Last year around this time, I had posted a subjective report card for the Indian central government after it had completed one year in office (see here). In that report, I had complemented the government’s emphasis on strengthening relationships with regional powers (SAARC nations). I had also given the prime minister (Narendra Modi) the benefit of the doubt when it came to representing India adequately while he was abroad, although he was still on campaign mode after one year in government. I also thought Mr Modi had done well in curbing corruption at the top level within government. Another year has passed and where do I see India and its government heading now?
I will start with foreign and home affairs. In my view, foreign affairs and internal security are two wings of any central government that are going to be the legacy makers after the government’s term is over. Narendra Modi’s strength is his global visibility. He has made good use of it so far and I thought India’s strategic partnerships with Iran (beginning work on a new Iranian port dedicated to Indian trade) and Afghanistan (the building of a friendship dam by Indian investment) have reached new heights under Mr Modi. I am very happy about such developments. Mr Modi also did well in going to the USA to complete some formalities regarding the Nuclear deal. However, the equation with Nepal has suffered and the government has to do something to restore normalcy soon.
The central government has not let a major security lapse to affect India’s internal security (barring a couple of cases involving military bases). The home ministry (as best done) appears to have gone on with its job quietly but steadily. There is of course an urgent need for police reforms in India and not doing it until now has hurt India badly. I do not know when our government will wake up to see what ordinary people go through when they visit their local police station. The chronic and toxic nexus between political parties, politicians and police officers needs to be acknowledged before it can be tackled. I am disappointed that Union government, particularly Mr Modi has not taken up police reforms as a priority. Sorry, I get it now. Police is a state subject (the famous line by our Chief ministers). I will come back to federalism and where it is needed later.
Economy is the third most important sector controlled by the central government. It is general knowledge that when foreign and home affairs are addressed sufficiently, economy takes care of itself. The current government came to power on its promises on economic reforms. As the Indian RBI governor (unfortunately his outgoing and honest views made him the outgoing governor) has often said (to paraphrase him) “reforms should improve ease of doing legitimate business and such reforms require stable policies with long term vision”. The government, despite all the hype, has been blowing hot and cold when it comes to economic reforms. It has done too little for those who voted for the government, and it has done too little also for those who did not vote for them. The Make in India initiative, the Prime Minister’s mudra scheme (funding for start-ups) and various other schemes have received a lot of air time on Indian media. I am afraid I have not seen or met a single person (I don’t meet many, I admit) who has benefited from these schemes. The advertisements always interview beneficiaries but they don’t show the millions who are lurching in the dark. The mudra scheme may be a start-up from the government (ironically intended to fund start-ups) and only time will tell if this was not just another flash in the pan. Before I forget (ironically the very people lurching in the dark), let me commend the rural electrification scheme as well. I am not sure how much of the current achievement is a culmination of work started during NDA-I and UPA-I. Never mind the details. I celebrate, with some sadness, that it has taken independent India almost seven decades to electrify some of her villages.
The fourth important ministry is the ministry of environment. I had in my last year’s report cited the promise of our prime minister that he will ensure that the river Ganga will see better days. I noticed that just before the government completed its second year, one of the ministers again made a statement to similar effects. The prime minister himself went to his constituency in Varanasi to inaugurate eco-friendly transport. I am sure he knows that the river does not start and end in Varanasi. Do you remember what the art of living extravaganza on the banks of river Yamuna did to the river? I am yet to see any concrete action that convinces me that the prime minister and the government are serious about cleaning our rivers and stopping water pollution. The river Ganga is symptomatic of a large problem. Forests and natural resources are national assets (I would say world assets) and no state should cite economic reasons for compromising environmental norms.
You may wonder why I did not place rural employment, health care, and education as the priority for the government. I keep a close watch on those too and social sector reform, as a subject is close to my heart. I fully support for example the Prime Minister’s phasal bima (crop insurance) scheme. It is a great initiative and needs all the publicity it can get. I do not understand the full details of how the scheme is going to work. But, the thought that a government is willing to cover the losses incurred by our farmers (for a nominal premium) is wonderful. However, our system is flawed. Social reforms need to be decentralised. The central government should not be running schools, colleges and hospitals. These should be run by state governments, perhaps even district and village panchayats. I am not for once saying that we need to privatise social sectors in India. In fact, I am saying just the opposite. The government should invest more in the social sector, more in primary schools and such investments should come from state governments and not from New Delhi (the evil centre, in my view).
