After some 15 months in office, it has become increasingly apparent that the Bharatiya Janata Party lacks in-house talent to realise its ambitious vision for the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched several ambitious schemes and improved on several others in his short tenure but the otherwise, the government seems stumped for a vision. To be sure, there are a precious few ministers who have proven equal to the challenge Modi threw them during the election campaign – Nitin Gadkari, Piyush Goyal, Suresh Prabhu, and Sushma Swaraj among them – but there remain vast areas of administration and governance that remain unattended by this government.
Much editorial ink has been spilled of late on whether the Modi government has lost the plot after a year in office, and if the NDA government is nothing more than a UPA ‘B’ Team. That is a different question, one that is affected by the news cycle as much as by emotions. The greater question is if the BJP has a cadre a talented technocrats and policy mavens that can operationalise the grand programmes of the leadership.
One fumble of the Modi government has been in the cyber world. While Digital India is an audacious dream that addresses the nuts and bolts of dragging India into the Internet Age, several critical concerns have been raised regarding data privacy and security in services such as Aadhaar and Digital Locker. These issues must be designed alongside the infrastructure and not slapped on as an afterthought. More worrying is the Indian penchant for censoring online material on social media as well as the rest of the internet and sometimes detaining the “offender.” The minister in charge clearly has little understanding of how the internet works, or for that matter, freedom of expression.
Another question mark is raised on the environmental front. On the one hand, the Modi government wants to clean the Ganga, introduce an air pollution index, and plant trees, but on the other, precious little has been done to curb vehicular emissions, dumping of industrial waste, and the massive dependence of India’s energy sector on coal. While the environment is considered a ‘soft’ issue in comparison to industry and defence by many, the disgraceful quality of air and water and its impact on health and quality of life is difficult to exaggerate. Rather than aggressively restructuring environmental standards such that neither the ecosphere nor industrial growth is hampered, the responsible ministry and minister are absconding.
During the election campaign, this government emphasised their resolve to tackle India’s critical energy shortage. Admittedly, the minister responsible has started the ball rolling with several solar power schemes announced. However, the country’s energy policy still seems half-baked. Solar power remains unreliable despite India’s favourable insolation and cannot be the bedrock of Indian power generation; yet little progress has been made on boosting nuclear power, the only clean source of plentiful and reliable energy.
In fact, nuclear power remains under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office and is not even consolidated within the Power ministry where a comprehensive energy strategy may be developed. Pace the PR spin, nuclear liability remains a thorny issue and the fast breeder and advanced heavy water reactor programmes could do with some more political encouragement. Outside of its scientific community, perhaps, India has no nuclear vision.
The development of smart cities has been another flagship project of this government. Cities have been named and some funds allocated but what exactly are the deliverables of a smart city? Genuine people-centric living would require fundamental changes in zoning regulations, massive expansion of certain city limits, substantial devolution of power to local authorities, and transparency…for starters. The concerned minister(s) have not volunteered their thoughts on these issues to the public yet.
Even in its short tenure so far, the Modi government has commendably started to clear the defence procurement pipeline. There remain gaping holes in technical and manufacturing prowess but these will take time to plug. However, the government might want to consider a thorough revision of the country’s defence posture, including nuclear assets. Certain pending structural reforms, such as a joint chief of staff, also need to to be hurried along. The tepid regurgitation of non-alignment ideals a couple of years ago did not sit well with either this government’s supporters or the country’s international security partners.
Surprisingly, Modi Sarkar’s report card on foreign policy, a subject that was barely mentioned before the elections, is, on the whole, quite good. Between the prime minister’s national brand management and the foreign minister’s ready response to citizens’ woes abroad, India has done well in eyes foreign and domestic. Of course, there is still the feel of a cluttered and overwhelmed thought process but South Block is taking steps to rectify the shortcomings in manpower and intellectual heft. The only major failure in this regard has been the flip flop on Pakistan – Delhi is yet to put together a coherent Pakistan policy and is content to treat Islamabad like a spoiled child rather than the delinquent it is until then.
There are several other sectors where this government has hardly moved. Agriculture is one important arena as is the judiciary. Yet Modi’s team has virtually ignored the former and treated the latter with kid gloves. The multiplier effect of a functioning judicial system on law & order and the economy would be enormous, perhaps to the extent that it might return some hope to optimists that rules and regulations matter in India. Yet the most visible legal mind in the BJP is sitting in a different ministry.
All this is hardly meant to be a litany of complaints against the present government but rather reflection on whether anyone else in the cabinet, barring two or three, has a vision for his/her ministry. Even if one is persuaded by the logic of the unfeasability of big bang reforms and Herculean task of nation-building left incomplete since 1947, it is not much to ask of this government that a minister other than Modi have an intelligent idea and the inklings of how to implement it. If the NDA intends to be any different from its predecessor, it must recognise and promote able leaders within its ranks while simultaneously inculcating the same in the civil service. Otherwise, it will find that India is too big to be fuelled by one vision alone.
This post appeared on FirstPost on September 02, 2015.