Mandate 2017

Narendra Modi: The Nation Builder

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Modi and the making of a new India

NARENDRA MODI TOOK the tide at the flood in May 2014 to become Prime Minister. Since then, the country’s most talked-about leader since Indira Gandhi has taken ‘the current when it serves’, connecting with an enthusiastic public in a manner unheard of for decades in Indian politics. If AB Vajpayee was a fine orator in the old style, Modi has a silver tongue that he uses to optimum effect to engage his audience. Using a personalised colloquial style, he treats listeners as equal stakeholders in the issues he raises. He doesn’t preach or aim at evoking intellectual awe like politicians of an earlier time, most of whom were members of the country’s social elite. He establishes an instant rapport with the audience. He is the man, the method, the message and the magic.

The narrative that Narendra Modi lays out at public gatherings is punctuated with local idioms, aphorisms, jokes, anecdotes and historical facts. He weaves these effortlessly into what then becomes a powerful tapestry, one that holds a telling vision of a new India in which the status quo is replaced with a new paradigm. Modi’s public rallies in UP were bursting with people jostling one another for a better view of him. Not of Pradhan Mantri or Netaji. Just Modi.

Communication experts say Modi is a natural. His early years as a grassroots RSS worker have honed an inclination to connect with ordinary people into an impressive skill. At every rally, he energises his listeners and they in turn energise and spur him on by chanting his name in unison. “Culturally, Indians have a deep appreciation and an instinctive comfort level with oral folk traditions of communication that intersperse and buttress powerful messages with anecdotes, colloquialisms and local narratives, whether it is jathaas, Ram kathaa sammelans or night- long jaagrans. Narendra Modi has mastered that innate knack of striking a memorable connect with a large audience,” observes an image manager.

It was not until February 7th this year, 34 months into his tenure as Prime Minister, that Modi used his natural talent to send his political opponents a clear message that they should not make the mistake of under-estimating him. He conveyed it through his Motion of Thanks speech after the President’s address. It was three months after his decision to demonetise high-value currency. Media criticism and political opposition were at an all-time high. Accused of doing a Marie Antoinette on the disadvantaged, Modi was the target of taunts in Parliament and other attacks. “You don’t know Modi,” he retorted, “If you did, you would know by now that nothing I do is without a meticulous plan.” Further, “We do not see everything through the prism of elections. The interests of the nation are supreme for us,” he added, referring to his determination to bring about far-reaching changes in the socio-economic sphere.

At least one part of his larger plan for India was unveiled on March 12th, a day after the BJP was found to have achieved a historic win in Uttar Pradesh under his leadership. Aware that sweeping a phenomenal 325 seats in the Assembly polls, a feat unseen in the state for decades, had placed the party at the crest of a defining wave in Indian politics, Modi made it clear in his victory parade in Delhi that he is the undisputed reference point in the country not just for those who support his vision but also for those who do not.

Ever since Modi’s ascent to national level power, it has been evident that his aim is not to be just another footnote in history, but to transform the country with positively disruptive policy decisions that would reach way beyond the dry arithmetic of politics. He wants to lay the foundation of a new nation, tapping into the aspirations and nationalistic fervour of its people, 60 per cent of whom are below 35. Time and again, he has asserted that millions of citizens born after Independence are eager to do something for the country.

IN HIS FIRST address to Parliament as Prime Minister, Modi had said, “Victory has taught us a lot, including humility.” Post- demonetisation, righteousness has been the overarching sentiment in his public addresses. The significance of the UP results had barely begun to sink in when, at his pre-Holi victory march on a Sunday, Modi unveiled his core vision of a new Hindustan. The use of ‘Hindustan’ was deliberate and alluded to the Prime Minister’s mission of fostering a national ethos that would brook no special concessions to any particular caste or community, but would empower all Indians equally. The modus operandi for this, he made clear, was to broad-base the stakeholders in the country’s socio-economic progress.

The Modi government's pro-poor schemes that were rolled out countrywide were designed to shatter the old entitlement mindset that has so far shaped state policy towards the deprived

The groundwork was already in place, leading political analysts to conclude that it may have been a key reason for the BJP’s campaign taking apart the state’s entrenched divisions of class and caste patronised by the SP and BSP. Several months prior to the UP elections, Central schemes aimed at the economically disadvantaged had quietly been implemented. In one of his speeches, indirectly rubbishing Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan, Modi, exhorting citizens to make “development a mass grassroots movement”, had asked, “Can we not wage a victorious war against poverty? Let us defeat and impoverish poverty.”

