The NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government led by Narendra Modi took an oath on May 16, 2014. It completed its first 100 days in office on September 2, 2014, having won by a thumping majority, 336 seats in 545 capacity Lok Sabha (The lower house of Parliament). The main constituent, Bharatiya Jananata Party secured 282 seats, so an absolute majority in itself. It came in promising to bring ‘Achhe din’ (good days ahead).
Modi's government has succeeded the tainted former UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government which was marred by corruption cases involving several billion dollars ( including the 2G scam of $ 36 billion, Coalgate scam of $33.6 billion and many others) and a scenario of unabated inflation and extremely high cost of living. So how would Modi turn a new leaf?
Attempt to check inflation
‘Inflation’ has hit every single Indian household hard. After assuming office, among Modi’s first priorities was to check primarily food inflation. His government took some urgent and laudable steps in banning the export of essential commodities, ordering the states to take stringent measures to check hoarding and black marketing and establishing a ‘Price Stabilization Fund’. Despite these steps, food inflation has refused to budge, with retail inflation across all groups in July 2014 as high as 7.96 per cent while the consumer food price inflation was 9.36 per cent according to government data. Some of the food items that witnessed high inflation during this time included fruits (22.48 per cent), vegetables (16.88 per cent) and milk & milk products (11.26 per cent).
People might not have expected visible relief from price rises in the first 100 days. However, some structural issues should be tackled by the government, which it seems they are ignoring. The pursuit of an agenda of a liberalized economy marked by the withdrawal of the state from key sectors of the economy such as health, education and other welfare activities should be fundamentally reconsidered. A state withdrawal from the key sectors of the economy has a debilitating effect on inflation. With the slogans of privatisation and liberalization e.g. ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ the NDA government is unlikely to be successful in checking inflation.
Amending the TRAI law
Just after assuming office, the government was plunged into controversy for issuing an ordinance to amend the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) Act to facilitate the appointment of its former chairperson Nripendra Mishra as the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister.
Under the TRAI Act, its members cannot hold any government office after retirement, which ensures the independence of the regulatory body. Article 123 of Indian Constitution, which provides the President (effectively the Council of Ministers or the cabinet) with the power to promulgate an ordinance, reads: “If at any time, except when both houses of Parliament are not in session, the President is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary to him to take immediate action, he may promulgate such Ordinances as the circumstances appear to him to require”. In simple language, any ordinance can be issued by the President in case of exigencies only. So it is inexplicable why the appointment of one person was so urgent.
Eventually the ordinance was placed before the Parliament and of course passed, as the ruling coalition has the numbers in the house. The opposition parties did not show sufficient courage to oppose the bill in the upper house, so letting the government get away with this ‘Constitutional impropriety’.
In practice, the appointment and removal of governors has always been based on a ‘Spoils System’ in India. It has been a trend for the new federal governments to remove the Governors of the units appointed by an earlier government led by a rival party or coalition. The NDA Government is no different. It has asked the governors appointed by the former UPA government, to resign. Governors in the firing line were those of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, Rajasthan, Gujrat, Maharastra and others. Some of them were shown the door quite humiliatingly, replaced by NDA senior politicians who could not be absorbed by the ministries. Under article 156 (1) of the Constitution, the Governor enjoys office for five years. In order to constrain the spoils system the Sarkaria Commission on centre-state relations recommended bringing eminent persons into public life as governors, and to stop appointing ‘burnt out’ politicians. But the recommendations have fallen on deaf ears in successive governments; the NDA being no exception.
It has also ignored the judgment by the Supreme Court in the B P Singhal case in 2010 where a five judge bench ruled that governors cannot be removed in an arbitrary or unreasonable manner.
Dismantling the Planning Commission
The PM declared from the ramparts of Red Fort on Independence Day (August 15) that the existing Planning Commission will be restructured. In all practicality the Planning Commission, which was formed in 1950, has been dismantled. The Planning Commission is the body which plans the five-year, prospective roadmap of development for the country. It takes measures aimed at protecting the interest of the marginalized sections of society and the geographically backward areas. Despite criticism, the body had its own significance in a socialist economy. Its dismantling, experts believe, marks the complete shift of the country from a socialist-oriented economy to a capitalist one. India made a major shift from a mixed economic pattern to a capitalist one in the early 1990s when it pursued economic liberalization under the IMF mandated structural adjustment programme. In its Constitution, however, India continues to have some socialist pretensions.
Amending land and forest laws
The government has arrived with strong backing from corporate donations; some of which are on record, and some are not. Corporate funding of elections is not seen favourably in this country, though it is these which fund the election of the country’s leading political parties. Therefore, there is no transparent source of information keeping track of how much money has gone in donations to different political parties, though different commentators put different figures on this.
