Here's a Report Card on Modi's First Year in Office

05/26/2015 12:51 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016
TOBIAS SCHWARZ via Getty Images

NEW DELHI -- India's Bharatiya Janata Party government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marks its first anniversary in office this month. While it is too early to assess its overall performance, the overwhelming sentiment across India so far is one of disappointment.

The BJP rode to power on a wave of expectations after a decade in opposition to the United Progressive Alliance government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress party. (Full disclosure: I was a member of that government). Support for the BJP was so strong, in fact, that the party became the first in 30 years to win a majority in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India's parliament).

Early enthusiasm for the BJP government was based on the perceived contrast with its predecessor. Here, at last, was a strong single-party government led by a decisive "man of action," rather than a fractious coalition led by a reticent octogenarian, who was often unfairly caricatured as uncertain and vacillating.

Modi was marketed to voters through a clever (and lavishly financed) campaign that portrayed him as the business-savvy leader who had transformed the state of Gujarat into a lodestar of development -- and who would do the same for the country as a whole. Attracting young people with the promise of jobs, and older voters with the prospect of reform and growth, Modi won a mandate that stunned the country's pollsters. Congress, meanwhile, recorded its worst-ever performance.

Since the election, Modi has energetically strutted the global stage, touting his government as more hospitable to investors and urging foreign manufacturers to "Make in India." Yet his foreign travels have achieved little, beyond improving his personal standing, which had suffered considerably following accusations that, as chief minister of Gujarat, he had been at least negligent as more than a thousand people were killed in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom.

Modi's domestic performance has also been underwhelming. Although his speeches and sound bites continue to impress fans of his Hindi oratory, the gap between rhetoric and reality widens by the week.

Indeed, despite speaking eloquently of tolerance and accommodation, Modi has remained largely silent in the face of hate speech by BJP ministers and MPs that is alienating India's non-Hindu minorities. The BJP may preach development, but it is practicing bigotry -- a contradiction that Modi could resolve only by repudiating the forces that helped ensure his electoral victory.

Likewise, Modi has not kept his vow of "minimum government, maximum governance"; on the contrary, he has created the most centralized, top-down, bureaucracy-driven, personality-cult-dominated central government since Indira Gandhi's emergency rule in the mid-1970s. Those who decried the alleged "paralysis in decision-making" under Modi's excessively democratic, consultative and consensual predecessor are now faced with a different kind of paralysis, as files pile up in Modi's office, the only place where decisions are made.

Senior positions -- including two on the indispensable three-member independent election commission -- stand vacant, leaving vital institutions unable to function effectively. Despite his talk about transparency and accountability, Modi has failed to appoint a central information commissioner, vigilance commissioner or lokpal (the ombudsman who has jurisdiction over all corruption cases involving MPs and central government employees).

With Modi too busy to keep up with all of the decisions he -- and only he -- can make, the government is adrift. In some cases, it is pursuing blatantly contradictory approaches.

Consider economic policy. Although Modi has declared that "the government has no business to be in business," he has failed to question his government's ownership and control of airlines and hotels. Indeed, privatization of major public sector behemoths is no longer mentioned.

Furthermore, labor market liberalization, once considered indispensable to attract investors and promote industrial growth, is on the back burner. Optimistic talk of reform has been replaced by officially articulated respect for "graduated incrementalism."

Likewise, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who once derided "tax terrorism," has unleashed the taxman on entirely new categories of victims, including the foreign institutional investors Modi is trying to attract. Unsurprisingly, investor sentiment, which perked up during Modi's campaign, has dampened considerably.

Modi's government has also revealed a fine talent for announcing grandiose schemes and failing to finance them. Worse, budgets for health, education, sanitation and women's security -- all major talking points of the BJP's election campaign -- have been cut.

None of this has been lost on the public. India's farmers, for example, are up in arms, because the land acquisition law passed by the previous government has been gutted through a series of amendments imposed by fiat (which are now, however, running into legislative resistance).

More generally, voters are not impressed by Modi's transformation from the chai-wallah (tea-seller) of the election campaign, who had sacrificed domestic bliss to serve the nation, into an omnipresent, gaudily attired celebrity hobnobbing with other boldface names. The nadir was reached in January, when Modi received U.S. President Barack Obama -- "my friend Barack" -- in a pinstripe suit with his own name embossed in gold on every stripe. The public, appalled by this display, promptly humiliated the BJP in polls for the Delhi Assembly, which the party had nearly won the previous year. Needless to say, the opposition, flattened electorally a year ago, is back on its feet.

In a sense, Modi is fortunate that his government's failings have become so starkly apparent so early in his tenure; he now has time to address them. He showed that he is capable of learning the right lessons when he quickly auctioned the pinstripe suit for charity. Unfortunately, the rest of his errors cannot be so easily undone.

India Election 2014