Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
WHEN Narendra Modi took charge as Prime Minister of India on 26 May 2014, the question in most minds was whether he would win just two 5-year terms or three? That he would steer the BJP to victory in the 2019 parliamentary polls was taken as a given. Once in 7 Lok Kalyan Marg (formerly Race Course Road before it got renamed by Prime Minister Modi), it was assumed that 10 years was the minimum period in which he would be a tenant of the Prime Minister’s House. Perhaps as a consequence, Modi adopted a policy very different from that indicated in his campaign speeches. He brought back Arun Jaitley into the Upper House after the politician from Delhi had lost the polls in Amritsar despite being supported by the ruling Akali Dal in Punjab. In an indication that Jaitley would play the keystone role in his government, Modi put him in charge of Defence, Finance and Company Affairs, three heavy duty portfolios.
In effect, Jaitley became Modi’s Human Resources Director, ensuring that several of the appointments made by the “new” government were those whom he favoured and promoted, including several ministers who turned to him for guidance on a daily basis. Those who were not part of the favoured circle of the individuals close to Jaitley were excluded from the new government, which became a mixture of Manmohan Singh-era officials and Vajpayee-era politicians. Those who had expected a different start from Modi were surprised when they saw that the Prime Minister seemed determined to run his government in accordance with the guidance of those who had been prominent in the previous administrations, rather than with the help of those who had called for a fresh start under Modi. Those who expected strong action to get taken against the VVIPs known to have amassed billions of dollars during the Manmohan Singh period were left speechless when no such action was forthcoming. Indeed, even the few VVIPs jailed by Manmohan Singh ( such as former Telecom Minister A Raja) were released after Modi took office. Clearly, it was expected that such a show of goodwill would result in backing by a weakened opposition to Modi’s policies, but this hope proved to be unrealistic. In particular, Rahul Gandhi went on the offensive, launching attack after attack on the Modi government, an aggression that multiplied once he took charge as Congress President in 2017. Robert Vadra, the brother-in-law of Rahul Gandhi, had become a billionaire once he married Priyanka, the daughter of Sonia Gandhi.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley championed two measures that have had a heavy political impact on Modi. The first was the demonetization of 86% of the country’s currency in 2016, which severely affected the economy. The other was the manner in which the Goods & Services Tax was implemented. It multiplied reporting requirements for those in the services sector, and forced small businesses to devote time and money exclusively to compliance. While Finance Minister Chidambaram was known to supervise a tax regime that was harsh and extortionate, nothing changed even in the new government. Indeed,the powers of income tax officers became even more widespread, and those what were less than honest made fortunes out of bribes. Lack of cash disrupted supply chains and cost the economy millions of jobs, but all that Jaitley said was that things were “improving” if not perfect. Small wonder that the popularity of the Modi government is not what it was in 2014, or that there is a rising chance that Narendra Modi will be a single-term Prime Minister, like Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao were before him.
It is economic policy that may prove his Waterloo, that plus the lack of progress in the building of a Ram Temple and the absence of action against VVIP scamsters. Nearly five years into his term, not only has no VVIP scamster been put in jail, but those who were in jail under the Manmohan Singh government have been released. Agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation have become discredited, with politicians planting pliant favourites into top positions in both. Jaitley in particular has placed his trusted people in several key slots in the investigative agencies, and it is presumed that they will keep him abreast of investigations and their progress or lack of progress. However, in the final weeks of its term, the Modi government seems to be coming to a realisation of its vulnerability. There has been a flurry of activity designed to show that the opposition is corrupt and therefore that Modi should be given a second chance. After years of being asleep, the Enforcement Directorate has launched action against those accused of making illegal profits out of Bengal’s Saradha Chit Fund, a financial enterprise that took in hundreds of millions of dollars from small investors and not paying them back. There is a perception that action may get taken against some leaders of the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, both of which are against the BJP. Even Robert Vadra has been made to undergo the indignity of being questioned about assets in London. Whether anything will come out of all this or it will again be a case of “sound and fury signifying nothing” remains to be seen. Although Chidambaram has been charge sheeted, the agencies have yet to convince the courts to send the former Finance Minister to prison. Narendra Modi has only two weeks more to reverse the lack of action of his period in office thus far against VVIP scamsters. And unless he does so, it will be difficult to convince voters that he is serious about fighting corruption, when no VVIP has so far gone to jail because of action taken by his government.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.