The prime minister seems to be very keen on absurd acronyms. Let me offer him one. DDD (sorry for diluting the subject but I am not talking about the size of a bra cup). D for decentralize, D for decentralize and D for decentralize. All you need to do is to visit a remote place in South India. The situation in a local state-run school or a primary health centre is appalling. The central government is promoting the building of toilets (I hear adds on radio every day). Great initiative in principle. However, the central government should not be involved in building toilets. New Delhi does not speak my native language (Kannada in my case, it can be any other regional language). The central officers do not understand regional problems. Co-operative federalism is highlighted all the time by the Union government. I want to see some tangible action. Empower the states. Give them more funds to empower district and gram panchayats to deliver health care and education. That will transform India. Not a few bureaucrats sitting in New Delhi. The very fact that I am writing a report card for the central government and not for the government running my home state (Karnataka) clearly tells me that there is a serious imbalance of power. The state politics all across India, unfortunately, has not covered itself in glory. The corruption allegations are stinking (the way Bangalore’s solid waste is stinking to high-hell; click here for an article on political scene in Karnataka that I wrote six years ago).
A former minister in the old NDA (Vajapayee) government may add another D (disinvestment) to my list of Ds. The situation of Air India exemplifies how PSUs are in ICU. The public sector industries and banks are doing a service to this nation. Indian railway is the life line of our country and it must continue to be a state run unit. No private sector in this world can do what railways does for India and if someone thinks that private railways is the answer, they are living in a fool’s paradise. I will write a separate article on the railways some other time. In an ideal world PSUs should be better than their private counterparts given the privileges and support PSU’s receive from tax payers’ money. I also hope for such a day but I might also be living in a fool’s paradise.
Finally, I will come to communication, an area where the current government is supposedly very strong. Narendra Modi has been heard many times on the radio through the usual mann ki baat programme. Although I did not listen to all of them, I did make it a point to go to their recordings whenever possible to understand a prime minister’s mind. As always, the message and the theme of some of mann ki baat were laudable (e.g. rain water harvesting, building toilets, prevention of maternal mortality during child birth, recognising ordinary people by name and highlighting their achievements etc). However, when he asked people to post selfies with daughter, he really put me off. Such symbolism might enthuse some urbane (=superficial) people and most of them are already posting too many selfies anyway. Dare I say the prime minister should stop posting selfies too. Don’t we remember the mindless minister who posted a selfie while touring distressed drought-hit areas? Don’t we hear news almost every day that some young boy lost his life trying to take a dangerous selfie? Selfies are a modern day disease and the prime minister of a country should not be promoting bad habits. To be fair, the government has been promoting ‘bEti bachao bEti paDao” (save the girl child and educate the girl child) as a nationwide scheme, which is a commendable idea. The prime minister must leave soft promotion of government schemes to some bureaucrat and he should focus on improving governance. The previous union governments were busy naming schemes after a political family (I despise that attitude), the current government seems to be busy renaming old schemes.
One of the main criticisms I have for the union government (Modi Sarkar sounds feudal and I don’t like that phrase), is for the government’s one-way communication strategy. The song played by All India Radio every day (before 8 am morning news) to celebrate two years of NDA-II is okay but why every day? Can the government ask the state radio to play a song of unanswered questions every day? The news headlines almost invariably begin with the phrase “Prime Minister Narendra Modi….”. For heaven’s sake, can we have one day where the news begins with some other thing? I thought the second year of a newly elected government will be its best year in terms of handling tough questions facing Indian economy, Indian forests, Indian farmers and Indian Science. However, the government has not taken the challenges head on. They don’t answer questions. The opposition has failed in all fronts to hold the government to account. Most chief ministers are busy taking pot shots at central ministers and vice versa. India seems to be on a perpetual election mode, which is very unhealthy for a democracy.
The prime minister always invites people to ask him questions before a mann ki baat programme and chooses to answer some of them. I am afraid he has never chosen tough questions. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh made a serious mistake by not answering questions that were flinging at him. However, at least he had once in a while taken direct questions from the press. I am really concerned that the current prime minister is damaging his own credibility by not convening press conferences all by himself at regular intervals. He must take questions when he is not briefed what the questions are going to be. The parliamentary debate in our country has hit very low standards and often the questions are so boring that the person who raised the question sleeps while someone (if present) gives an answer. I have heard many MPs from the Rajya sabha (upper house) complain to the media that the best speeches and debates are not covered by the press. I don’t know. The prime minister should lead a change in this attitude. He should take questions on unprepared. He should speak his real mann ki baat and not be fixated on prepared radio speeches. May we see some change in this respect in 2016-17? A mixed bag of a year, I conclude.
While I was writing this article, I got the news that the Union government is closing down the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. It is a disturbing development. It is okay if the idea leads to something else e.g. a new name for an old ministry, e.g. Ministry of Gram Swaraj. However, I doubt the intentions of our government in this matter and am hoping against hope that the government understands the gravity of the problem. (added on July 5th)…I also learnt that the World Bank is investing >600 million dollars into India’s renewable energy programme. President of the World Bank has acknowledged that the decision was approved because Mr Modi has given a personal commitment to making India a solar super power. I congratulate our Prime Minister for taking the lead and a firm stand. I also thought India played a constructive role during the climate discussions in Paris last year.