The Myth of ACHE DIN?
Salman Anees Soz’s The Great Disappointment presents a critical assessment of India's tryst with Prime Minister Modi's brand of economics. For five years, India has survived several hiccups to craft many new stories, under this debatable 'Modinomics'. Excerpts:
A wave washes over evidence
...... The reader must not get the impression that the Gujarat model went unchallenged. In fact, there were many voices apart from Sen and Drèze who wrote extensively about the limitations of the Gujarat model. Some pointed to the fact that growth rates in Gujarat were high even before Modi came to power. Others pointed out correctly that Gujarat's social indicators lagged behind those of many other states. In human development rankings, states like Kerala did far better, while states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu had their own growth stories to tell. I myself wrote about the inadequacies of the Gujarat model. From one of my articles in 2014, I will take the liberty of quoting a section that seemed to capture what many were saying at the time. While I and many others felt the Gujarat model represented a discredited 'trickle-down' model of economics, Jagdish Bhagwati was arguing that its growth had a 'pull-up' effect. That was in essence how the Gujarat model was positioned. As we learnt in 2014, this latter argument won spectacularly.
The preceding discussion provides some context for the transformation of Narendra Modi, the man tainted forever by the 2002 Gujarat riots, into a Thatcherite reformer and decisive leader who would pursue good governance, fight corruption and bring achhe din. It is now time to recall what Modi actually promised in specific terms to the people of India. What was the vision and the policies and programmes that gave concrete shape to the exhortation: 'You gave Congress 60 years, give BJP just 60 months'?
Modi fought two successful campaigns. While we all focus on his spectacular victory in the 2014 election, he also fought an intra-BJP battle against other contenders who attempted to thwart his rise. He won his party's internal battle using a potent narrative with just the right amount of Hindu nationalism mixed with a heavy dose of development through 'good governance'. He had already built up a formidable reputation as a business-friendly chief minister who constantly marketed the Gujarat model of development. And he was already seen as an unabashed standard-bearer of Hindutva since the 2002 Gujarat riots. The BJP establishment had no answer to Modi's nationalist narrative that powered his inexorable rise to the top. In June 2013, he became chairman of the BJP's Central Election Committee over the resistance of some of its most senior leaders such as L.K. Advani. Modi was well on his way.
The 'achhe din' campaign
Modi and BJP ran a terrific campaign promising to remake India with 'minimum government, maximum governance' and a pledge to usher in achhe din. In speeches at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the BJP's national council meeting, Modi rolled out his vision for India's economy. He attacked the UPA for the 'despair' prevailing in India and how the country had become a country of 'underachievers'. Modi presented an all-encompassing vision from the social sectors to infrastructure development to job creation and high economic growth. On education, he said the BJP's dream was 'to have an IIM [Indian Institute of Management], an IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] and an AIIMS [All India Institute of Medical Sciences] in all states'. With an eye on middle-class voters, Modi talked up infrastructure and the rural to urban transition. He spoke of building 100 smart cities and bullet trains. He also promised to build hydroelectric power plants, manufacturing hubs, roads, airports and ports. The PM's party also wanted greater FDI for job and asset creation in all sectors except multi-brand retail. The BJP spoke of generating 10 per cent growth, creating millions of jobs and focusing on much-needed skill development.
It was soon clear to everyone that Modi's impressive rhetorical style was endearing him to the public. While the speeches were not purely about economic development, it is fair to say that the development plank was central to the campaign. Yes, there were references to BJP's religious and social causes. However, for the most part, the 'achhe din' campaign was about good governance, improving economic performance, creating jobs and transforming India into an economic powerhouse that would lift poor people out of poverty and usher in high standards of living for the middle class.
The 'Modifesto' as BJP's
With opinion polls consistently showing that Modi would lead the next government, the BJP's manifesto, dubbed 'Modifesto', was to be the icing on the cake. However, the manifesto was inexplicably delayed. In fact, the BJP released its manifesto on the first day of polling. While not many people may read election manifestos, they are important for holding political parties to account.
As widely reported at that time, key members of the committee in charge of drafting the manifesto were not too fond of Modi. Murli Manohar Joshi, the head of the manifesto committee, had to give up his Lok Sabha constituency, Varanasi, so that Modi could contest from there. Former finance minister Yashwant Sinha was back-benched and another senior leader, Jaswant Singh, was expelled.
The delay in the release of the manifesto appeared to be strategic in nature, allowing Modi to grow stronger without revealing too many specifics about the delivery of promises. The manifesto generously spouted feel-good statements but remained very stingy about specifics. However, at that point, voters seemed to have made up their minds and any critique of the manifesto for its lack of detail, especially by the Congress, had very few takers.
As a Frontline magazine article pointed out, Modi's imprint on the manifesto was clear. While the images of most senior BJP leaders were on its cover, Modi's popularity required help from neither the manifesto nor the party leaders gracing its cover. The manifesto boldly declared BJP to be a modern and inclusive party, relegating its pet projects such as the Ram Temple, uniform civil code and cow protection to the peripheries of the document. Frontline noted wryly, 'So, for the BJP government, apparently both rural and urban areas are to be high priority. And all sections of people are to be empowered: the poor, the elderly, the new middle classes and entrepreneurs, rural dwellers, urban residents, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, minorities, other weaker sections, women, children, senior citizens, the "specially-abled", the youth, sportspersons, farmers and small-scale business owners.' Frontline went on to ask: 'Did anyone get left out in this breathless attempt at inclusion?'
It is helpful to see the manifesto's broader context without drowning in its details. At the time of the election, I was doing all I could to run down this manifesto. Of course, as with any manifesto, there was a lot to genuinely criticize. However, I could also see the elegance of the presentation. The BJP contended that the next government had to deal with immediate concerns before building a framework supportive of systemic reforms. These reforms required a broader platform, hinting at the need for inclusion. To my mind, that was logical and smart. With immediate problems out of the way and a stronger and inclusive framework, India could leap forward. This presentation clearly captured the hearts and minds of many opinion makers; hence, the victory of hope over genuine fears was complete.
(Excerpted with permission from The Great Disappointment; written by Salman Anees Soz; published by Penguin eBury Press. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'The Promise'.)