When Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his eighth year in office, I thought I should examine the validity of the observations I had made about him in my book, Modi: Leadership, Governance and Performance, published in 2014, soon after the general elections. I did not promote the book, allowing it to swim or sink on merits. It floundered in the marketplace.
In the first chapter, I had said Modi was a “compulsive campaigner” and that he “loves campaigns not only during elections but also in between.” The past seven years have shown that nothing energises Modi like elections. Under his watch the BJP has become a formidable election fighting machine with a desire to win every which way.
No election is too small for the PM. Last November, he campaigned vigorously during the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections. This year he went for broke during the West Bengal assembly elections. The PM believes in setting the narrative. His social media operatives relentlessly and vituperatively attack those opposing the government. “Every day becomes an election campaign day,” says seasoned journalist Coomi Kapoor in a May 31 article in the Indian Express about the prickliness of the government’s media managers.
Modi’s campaign style, I had said, informs his philosophy of governance. He is essentially a mobiliser. Every year, as chief minister, he charged up the administration with a new theme. If it was ‘Nirmal (clean) Gujarat’ one year, it was ‘Nirogi Balak’ (disease-free children) the next year. There were drives like ‘Kanya Kelavani’, ‘Shala Praveshotsav’ and ‘Gunotsav’ (to increase school enrolments, particularly of girl children, and improve the quality of teaching).
I had asked Modi whether he thought these discrete themes could make his administration lose focus. He said every succeeding theme was linked to the previous one. During the annual ‘Krishi Mahotsav’, which began in 2005, about one lakh officials from 18 departments would visit farmers in their villages for a month before the onset of monsoons. They tested the soil and provided advice on various aspects of profitable farming. “Be Like Gujarat,” was former Chief Economic Adviser Shankar Acharya’s advice in a 2014 article in the Business Standard to other states whose agricultural extension systems were broken.
I was impressed with the ‘Swantha Sukhay’ (self-satisfaction) programme that required officials to choose an initiative that went beyond their usual remit. Modi told me that the ambition of the initiative allowed him to judge how motivated the officials were. Some of the initiatives like the kitchen gardens attached to Baroda’s anganwadis, which supplemented the diets of tribal children with green, leafy vegetables grown onsite, won awards for their initiators on Civil Services Day. Modi held an annual retreat where officials and ministers would meet in a problem-solving mode. This made me suggest that Modi “is perhaps the only ruling leader with a philosophy of governance.”
Modi told me in a 2008 interview: “Mera ek mool bhoot (fundamental) thinking hai. Until and unless you understand that philosophy you will not understand what I am doing.” “Why did so many people give their lives for the freedom struggle?” he asked. It is because “Mahatma Gandhi converted the urge of individuals for Independence into a mass movement. My thinking is that development must become a movement.”
At the Centre, one has not seen a demonstration of Modi’s governance philosophy in the arena of development. There has been mobilisation of people against defecation in the open. Toilets have been built on a big scale. Towns and cities have vied with each other to be clean and top the rankings. Departments like the railways have pitched in. Even behavioural change has been attempted. The programme has benefitted from the able and earnest leadership of the former secretary, Parameswaran Iyer.
The programmes to provide no-frills bank accounts and cooking gas connections to the poor also saw mass mobilisation. But beyond that people have not been fired with the urge to Make India Great Again. The one ‘development’ initiative that massively galvanised people was demonetisation. But it was anti-development, hurt many households and broke the back of the economy.
The past seven years have shown that Modi likes events and spectacles that allow him to stay in the media spotlight. They convey a sense of activity without actually resulting in forward movement or progress. Gujarat’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic shows episodic exercises like ‘Nirmal Gujarat’ and ‘Nirogi Balak’ cannot sustain desirable health outcomes without a well-designed three-tier healthcare system of the kind in Tamil Nadu and Kerala in which the state government is deeply invested. I had noted that only 100 primary health care centres had been built over 10 years when Modi was CM. And its model ‘Chiranjeevi Yojana’ programme to boost hospital deliveries and reduce deaths of mothers and newborn babies had not succeeded in a ‘statistically significant’ way. In my book, I had expressed dismay at the hype of the sanitation drives not matching reality after visiting Dwarka whose litter and filth came as a shock. “How could this happen to a pilgrimage centre in a state that champions Hindutva?” I had asked.
But one has seen mobilisation in the cultural sphere. On the issues that are intrinsic to HIndutva ─ the status of Jammu & Kashmir, trade in cattle for slaughter, the ban on beef, reverence for the cow, and the vilification of communities and ideologies ─ society have been mobilised and kept in a state of agitation like never before.
In this respect, the Bharatiya Janata Party under Modi had modelled itself on the Chinese Community Party which under Mao Zedong carried on a relentless campaign against class enemies. I had asked whether Modi’s comfort with democracy stops at elections – and well short of Constitutional checks and balances, reflecting the Chinese Communist Party’s unease with Western-style separation of powers. Over the past seven years there has been little debate and scrutiny of the government’s action in Parliament. And until the new Chief Justice took over, the Supreme Court had become an “executive court’, as one commentator put it.
To show that Modi as CM was deficient in the dissent department, I had cited the example of Kanubhai Kalsaria, a surgeon and three-time MLA, who was not taken into confidence when a cement factory was approved in his constituency, Mahuva. He led the people’s agitation against it, but had to quit the BJP.
I had said that Modi was a liberaliser unlike his RSS colleagues who had a suspicion of foreign direct investment. I said he was not pro-market but pro-business. I said Gujarat’s development had Chinese characteristics in its emphasis on port-led development. But I had failed to note that Gujarat’s development was capital intensive, while China had promoted labour-intensive township and village enterprises (TVEs) in the initial phase of its modernisation.
I had said that Modi was a slayer of red tape like ‘One Chop Zhu’ (Rongji), the mayor who had presided over the development of Shanghai’s Pudong ─ an expanse of swamps and paddy fields ─ into a vibrant financial centre after the Tiananmen massacre. But Modi’s execution abilities are now in doubt. His slashing of red tape betrays a non-consultative approach as the redevelopment of Central Vista shows. I said Modi was not pro-market but pro-business. I had also not expected him to go back on liberalisation and favour selected industries with import tariffs in the name of ‘atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance. I should have known that Modi doesn’t like to let go.
I had spoken about Modi’s cosiness with corporate groups. A party with a big appetite for political funding had to be the handmaiden of industry. Corporates are obliged with tailored policies and land grants, a corporate affairs executive at one of the groups had said. “We never thought we would be so big in 1995,” Gautam Adani had told me when I had met him.
Looking back, Modi seems to have branded himself as a Development Man through initiatives like Vibrant Gujarat to extend his appeal to voters. Once at the Centre, development has given primacy of place to Hindutva, which has indeed become a movement.