Live Mint, May 26, 2019
By Pradeep S Mehta
The last general elections broke all caste barriers and people overwhelmingly voted for Narendra Modi and his candidates. There were two remarkable things, among others, that Modi said in his victory speech that struck me. First, he pointed out that only two “castes” will remain in the country, the poor and those contributing to alleviating poverty. While national security played a key part of the winning narrative, economic security and freedoms must be the new mantra of the government in office.
Second, he said that he will work with all stakeholders, including opposition parties, to bury the past in the new mission. This is quite credible, as with a huge majority under his belt, he did not have to say it . Two things are crucial for the smooth sailing of this paradigm: party apparatchiks and opposition leaders respecting the sentiment.
Allocation of tangible resources under flagship schemes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Ujjwala Yojana must continue, but the scope of such schemes must not be limited. Efforts are needed to ensure that the poor continue to benefit from such resources. They must not be forced to give up cylinders because of non-availability of refills, or toilets because of absence of water or drainage. Administrative and complementary reforms providing adequate income-generating opportunities in real and labour intensive sectors will be the key for Modi Sarkar 2.0.
It is already clear that Modi expects the not-so-poor to contribute to poverty reduction and may strike another emotional chord to rein in ills such as benami property, improve the tax base and compliance, acquire land for development, or achieve formalization of the economy. Many of these are legitimate goals, but the consequences of steps chosen to achieve them must be comprehensively thought through in advance, especially for those on the fringes with limited means to voice their concerns. Modi has repeatedly said that all his actions are motivated by good intentions, but he will need to move beyond governance by intentions and ensure that the collateral damage of his actions is manageable.
Hitherto, Modi has been able to hide his failure on the employment generation and farmer relief fronts by discrediting independent institutions and by astute alternative narrative-building. While this approach may have short-term gains, without requisite reforms, the truth will be out sooner rather than later. The beginning of his second term provides a golden opportunity to Modi to revert from a hastily chosen path. To ensure that he is remembered as a great nation builder, Modi must necessarily work with all stakeholders to design a truly inclusive path to development, stop considering dissent as anti-national, and submit himself to the scrutiny of independent institutions.
In his victory speech, while Modi has already indicated that he is ready to work with everyone, he did not miss an opportunity to taunt the opposition and former partners. This indicates that despite his rhetoric, Modi is not yet completely ready to work with those who do not subscribe to his vision of national development. The results may have bolstered an attempt to topple governments in states such as West Bengal, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
The model of not cooperating with states having opposition parties in office does not bode well for the federal governance structure of the country or the broad democracy, wherein central and state governments are expected to work on critical issues, such as education, health, and nutrition. Without adequate high-quality human and capital investments in these sectors, it will be impossible to prepare citizens to identify and benefit from income generation opportunities coming their way. The country will be at a loss if Modi does not choose to rise above ideological differences for upliftment of the poor. He must realize that the support of states is essential in continuously interacting with the last mile delivery and ensuring his central schemes are a long-term success.
Modi’s idea of nationalism has hitherto prevented him somewhat from realizing the potential of market forces, in a globally interdependent world, for poverty alleviation. This has created stress across sectors, including banking, NBFCs, aviation and construction. Consumption and investment have also nosedived. Artificial distinctions between domestic and foreign companies need to be done away with, but with reasonable riders for national interest. Market oriented competition and regulatory reforms ensuring a level playing field among players will truly enable the private sector to contribute to poverty alleviation.
Our vision is to become a $10 trillion economy by 2030. Perhaps we need to advance the goal because of our own imperatives of alleviating poverty. The reiteration of the people’s faith in Modi can enable him to think and act like Deng Xiaoping, who pulled China out of the pits in 1970s and 1980s. This vision should guide Modi to take forward new and structural reforms that will ensure that “No one is left behind”, the common international resolve under the sustainable development goals of the United Nations.
Pradeep S. Mehta is secretary general of CUTS International.
Amol Kulkarni of CUTS contributed to this article
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