A Tale of Two Modis

04/30/2015 01:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015
TOBIAS SCHWARZ via Getty Images


NEW DELHI -- "India First." This phrase, used liberally by the then Indian prime ministerial candidate from Gujarat, Narendra Modi, captured the imagination of many Indians because it responded to the Indian moment.

In 2013-14, candidate Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party were determined to restore a semblance of pride in a population scarred by corruption scandals and government bloopers. The national shame resulting from the ghastly rape of December 2012 destroyed brand India and darkened the national mood. And the economy, India's invincible proposition to the world for over a decade, began to head south. The nation was restless and impatient. There was a growing clamor for strong leadership.

This was the India of just over two years ago, when #NaMo began to trend on social media. This was when candidate Modi would have sensed that he had a fair chance of winning. This was also when the "man of action," the new loh purush ("man of steel"), made his promises to an expectant nation and laid out his vision of a re-energized India.

modi campaign

BJP leader Modi shows his inked finger to supporters as he leaves a polling station after voting on April 30, 2014 in Ahmedabad, India. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Nearly a year later, it is a good moment to reflect on that promise.

It would be fair to say that there seem to be two Modis. The first is Prime Minster Modi on the world stage, a rock star when he's abroad and when he receives foreign dignitaries. He is flamboyant in resetting the India narrative in Western capitals and closing in on lucrative partnerships in Asia. He has injected new dynamism in how India engages with its neighborhood. He deploys slick messaging and leverages the Indian diaspora to create a sense of optimism. The U.S. president waxes eloquent about him in TIME and even the Germans acknowledge the masterful conduct of the "Make in India" outreach at their prestigious industrial fair.

Then there is the prime minister at home, with a different look and feel about him.

He is determined at one level, as he stakes his political capital on reforming the land acquisition law, and while pushing forth a slew of new initiatives like replacing the economic planning body (the Planning Commission) with a contemporary organization. On the other hand, you sense there are some wrinkles that are yet to be ironed out. There are times when you can see him pensively watching parliamentary proceedings as the lack of majority in the upper house impedes him. There is reluctance while communicating his vision and policies, and an inability to deploy the same communication means to reach out to citizens that got him the top job in the first place.

Clearly then, as we clock in year one, there is much to be done at home for the Indian prime minister, if the disconnect between the external messaging and the politics at home is to be reconciled.

India's most powerful proposition to the world remains an India that offers opportunity to Indians and to others who want to engage with it. It was on this promise of hope, domestic reform and growth that Modi was elected. His election slogans held a two-fold promise: Acche din aane wale hain ("good days are about to come"), and na khaoonga, na khaane doonga ("neither will I take bribes nor will I allow others to"). These slogans alluded first to a government that delivers on its promises and is sensitive to the aspirations of youth, and second to a commitment to systemic reform, with corruption a metaphor for bad governance.

Once the scale of his victory became clear, the prime minister's first tweet was ache din aa gaye ("good days have come"). Implicit in this declaration was that his election was a mandate for change and that change would be rapid, not incremental. If expectations of the new government were high, it was because Modi himself led India to expect a tectonic shift.

"Ultimately, for Modi to sell the Incredible India story, he will need to make India credible."

The Modi campaign was clever in seizing upon a rare confluence of the needs of big businesses and the bottom of the pyramid. Both needed financial sector reforms and innovation. While at one end investable capital was needed through creative instruments, at the other end basic financial inclusion, distress loans and lifeline banking were crucial.

Big businesses sought employable human capital to scale up operations, to climb global value chains and to optimize labor productivity (about one-fifth of China's). The bottom of the pyramid needed skilling initiatives, basic education, digital literacy and technical education that would allow them to participate in the modern economy and make their "mom and pop" operations more profitable.

Both big business and small operations needed market access, roads, ports, energy and digital highways that would allow them to compete in the global marketplace. To deliver on these was essentially the "Modi Promise."

So it was not surprising that in his early days he rolled out the "universal banking scheme" (Jan Dhan Yojana), the Digital India Initiative and the "skilling" initiatives alongside the "Make in India" thrust. Earlier this year, in its first full budget, the Modi government announced schemes to support micro-enterprises, innovation start-ups and a pro-industry economic orientation that was appreciated by many. The Finance Commission recommendations on federalizing tax receipts and giving more to state governments was accepted. Several social sector and welfare schemes were left to the autonomous design of state governments. India was seen to be moving towards a more decentralized system that resonated with the campaign promise of "More Governance, Less Government."

While the schemes and initiatives announced were on the ball, some of the tactics and processes that their success may depend upon need to be rethought and reorganized. Four in particular need attention.

1. First, the PM may have to oversee a more sophisticated management of parliament. BJP has to reach out to a variety of political actors in the upper house of parliament (and their own coalition partners) effectively. They are unlikely to have the numbers for a few years and the country may run out of patience before then.

2. The second would be to be mindful of the contradiction between seeking to expand one's political base across the country while at the same time striving to deliver economic restructuring that responds to promises and expectations. As the political expansion takes place, policy compromises may seem tempting and could dilute the "Modi mandate." Already the talk in some circles is that the real opposition the prime minister faces is within his party. The nationalist and insular component of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the parent organization of the ruling party) is vocal in its opposition to a number of forward-looking measures the government may opt for, be it issue foreign investment in certain sectors, labor reform or the reorganization of the food and agriculture sectors.

3. The third is the fundamental tension between the centralization and concentration of power within the prime minister's office, and the ambition to federalize and devolve governance horizontally and vertically. The prime minister's office is already under some flak for empire building, delays and inefficiency. What worked in Gujarat may not work for India.

4. And finally, the PM's core instinct to operate through the bureaucracy (or a select few among them) may preclude the possibility of lateral hiring of talent that many of his key initiatives do need. While the chief minister-civil servant duopoly served Modi well in Gujarat, the decision-making high table may well have to be enlarged if real change is to be effected in New Delhi.

The government's honeymoon is perhaps already over and realistically it has another six to 12 months to start putting flesh on the bare-bone schemes and ideas announced this past year. If these do not eventuate, one may well witness emptier stadiums abroad and hear shriller voices at home. Ultimately, for PM Modi to sell the Incredible India story, he will need to make India credible.

India Election 2014