After winning the elections, it is not unnatural to expect that the government will take steps which are good for business. This government has attempted to create a favourable climate for investment by removing all possible hurdles. Major among these are the attempt to change the land acquisition law and the norms of environment protection. The Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar announced that its ministry would not be a roadblock ministry. The Rural Development Minister, Nitin Gadkari, announced his intent to amend the land acquisition law under which consent of up to 80% of the land owners is required to acquire the land for private business and up to 70% for public-private ventures. In amending the land law to divert land for industrial purposes, (The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act which came into effect in January 2014) there will be a significant diluting of the authority of the village assembly under the Forest Rights Act, that is intended to ease the process of land transfer and other clearances to set up industries.
Hwoever, the easing of the environment protection laws are seen as a failure to take into account the impact of climate change in the country, while the attempt to demean the authority of the village council goes against the decentralized model of governance which has been promised by all, including the current establishment. Where it is good to have minimum procedures for any clearances, the essence of environmental protection and community governance are of no interest to the new establishment.
India’s stand in the WTO
Where the Government does deserve a pat on the back is its stand at the WTO ministerial conference held in Geneva in July. It took a tough stand on food security issues, staving off the pressure from the northern countries to sign the trade facilitation agreement. It denied them a deadline for finding a permanent solution to the food security issue and bringing the food subsidy to a level fixed by the WTO. Instead, it demanded change in the base year (1986-88) for calculating the subsidy. It was felt that signing the treaty, the country would be compromised in its food security for millions of poor people and the interests of the farmers.
The Government has also been praised for taking the relations of neighboring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan to a new level. With Pakistan, it has also made friendly overtures, notwithstanding the cancellation of the recent foreign secretary’s talks. Modi invited all the heads of the neighboring countries to the swearing in ceremony of the ministry, a gesture that created a favourable environment from the beginning. It was followed by visits of the PM and the Foreign Minister to many of these countries.
Insecurity of minorities
Stands taken by some religious fringe elements have been a cause of great concern as the new establishment settled in. Some of the ruling party members of Parliament (MPs) have also added their words to this conflagration. The BJP MP Yogi Adityanath is spearheading a campaign against what is called, the “Love Jihad”. Some incidents have come to light (reported in the media) where Muslim men allegedly trapped Hindu girls into marriage as part of a plot to convert them. The MPs' outburst is against this alleged practice. In a country like India, people from several regions co-habit with amity in many places and in a confrontational situation in others. It would not be responsible on the part of a people’s representative to take sides with one community at the cost of others. A few incidences at the hands of some miscreants should not be allowed to target a community. The silence of the Government on these MPs' public stand is discouraging.
After the NDA government came to power, incidences of communal violence have been reported from different parts of the country. All have created a great sense of insecurity among the minority communities. The PM and the government has a constitutional responsibility to protect minorities from fear and ensure a right to life under article 21 of the Constitution. But, it does not seem galvanised on this front.
Authority or authoritarianism?
PM Modi has been praised by one and all for having exercised authority as the head of the government. The praise comes against the backdrop of a weak former PM, Manmohan Singh, who acted closely at the behest of Ms Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of UPA and President of the Congress party.
However, there is a difference between being in command and being authoritarian. Several incidences reported in media speak of Modi’s authoritarianism. First, he did not give any freedom to the Ministers to choose their secretaries. On occasions he has even objected to the particular type of dress a minister could wear! More significantly, it is gradually emerging that power is unnecessarily centralized in the PM’s office. In the parliamentary form of democracy, the PM is first among the equals, nothing more than that. The ‘Head Master’ approach to managing colleagues in the biggest democracy does not augur well in the long term. What the PM needs is to give adequate freedom for decision making to encourage the better performance of individual ministries.
In all, things have certainly started moving. The governance process seems to be running smoothly. Modi’s public announcement on corruption “Na khaunga na khane dunga’ (Neither would I pocket money illegally nor allow others to do it) is laudable, though only time will prove if he walks his talk. On the other hand however, Government’s obsession with diluting the communities’ authority to determine the fate of the land and resources at their disposal will only aggravate the already disenchanted tribes and Dalits where big ticket investors have been coming and snatching away their land and resources for a pittance.
The PM should be interacting more with the media, which neither he not his ministers have done enthusiastically so far. Media is the fourth pillar of democracy, which draws its authority for sharing information from the article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression. Finally, Modi should see himself as the PM of all his constituencies, and take steps toward addressing the insecurities of the minorities.