India’s Modi Lays Out His Wares

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends his first Parliament session in New Delhi June 4, 2014. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Narendra Modi hasn’t put a foot wrong since he won a resounding victory in India’s general election on May 16, and was then sworn in as prime minister two weeks ago.  

He invited South Asian (and Mauritius) leaders to the swearing in and had meetings with them all. Today he has met the visiting foreign minister of China and he is planning by September to visit Bhutan (a friendly buffer state with China), Japan (a major partner and potential investor) and the US (a potentially significant partner).

He will also be attending various multi-lateral assemblies so that, by the autumn, the man who was regarded in many parts of the world as an anti-Muslim tyrant will be rehabilitated as a strong but approachable prime minister who holds the promise of turning around India’s fortunes and putting it back on the path to become the significant world power that he believes it can and should be.

Now Modi has to do all the things at home that will make that happen.

The moves so far have been the easy part, as was an address to mark the opening of parliament delivered today by president Pranab Mukherjee in flat tones that mirrored (constitutionally as well as in style) how Queen Elizabeth reads out the British government’s dreams at the annual Opening of Parliament.

Mukherjee recited Modi’s ambitious aims and intentions to a combined session of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. More will emerge in finance minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget speech at the beginning of next month.

Then it is all down to implementation. This is what the prime minister is reputed to be good at, and it is what he has been elected to do.

India’s problems of inequality, poor performance and slowing rates of growth do not stem from a lack of new policies or new laws, but from a failure of both central and state governments to implement measures ranging from infrastructure projects and curbing corruption to providing adequate education and job opportunities for the young. In a country as large and diverse as India, that is a far from easy thing to do, and Modi now needs to adapt the political management skills he successfully honed over 12 years as Gujarat chief minister to a hugely larger canvas – with his promise that Mukherjee echoed today of “minimal government, maximum governance”.

That was one of many slogans in today’s speech. It talked about reviving “Brand India” and riding on “strengths of 5T’s: Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology” and  “three Ds of Democracy, Demography and Demand”. It covered economic subjects such as urgently tackling high food prices, and attracting foreign investment in areas that will create jobs (not a criteria till now).

Manufacturing initiatives included long-delayed reforms to defence equipment procurement, with a greater role for the Indian private sector and relaxed foreign investment limits. Education is to be boosted at all levels and by 2022 “every family will have a pucca house, water & electricity” – a somewhat unachievable aim targeted to celebrate 75 years of independence.

On more sensitive social subjects, the speech talked about “zero tolerance” (a phrase which usually means the opposite in Indian government parlance) towards “extremism, riots and crime”. Also in this section was a pledge, which is important given the risk of BJP activists stirring communal unrest, that “a national plan will be chalked out in consultation with the state governments to effectively curb incidents of communal violence”. The speech also talked constructively about developing “co-operative federalism” so that Delhi and the states work together.

Modi has made it clear he intends to become the focal point of government activity and has encouraged secretaries (the top civil service level) to report problems and blockages direct to him, and to take their own initiatives. That may not go down well with ministers who, as politicians, want the prestige and powers of patronage that usually go with their jobs.

This will test of Modi’s skill at managing the interplay of ministers and bureaucrats who will not be so obedient as his team in Gujarat in the coming months and years. He has staffed his prime minister’s office with experienced officials and those he trusts from Gujarat, but he also has relatively inexperienced ministers occupying several important posts.

In an attempt to reduce corruption, Modi has issued instructions to ministers not to employ relatives in their offices, to beware of lobbyists and not to take favours. He has set up an inquiry into billions of dollars stored illicitly abroad, though that will probably turn out to be little more than an act of symbolism designed to meet a popular demand for the dollars to be brought back to India.

But he not only has to manage these positive aspects of his government. As today’s speech tacitly acknowledged, he also has to control those in the BJP and its allied Hindu nationalist organisations who want to pursue divisive policies. These include abolishing Article 370 in the constitution that gives the state of Jammu and Kashmir special rights, which has already caused a major political row, and also other measures affecting the special status of Muslims as a minority.

Not since the days of Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, and Jawaharlal Nehru four decades earlier, has so much hope been vested in the leadership of a prime minister. Modi’s test begins now.

John Elliott’s new book is IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). He can be read at

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