Will Modi's New Broom Really Sweep Away India's Troubles?

RTR48M9G
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks after paying homage at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial on the 145th birth anniversary of Gandhi at Rajghat in New Delhi October 2, 2014. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Just back from a tumultuous five-day visit to the U.S., India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, yesterday launched his Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Movement) by sweeping up rubbish in Valmiki Basti, a Delhi neighborhood where Mahatma Gandhi once stayed. It was anniversary of the father of the nation's birth and a public holiday at the beginning of the long festival weekend of Dussehra that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

In his first radio broadcast to the nation this morning, marking Dussehra, Modi asked people to "pledge to remove dirt from our lives". He ordered thousands of bureaucrats to go to work and clean their offices in a drive that started a week ago, and the Delhi symbolic street sweeping was repeated in other state capitals where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power.

After four months as prime minister, Modi is emerging as a motivated hands-on politician who leads by example and expects others to do the same. He is beginning to strike chords with the mass of Indians who respect his and the BJP's nationalism, which was echoed in a televised speech this morning by Mohan Bhagwat, leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP's arch-Hindu fundamentalist parent organisation. Modi and Bhagwat called on people to follow the simple lifestyle of Mahatma Gandhi, and Bhagwat even asked them to boycott goods from China, apparently because of the border confrontations between the two countries.

Modi also sticks to his beliefs, refusing food at banquets during his successful US visit because he always fasts for nine days of the Navratri festival running up to Dussehra.

India is becoming accustomed to Modi's symbolic gestures that began with South Asian leaders being invited to his swearing in, and continued with him playing drums when he was in Japan, taking China's president Xi Jinping to his home state of Gujarat for a festive evening, and last weekend addressing huge crowds in New York's Central Park and Madison Square Garden.

He has established himself as a tough politician who expects ministers and bureaucrats to turn up for work on time, actually take decisions, and keep files moving, so that policies are turned into action. He has shown the world he can be a friendly politician as well as a capable orator. Clearly a man on a mission to make India work, he also wants to make the world realise it's happening – something he seems to have achieved with President Barack Obama earlier this week in Washington.

Now he needs to spend time in his grand prime minister's office in Delhi and turn all the symbolism and gestures into action.

But he won't be doing that yet because tomorrow he is off to the Indian states of Haryana and Maharashtra to campaign for the BJP in state assembly elections due on October 15. The party needs to win those states from the Congress Party, partly to strengthen Modi's ability to implement policies at state level, and partly because the BJP needs to build up its minority position in the Rajya Sabha, which is elected through state-level electoral colleges. Modi also needs to ensure that the BJP's embarrassing defeats last month in various state assembly by elections do not turn into a trend – and he wants to prove that he is still the party's primary vote winner.

When he is back in Delhi after the political campaigning, Modi faces mounting problems. The most serious is that too many top ministers are in charge of several ministries, especially Arun Jaitley, the finance, defence and company affairs minister, who is a diabetic and is in hospital with a chest infection after a stomach operation. Jaitley is the most important, and also the most experienced and probably the most capable, minister in the government. Doctors have said he might be home this weekend, but his load needs to be lightened.

Some commentators have been calling for Modi to introduce economic reforms that would make headlines, but India does not need reforms so much as the implementation of existing policies.

The clean India campaign, which expands on work done by the last Congress-led government, needs to be driven beyond yesterday's symbolism. The task is huge in a nation that dumps rubbish in the streets, where a third of garbage is never collected, and 70 percent of rural homes have no access to toilets. Traditionally, cleaning is regarded as something best left to the lowest castes.

A new Make in India manufacturing policy needs political and bureaucratic leadership to reduce blockages that impede investment at all levels. Among many other examples, the highway building programme needs to be actively revived, the railway system needs to be modernized, and care needs to be taken in revising environmental laws and regulations so that infrastructure projects are speeded up without seriously harming India's natural heritage. Dreadful educational and health facilities also need to be improved in hundreds of thousands of villages and urban areas.

Governments everywhere love to go for high profile and fine sounding projects such as industrial corridors, special economic zones, smart cities and bullet trains. Such long-term vision is of course necessary, but none of these projects, which Modi has been promoting, will help him to fulfill, by the time of the next general election, his pledges in this year's election campaign to get India moving again. To do that, he and his ministers and top bureaucrats have to focus on the hard slog of unblocking bureaucratic lethargy and corruption, simplifying laws and speeding up implementation.

Modi attracts a lot of brickbats from observers who find it hard to come to terms with his rapid rise and international success. Pankaj Mishra, an Indian writer who has a following for views aired from his vantage point in the U.K., scathingly wrote after Modi's flamboyant success in the U.S. that "India desperately needs a vision other than that of the vain small man trying to impress the big men with his self-improvised rules of the game".

The former Mumbai correspondent of The Economist, who is now posted in New York, managed to work "pain in the ass" into his blog report on Modi at Madison Square Garden, after which his editors responded to complaints by issuing a statement saying: "The Economist does not consider Mr Modi to be a 'pain in the ass.'" The epithet had merely been "how we imagined an uninformed New Yorker might feel about someone who causes a traffic jam"—which Modi had done as tens of thousands of Indians flocked to see him. That was especially embarrassing for the magazine because it had, amazingly, backed Rahul Gandhi to become prime minister in the general election since it could not bring itself to be identified with Modi.

There are many people waiting for Modi to fail to deliver on the dreams and visions of a successful India that he spun during his presidential-style general election campaign. Obama belted out "Yes we can" from his election platforms and, many would say, failed to deliver. Modi added, "Yes we will do" – now he needs to turn the oratory into practice.

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

Will Modi's New Broom Really Sweep Away India's Troubles? | World