May 11, 2021
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Why Bihar Is Modi’s Mid-Term Review

The stakes for the Prime Minister in the outcome in Bihar are higher than for any other politician

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Why Bihar Is Modi’s Mid-Term Review
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In a significant measure, the upcoming Bihar elections can be expected to centre around the performance and efficiency of the delivery systems of the Modi government. To that extent, a form of mid-term review of the dispensation at the Centre is already in hand, even though such appraisals and evaluations are usually reserved for after the third year in office.

Will the Bihar polls become a ‘kaante ki takkar’? Or, as a section of political analysts would have us believe, is the BJP moving towards a decisive edge which could translate into an impressive margin of victory? Political parties have, in the past, been known to ‘snatch defeat from the jaws of victory’. The stakes for the Prime Minister in the outcome in Bihar are higher than for any other politician. The youth of Bihar, as also the first-time voters, will play a key role in the electoral verdict.

The raison d’etre for the current situation is not far to seek. Narendra Modi is now the overriding face of the BJP in all spheres and elections, national or state, cannot be an exception. Had the Prime Minister been able, in the first six or eight months, to more convincingly demonstrate a capacity and determination to deliver on the promises and commitments made to the people, the outcome of the Bihar contest might have been a foregone conclusion.

For Modi, the fiasco of the India – Pakistan NSA level talks (closely followed by unrest in his own state of Gujarat) could not have come at a worse moment. If there was one field in which he was personally making a mark, it was that of foreign affairs. Given the undeniable fact of China’s rise, a stronger Pakistan-China axis and a disturbing presence of the ISIS, he seemed to have understood the need for his direct involvement in building partnerships. Significantly, therefore, his first bilateral visits outside the subcontinent were to Japan, the USA and Australia.

Since Modi took office, the country’s foreign policy has, essentially, been conducted from the PMO. The mandarins of South Block should not have been expected to be happy about this. The contention that the NSA meeting was set up in haste and without adequate preparation has found resonance in the foreign service establishment and among retired diplomats. Modi’s remarks in Bangladesh highlighting India’s role in its liberation also did not go down well in Pakistan. For both neighbours, a resumption of the process of dialogue may well depend on a less than gentle nudge from Washington D.C.

In the existing circumstances, the Prime Minister probably stands to benefit a good deal from appointing a trusted interlocutor of political stature, calibre and experience (possibly, a former Foreign Minister) to match the skills and expertise of Sartaj Aziz.

Modi’s foreign policy initiatives would have gathered greater momentum, except that these were not accompanied by positively impacting moves in the domestic arena. Let alone a disillusionment with issues like black money, curbing the rampant corruption, the ‘sham’ relief packages and only a marginal expansion of employment opportunities, the manner of handling of the OROP demand (to the acceptance of which the BJP committed itself in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections and, later, at Siachen and at INS Vikramaditya after Modi became PM) has left much to be desired. The question of accountability for the inordinate delay, including of senior bureaucrats, past and present, of the Ministry of Defence, should not be overlooked.

In January, 2014 when the election campaign was at its peak, the then BJP president, Rajnath Singh, during a visit to Netaji Subhas Bose’s birth place, Cuttack, had stridently urged that the UPA government make public the records related to this hero of the freedom struggle. Some months later, in an RTI reply, the PMO accepted that there were 41 files related to Bose (of which two had been declassified) and refused to disclose them taking a position similar to that of the previous Congress-led government. The Prime Minister himself had held out assurances in this behalf when a grand-nephew of Netaji called on him in Berlin earlier this year. Some members of the Bose family are justifiably angry with Rajnath Singh and have described his tribute to Netaji on 18 August, 2015 (the ‘alleged’ anniversary of the aircrash) as “an attempt to distort history”. Matters could still move forward when the Bose family next gets across to the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Government of West Bengal have gone ahead and have been applauded for reaching a decision.

It is fair to say that the senior BJP leadership seem to have cultivated a habit of making promises galore, with not much seriousness to fulfil them, a lackadaisical approach to time-bound action and insufficient examination of the issues at hand. The net result is that the credibility of the Prime Minister (and his colleagues) has been seriously impaired.

