With Prime Minister Narendra Modi completing nine years in office, it is time to look back and assess the success and failure of his government, which will be seeking a third term in office in next year’s general election. Depending on which side of the political divide one stands, it is fair to assume that to the supporters of the prime minister, his government and his party, the last nine years have been a grand success in every aspect of governance and economic development. But for those who are opposed to him and his party, the last nine years will be remembered as a period of “failed promises, missed opportunities and disastrous policy decisions”.
If you are a hardcore Modi supporter like film celebrity Kangana Ranaut or economist Surjit Bhalla, then the nine years of Modi government are almost unblemished, but for Opposition politicians like Derek O’Brien of the TMC and many others in the Opposition camp, the last nine years were “high on promises and low on delivery”, with the weakening of India’s institutions, misuse of central agencies to target the Opposition, communal polarisation, marginalisation of minorities, decline of democracy and social tensions. Obviously, the BJP will reject the Opposition’s criticism of the Modi government by highlighting many of its achievements on various fronts, including Modi’s successful global brand-building exercise.
Whether India has truly emerged as a Vishwaguru, or whether the much-touted Vishwaguru status is more in the realm of perception than reality, also depends on which side of the political divide you stand. But the fact is, in an age of digital propaganda and high-pitched perception-building narrative, not only is truth a casualty, but the perception also often tends to hide the reality. However, branding is no substitute for facts and India’s rising international status or Modi’s international image is no substitute for domestic underperformance. The problem arises when the supporters of Modi and his party, as well as the media, tend to assess his government’s performance from the perspective of his popularity at home and abroad.
In fact, more than objectively examining Modi’s nine years in office, the media’s focus is on his foreign engagements and events and his domestic popularity. This is not surprising in a country where pomp and show count and where there is no dearth of events with the prime minister at the centre-stage. And here one is not talking only about the inauguration of the new Parliament building on Sunday which looked like a one-man show — it is something unusual to see Modi flag off every new train, inaugurate every highway, lay the foundation stones of new projects, launch FM radio transmitters, and distribute job offer letters. His inauguration of the new Parliament building became controversial because it was seen by the Opposition as denying the honour to the President of India.
At a time when politics is no more reflective and thoughtful, Parliamentary debates are less civil and more noise, and law-making takes place without enough debate and discussion, whether it is the old or new Parliament building, only meaningful debates, due diligence and robust law-making will add meaning to parliamentary democracy and effective governance. However, in the last nine years, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha didn’t function the way Parliament should, or used to function in the old days in which debate and decorum coexisted happily. One doesn’t know what changes the new Parliament will bring to India’s governance architecture, but going by the distrust between the ruling dispensation and the Opposition, it is difficult to expect an immediate meaningful change in the way Parliament functions.
Coming back to evaluating nine years of the Modi government, it is not unusual to come across opinion pieces in newspapers by the supporters of the ruling dispensation churning out proof of Modi’s global popularity and the success of his foreign policy, rather than objectively analysing the governance record of his nine years in office. Objectively speaking, Modi’s report card looks neither exceptionally good nor terribly poor. To be honest, his push for building infrastructure is a fabulous success story. Be it roads, railways or airports, infrastructure projects have increased in number and size. But it is not the same case on the GDP growth front, which has remained uneven in recent years despite India’s huge population and demographic dividend. This is because India has not created enough employment opportunities, which is reflected in record high joblessness.
While the country has seen a decent growth in foreign direct investment, the cause of concern for the common man is low farm income, rural distress, and little growth in wages of workers. This is reflected in muted demand for consumer goods. As always, education and healthcare continue to languish because expenditure on both the social sectors as a%age of GDP has remained low. While the Modi government has created a new class of beneficiaries under several welfare schemes and provides free foodgrains to over 80 crore people, India becoming the fifth largest economy in the world is hardly any consolation, given the extent of hunger and poverty in the country and the sheer social and educational backwardness of a huge majority of people.
The NDTV-CSDS survey on nine years of the Modi government is quite revealing and does not present a rosy picture of Modi’s governance record with 27% of those surveyed attributing the prime minister’s popularity to his oratory and only 11% to his policies. In terms of overall performance, only 17% are “fully satisfied” with his work against 21% who are “fully unsatisfied”. On his handling of corruption, 45% expressed dissatisfaction against 41% who think otherwise. In terms of development, 47% said that his performance is good, while 40% said it has been bad. On the economy, 42% think their condition has not improved in the last nine years and 22% think it has worsened.
With 57% respondents being dissatisfied with the government’s handling of price rise, 40% respondents being dissatisfied on development and 45% on corruption should be a cause of worry for Modi, given that he came to power in 2014 on these three promises. However, the silver lining for the BJP in the survey is the projection of 39% vote share for the saffron party against 37.7% in 2019. But for the Congress the good news is that the survey projects an increase of 9.3% vote share from 19.67% it secured in 2019. The overall increased consolidation of Opposition votes behind the Congress and its allies is also not good news for the BJP. While even after nine years, Modi is the most popular leader, the Congress seems to have made significant gains.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule