 million tonnes while food worth a whopping Rs 44,000 crore are wasted every year owing to a lack of storage infrastructure and bad roads and refrigerated transport. The World Economic Forum’s Annual Report on Competitiveness ranks India 85th in the world for basic infrastructure and 98th on technological readiness. On education and health, it ranks 102nd in the world. Understandably, infrastructure development is high on the agenda of the Modi government. Modi has already announced plans for 100 smart cities, introduction of bullet trains and resurrection of the river linking project. Last week, President Pranab Mukherjee had outlined the priorities of the Modi government towards building low-cost airports to promote air connectivity to smaller towns and developing India’s long coastline as a major transport route.
Clamp down on corruption
According to Transparency International, the global anti-grafts body, billions of rupees are paid every year as bribes by poor and middle class Indians. Transparency International India’s India Corruption Study 2008 estimated that below poverty line (BPL) households spent over $196 million paying bribes of which $49.5 million were from the poorest to avail 11 basic public services such as access to hospital, education and water that they are entitled to.
“Aside from his intent, it is also a political requirement as people in India are not ready to accept rising corruption silently,” says Anupama Jha, regional expert at Trace International , an antibribery, compliance organisation.“There is huge corruption in government schemes. Also, poverty alleviation schemes, which are mere sops, need to be scrapped. This will be a challenge as the poor are used to getting doles from the government and scrapping the schemes may mean losing out on public support.”
Modi had said that Maoism and terrorism “are the biggest threats” to India’s internal security. The Maoists have gained in strength over the years and honed their guerrilla war expertise and routinely target security forces and government officials in some of India’s most resource-rich areas like Chhattishgarh and Jharkhand in eastern India. Apart from the Maoists, controlling homegrown terror groups like the Indian Mujahideen will also be a pressing challenge for the new PM.
Jammu & Kashmir will continue to present security challenges too. In his poll manifesto, Modi had said that once in power he will repeal Article 370, a constitutional provision that grants Jammu & Kashmir area a special status. If he goes through with it, it might shatter the fragile peace in Kashmir and further increase his internal security challenges. Apart from this, with foreign troops all set to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, there are fears of an Islamic terrorist spillover to India, especially in the disputed region of Kashmir.
Along with cross border terrorism and the various insurgencies in different parts of the country, revamping national agencies like the NIA, which was formed post the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks with much fanfare but since then largely has been a lame duck, will have to be prioritised.
To address these internal security challenges. Modi’s trump card would be his newly-appointed national security adviser, former Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval, a long time advocate of a re-haul of India’s internal security apparatus. Doval, who supported the creation of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) is expected to focus on modernising the intelligence structure. Along with this, the appointment of former Army Chief General V.K. Singh as a federal minister for the northeast region, means Modi is taking the challenges of internal security seriously.
“Security is an indivisible aspect. Poor law and order will only enhance the problem. What we need is a good system (law & order) to deal with the problem,” says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. “Modi’s fundamental challenge is to create a firstclass security system.”
Modi has ably sold the dream of ‘Ram Rajya’ to a billion Indian during his poll campaign. The king of kings, as he was once referred to by one of India’s top industrialists, Anil Ambani, the biggest thorn in Modi’s crown could be in living up to that promise.