The Prime Minister cannot be unaware of the absence of compassion among well-to-do Indians and the middle class, generally, towards the millions who have no advantages of birth to shield them from hunger, disease, oppression, deprivation and violence. Nonetheless, the appalling socio-economic inequalities and the glaring disparities, so evident in rural and urban India alike, have shown no signs of diminishing under Modi’s watch. It is the crying need of the poor and underprivileged to be heard and for their misery to begin to be alleviated that should now top the PM’s agenda, rather than corporate and business interests. As it is, life in India, in every sense, is good only for the ultra-rich and the very rich.

Even as Modi has skilfully side-tracked questions on his performance as Prime Minister, he obviously realises that his report card does not shine half as much as the one he presented as Gujarat Chief Minister before the Lok Sabha polls. He also knows that he has to blunt the growing criticism that he is a non-performer. While he may, at this juncture, seek RSS help and cooperation in battling corruption in the higher echelons of the government, he needs to appreciate that the remedy lies much more in his exercising his own authority with a degree of severity, especially with the top bureaucracy dominated, principally, by the IAS and the IPS. What prevents him, for instance, in taking a firm line on the Vyapam and DMAT scams in Madhya Pradesh which has been ruled by the BJP for more than a decade? Such issues are unlikely to fade away, least of all because of the inaction of those in authority, be it Union Ministers or State Chief Ministers.

There is also the lengthening shadow of a ‘possible’ economic slowdown to contend with; travelling to foreign cities and assuring investors that the country is open to business can be an exercise in futility if nothing changes on the ground in India. It could be anybody’s guess whether the latest excursion to American shores will, in the foreseeable future, lead to more tangible and quantifiable results in the economic field.

Assuming that one outcome of the lately held RSS-BJP ‘coordination’ meeting was an acknowledgement of the imperative to initiate corrective measures (coining of slogans may no longer carry the day) and that Modi will soon be in ‘action-mode’, there will, inevitably, arise the question of the ‘talent deficit’ that exists in the BJP and in the civil service, as a whole, not excluding the PMO (which has been calling the shots in the government) and the Cabinet Secretariat. Few ministers are proving equal to the challenge (not to mention the allegations of nepotism and misuse of office) and there are vast areas of governance and administration that remain unaddressed in NDA II. So much so that one is tempted to ponder as to whether there is much difference in style and content between UPA II and NDA II.

There can be no denying that the expectations of the RSS from Narendra Modi are far greater than from the Vajpayee-led coalition. The then Prime Minister thought it fit to virtually outsource the Government of India to his key aide, the all-powerful Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary-cum-NSA, who had little exposure to the realities of administration in India. In June, 2012 (after the NDA had been out of power for eight years) Mishra told a news channel: “First of all, we must be clear that BJP is not going to get majority on its own. Impossible. And, therefore, he (Modi) cannot be put forward as a successor. They will have to find somebody else ……” Mishra also said that Modi continued as Chief Minister of Gujarat after the post Godhra riots because the BJP wanted him to and Vajpayee did not overrule the party opinion.

In recalling the performance of previous governments at the Centre, Prime Minister Modi often dwells approvingly upon the Vajpayee regime whose record on economic reforms compares more than favourably with his own so far. That said, he would do well to also derive guidance from the example of another predecessor, the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose work and sterling stewardship during 1991 - 96 laid the foundations for an economic revival, albeit only grudgingly recognized by the Congress.

As of now, the RSS’ ‘pat on the back’ notwithstanding, Modi will require the endorsement of the Bihar electorate in the coming weeks. This is the mid-term review that faces the BJP.

In the remaining years of his tenure, if Narendra Modi pushes decisively for higher growth, with equity, is seen to be an ‘agent of change’ (not of continuity), can effectively check the spread of communal disharmony and can transform from an active ‘campaigner’ and ‘communicator’ to a competent ‘implementer’, he could yet secure his place in history.


(Arun Bhatnagar joined the IAS in 1966 and retired as Secretary, Govt. of India; email: bhatnagar66 [AT] gmail [DOT] com)


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