Riding a one-trick war horse

Shekhar Gupta
Sunday, 15 October 2017

History tells us there are two kinds of conquerors. One who consolidates after a victory and settles down to govern, improve the lot of people and remains content within the empire. The second is the constant campaigner, for whom conquest is an obsessive fix.

History tells us there are two kinds of conquerors. One who consolidates after a victory and settles down to govern, improve the lot of people and remains content within the empire. The second is the constant campaigner, for whom conquest is an obsessive fix.

It is risky now to use examples from Mughal history although it is tempting to compare the relative legacies of a significant dynast in either category, Akbar and Aurangzeb, and how history judges either. It is safer, and more illustrative to talk about Emperor Ashoka, who represents both types in one life. A disruptive conqueror in the first phase of his reign, and a calm, reflective, and reformist ruler in the second, after Kalinga. This is when he made lasting impact, laid the principles of modern governance and foundations of India strong enough to last for millennia. It is that Ashoka, in his second innings, whose symbols adorn our national emblems and flag.

The era of military conquest ended long ago. Today’s leaders campaign for political power through elections, alliances and manoeuvres. What Narendra Modi recorded in the summer of 2014 was a political victory unparalleled in India’s history. Members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty may have won more seats than him in the past, but never was an incumbent defeated so humiliatingly and that too by an outsider. The two-thirds point of his reign after that, is a good time for Modi to review what kind of a ruler he has been so far.

On honest reflection, he may agree that he and his generals never rested their cavalries. They have been incessantly in a campaign mode. It isn’t just that the government and the party have become single-focus election-winning machines. Besides the targeting of rivals through state agencies, opening up new fronts in distant states where usually regional satraps rule and the BJP hardly exists, the government has also been unable to break out of the rhetoric that won it the election. All of these have distracted it from the boring, patient and hard grind of governance. The result is today’s low mood. This predicament is complicated by the fact that it has come when there isn’t sufficient time left for course correction and recovering lost ground. Going ahead, there is a state election every six months. And each one, in these 18 months leading to the big one is crucial.

No successful leader rests on his laurels. It isn’t, therefore, our case that Modi should have frozen his political expansion. Truly great leaders, however, have skill and the patience to prioritise their time and mind space. Even more important than these is their political capital. It is at its peak in the early honeymoon phase and then wanes. The most difficult decisions should be taken when public support is at its strongest and you have the time to see your efforts bear fruit. In its campaigning obsession the Modi government wasted that opportunity. It has left hard decisions, particularly on the economy for too late. Hence the current crisis.

This is the horse a clever ruler would have gotten off first, after it had taken it to his destination. The Modi government fell in love with it. The balance sheet at, say, the 42-month mark has very little to show on this count. A few raids and meandering cases against defeated rivals, a new reign of tax terror and very little recovered wealth. If anything, the one powerful ‘crony-capitalist crook’ the government could have made an example of, Vijay Mallya, escaped and sadistically rubs his finger in India’s eye from Britain. Demonetisation was one audacious, if poorly thought out move that, it is quite evident now failed to uncover any black money, whatever it may have done to enhance the use of digital cash. It ended up being disruption for disruption’s sake. It left the unorganised sector and supply chains devastated and combined with an already slowing economy to produce this awful job distress. It also narrowed the government’s stabilisation window for GST by creating a scorched-earth situation for the micro and small-scale economy in the months leading up to GST implementation.

Similarly, heavy lifting like bank consolidation, clearing up the bad debt mountains, large infrastructure projects such as Mumbai’s coastal road and new airport are yet to see a brick laid. For a government that takes pride in its project implementation ability, it’s embarrassing that work hasn’t even begun on its political showpiece projects like the offshore Shivaji memorial in Mumbai. The larger ‘Make In India’ project has stalled and barring the two-squadron Rafale order, defence production or acquisition shows no breakthrough. Since this government lays such store by its commitment to modernising the defence forces, it is instructive to note that the only acquisitions in its three years were deliveries on orders by the UPA. Military acquisitions do have a long gestation period, but even three-and-a-half years is too much time spent without resolving the fundamental issue of choosing an assault rifle for the Army. From banking reform to financial reconstruction, bullet train to Navi Mumbai airport, to choosing a new medium fighter aircraft to be made in India, time is running out in this NDA term. How could a leader as energetic and astute as Narendra Modi have left it for so late?

Here’s a hypothesis. The headiness of 2014 and subsequent state election wins persuaded the BJP to take a second term for granted. It presumed it had the time and space to use its first term mainly for political conquest of all of India and destruction of all opposition, national or regional, however small and distant. Once total, unchallenged power was secured, there will be plenty of time in subsequent terms for the more thankless job of governance, like a dominant team taking it easy in the first innings and leaving the hard work for the second. But cricket isn’t the only game of glorious uncertainties. Politics, if anything, is less forgiving, and doesn’t appreciate complacency. That is one explanation for the Modi government’s waning elan.

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