ISSN 2330-717X

The Cowardice Of Narendra Modi – OpEd

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Even though I never supported the BJP, I was not blindly anti-Modi and was willing to give him a chance when he was first elected Prime Minister in 2014. I also remember the depth of frustration and disgust the majority of Indians felt at the time with the Congress led UPA-II government’s unchecked and brazen corruption.

This frustration was further fueled by disillusionment with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s spineless leadership and an utter sense of hopelessness about the stranglehold that the Gandhi family maintained on the Congress Party; refusing to allow a new generation of competent leaders to emerge. So when a number friends and family confided in me that they were going to vote BJP for the first time in their life, I was not surprised.

As a deeply polarising figure even within his own party, Mr. Modi was aware of the trepidation most Indians had about his chequered past, a past that had earned him a ban from entering the USA. For this reason he was careful to avoid religious and communal themes during his campaign and championed the slogan, “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (Together for all. Development for all). 

He worked hard to position himself as an economic reformer, promising to function more like dynamic CEO and less like paper pushing bureaucrat. He vowed to cut red tape and deal with incessant graft to unleash the latent promise of the world’s seventh largest economy. Most of all he promised to work tirelessly to create jobs for what will be the world’s largest and youngest labour force by 2020. For these reasons, India Inc. was also willing to support Mr. Modi. 

It would be fair to say that I was cautiously optimistic about his first tenure, albeit always remaining clear-eyed about his deep RSS roots and the dangers of extreme Hindutva lurking beneath the surface of the BJP’s political façade. 

No rational person expected Modi to become a different person as Prime Minister, suddenly embracing Muslims and behaving like the grand statesmen that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were. However, we did expect him to pour his energy into pushing through bold and much-needed reforms to modernise India’s socialist-style economy and privatise poorly functioning public sector organisations. To achieve his economic aims, we also knew Mr. Modi would have to walk a tightrope around furthering the RSS’s long held vision of turning India into a Hindu nation. The gamble was that if he succeeded economically, then the RSS’s vision would not have the fertile breeding ground that a weak economy and high unemployment can offer.

I was heartened when he invited Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister, to his swearing in ceremony. It was a grand gesture, the first by any Indian Prime Minister and one that went against the wishes of many in his advisors. Similarly, I applauded his decision to allow the Pakistani Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to visit the crime scene of a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attack on Indian soil, even though he was lambasted by the public and every opposition party for kowtowing to Pakistan. To me it was the right signal by a confident leader looking to find a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to long-running India-Pakistan animosity.

Similarly, I was glad when Mr. Modi was persuaded to change his mind, based on new facts and information, about the Aadhar program. While in the opposition, he had staunchly opposed and relentlessly targeted the program, dubbing it a fraud schemeFurther, I supported the implementation of the single national goods and service tax (GST). It replaced an archaic and cumbersome matrix of central, state and local tax regimes that included excise duty, service and customs duty, surcharges, state-level value-added tax and Octroi. No question the rollout was messy and painful, but it was necessary first step to make India more competitive and investment-friendly, and could be improved and finessed over time.

I was even willing to cut Mr. Modi some slack when he suddenly announced on live TV in 2016, that his government was getting rid of all 500 and 1000-rupee notes, to combat black money and help digitise the Indian economy, even though I did not understand his logic. We now know that Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank at the time, strongly advised the Prime Minister against doing this. He explained to Mr. Modi that with India being one of the largest cash-driven economies in the world, the short-term economic costs would be catastrophic, even if there were minor long-term gains. 

The Prime Minister did not heed the advice of his top banker, a former Chief economist of the IMF and the man who predicted the 2008 global financial crisis. Mr. Modi’s demonetization decision was an unmitigated disaster with the Indian economy slumping to its lowest growth since 2014 with the move shaving 1.5% – 2% of GDP. We also know now, with more than 90% of the total cash in circulation returning to the banking system, that the primary goal of flushing out black money also failed.

For me the first turning point came when Mr. Rajan resigned in June 2016. His decision came after months of public criticism by senior BJP stalwarts and Hindu nationalists, and the government’s silence made it clear that he did not have the support of the Finance Minister or the Prime Minister. Less than a year later another eminent economist, former Chief Economist of the Asian Development Bank, Arvind Panagariya, also quit. Mr. Panagariya, a professor at Columbia University, had been appointed by Mr. Modi to lead NITI Ayog, which was a revamp of the Nehru-created soviet-style government economic planning commission. 

It was starting to become clear to me that despite Mr. Modi’s 56 inch chest, he clearly lacked the courage to surround himself with depth and diversity of thinking to help him guide India’s governing and economic policies. Nor it seems was he willing to listen to the advice of some of the most accomplished economists. Perhaps Mr. Modi did not understand that, unlike his political cronies and sycophants like Amit Shah, men of integrity and intellect will never acquiesce to being a rubber stamp for the whims of a politician.

The other thing that became abundantly clear is that Mr. Modi had a great penchant for self-advertisement and a savvy for garnering PR to launch grand schemes like Make-in-IndiaDigital India and Smart Cities. However, after the initial fanfare there was little to no follow-through with policy support or investment needed to deliver on these promises. Undeterred by these failures and the lack of results, his government has spent “a whopping Rs. 4,343.26 crore of tax payer money on advertisements and publicity”touting Mr. Modi’s so-called achievements.

After five years in office even the economy, the reason many people reluctantly voted for him, has not shown signs of growing at the pace required to keep track with India’s development needs. It is true that under Mr. Modi the Indian economy has averaged a faster GDP growth rate than under Manmohan Singh’s government, 7.3 percent versus 6.7 percent, respectively. However, these figures were published after Mr. Modi’s government controversially changed the way that GDP was being calculated.

This led to a restating of growth under the prior government’s tenure and a downward revision to 8.5 percent of the 10 percent growth rate achieved under Manmohan Singh in 2006-07. The irony is that even with the new calculation and revised GDP numbers, growth under Mr. Modi has never reached 8.5 percent. The latest GDP forecast for 2019-20 has been revised further downward to a dismal 5.6 percent.

While the GDP calculations might be a source of debate, what is not being disputed is that for 2018-2019 Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) declined for the first time in six years. Additionally, India’s FPI outflow in July 2019 was the highest among emerging markets, this on the heels of the highest outflow in ten years in October the previous year. This sharp exodus of foreign funds signals a loss of confidence in India. The domestic economy has hit “a soft patch as private consumption, the key driver of GDP, turns weak, along with subdued new investment pipeline and a widening current account deficit,” according to the RBI’s Systemic Risk report.

Under Mr. Modi’s tenure we have also witnessed unemployment reaching a forty-five year high to hit 6.1 percent in 2017-18. It seems his government tried to delay the release of the jobs report because it was close to the 2019 election. This led to the acting chairman and another member of the National Statistical Commission resigning in protest.

The man who promised in 2013, that if elected, he would create 10 million new jobs found himself in January 2019 struggling to explain why the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy found that in 2018 the country lost as many as 11 million jobs under his stewardship.

I would be remiss to suggest that Modi has been a total failure. He has had successes with his Swachh Bharat program. This initiative has built over 92 million toilets and provided sanitation access to 500 million households. The Ujjwala Yojana scheme delivered cooking gas, with 60+ million free LPG connections, to the poorest households in India. The Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme has provided free healthcare access to more than 10 lakh people, since its inception in late 2018. Additionally, infrastructure investments have led to a marked increase in road building, more than doubling the previous government’s pace with 27km of road being built each day in 2017-18. His government has also invested in new airports and metro networks.

All of this is good and necessary but the bottom line is that Mr. Modi was elected for one sole purpose: to create jobs. He promised us that he alone could help India surpass China by delivering double digit GDP growth, modernising our economy and creating the most pro-business and investment-friendly environment in Asia. One that encourages entrepreneurship, small business and foreign investment to foster conditions that help create the 1 million jobs India needs, to match the number of young people joining the workforce, every month!

Nobody can argue that India is the most complex democracy in the world to lead. Our intricate mosaic of religious and cultural diversity has been built over 73,000 years. We speak 22 official languages and have over 100 dialects in use today. An Indian Prime Minister needs to contend with 8 national political parties, 53 state parties and 2485 unrecognised parties to get things done, not to mention satisfying the needs of 1.4 billion people. Leading India requires not only courage and tenacity to face often insurmountable challenges, but also compassion and humility to guide the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions.

Instead of rising up to this great challenge, Mr. Modi has decided to take the cowardly route. He has chosen to inflame communal tensions, undermine civil liberties and stir up religious fervor in a bid to divide and distract us from his failures. Any charlatan can inflame passions and stir up tensions, but a courageous leader acknowledges his or her mistakes and finds ways to course correct. Confident leaders encourage and revel in public debate on the most contentious issues and do not quash freedom of speech by shutting down the internet 134 times in 2018 alone, more than any other democratic nation in the world.

For me, this issue was not that Mr. Modi recently abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A, revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, but the fact that he did it without sufficient public debate or any political dialogue. Mr. Modi’s government detained and arrested opposition leaders and shut down all communications in Jammu & Kashmir, acting in the way a Russia, China or Iran conducts internal affairs using cloak and dagger tactics, not in the light of day, the way the world’s largest democracy should.

There are people who will argue that Mr. Modi’s landslide re-election in 2019 should quiet all critics like me. To me it is clear that Mr. Modi’s current infallibility and election results stem entirely from the lack of opposition and a viable political opponent and not from any deference to him or blind loyalty to his party’s agenda. Mr. Modi would be wise to recall Bob Marley’s words; “you can fool some people sometimes but you can’t fool all the people, all the time.”

We have survived foreign invaders and the brutality of the British. We came together after a bloody partition. Rebuilt after terrorist attacks and communal riots. I believe our secular ideals are deeply enmeshed in the fabric of our country. In the short-term Mr. Modi’s government may succeed in sowing divisions, but in the long run they will fail to divide Indians.

For us, there will come a day when a charismatic new opposition leader will unseat Mr. Modi, or his tenure as Prime Minister will end, but Mr. Modi will forever have to live with his cowardice.

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Nikhil Vaish

Nikhil is an independent columnist and strategy consultant. Follow @nikhil_vaish

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