The Modi Government’s pro-poor schemes were rolled out countrywide, but UP was a major beneficiary. These programmes were designed to shatter the old entitlement mindset that has so far shaped state policy towards the deprived. Many of the earlier schemes had been sponsored by a powerful anti-poverty industry with little concern for outcomes. In Parliament, Modi had spoken of MGNREGA—the UPA’s job guarantee scheme which relegated the indigent to ditch-digging in modern India—as a symbol of the “monumental failure” of the Congress party in effectively addressing the needs of the poor.

Modi’s schemes, based on sound blueprints for empowering the disadvantaged, have found enough takers to set off a silent revolution on the ground. With UP as the BJP’s focal state for effecting broad socio-economic changes from the bottom up, the party’s premise has been that the country’s economically weak but highly aspirational have come to reject sops from a ‘mai-baap sarkaar’ and instead demand new opportunities to transform their own lives.

The plan was laid months in advance of the UP elections. The Prime Minister’s Mudra scheme, focussing on self-reliant job creation, has found enthusiastic takers ever since its inception. In 2015-16, almost 3.4 million people got access to a total of Rs 12,275 crore worth of collateral-free small loans. In 2016-17 thus far, another Rs 10,755 crore has been disbursed to a similar number of loanees, with the money credited directly to Jan Dhan accounts, thus ensuring no leaks along the way. The bank outreach in itself has given tens of millions of people access to modern financial services for the first time.

The Ujjwala scheme, a pet initiative of the Prime Minister, was another roaring success among thousands of economically disadvantaged women in the key electoral battlegrounds of eastern and central UP. In a state where a gas cylinder is a status symbol among the poor (and often part of a newly wed’s dowry), subsidised gas connections granted to poor women not only saves them time and money but shields them against sexual harassment while gathering wood. So well received was this scheme, which rested on Modi’s campaign asking the well-off to give up their subsidies, that although it was only launched in May last year, its target of 15 million new LPG connections countrywide was met three months before the deadline. For 2018-19, the Centre has set a target of 20 million. The biggest beneficiaries of the scheme have been poverty-stricken women in UP, many of whom, according to the WHO, had been inhaling smoke that’s the equivalent of 400 cigarettes an hour by using fire-wood stoves.

While Indira Gandhi may be remembered for nationalising banks in 1969, analysts say that it is Modi's Jan Dhan Yojana that may go down in history as the single most important financial inclusion initiative since independence

MODI’S SCHEMES TO empower the poor that were endorsed so resoundingly by UP’s electorate are part of a larger vision to co-opt the country’s massive informal sector into the comparatively small formal sector of the economy, both boosting the GDP (informal sector activity is not captured by official figures) and altering the life circumstances of millions. While Indira Gandhi may be remembered for nationalising banks in 1969 and pushing them to open branches far and wide, analysts say that it is the Jan Dhan Yojana—popularly called the ‘Modi khaata’ in UP—that is likely to go down in history as the single most important financial inclusion initiative since Independence. It has sought to allow the poor direct access to banking services and keep middlemen and politicians from dipping into money that is rightfully theirs. Over time, it’s expected to draw the poor into the formal economy of the country.

The Modi Government’s effort to expand the formal sector of the economy would have an impact on the country’s finances as well. If a larger set of people pay taxes—currently only 10 per cent of the workforce is covered—then it could lighten the tax burden on the salaried middle-class, for example. The push to formalise the informal sectors that account for 90 per cent of India’s 470 million workers would also mean much larger numbers will have such benefits as paid leave, pensions, gratuity and other social security provisions that only formal-sector employees enjoy right now.

The Prime Minister’s move late last year to scrap high-value currency was partly aimed at nudging Indians towards making digital transactions instead of using cash, thus leaving an electronic trail that is traceable and allows the authorities to clamp down on tax evasion, corruption and bribery. A country with less cash will also have less financial misdeeds, and technology had created a moment that Modi grasped.

An enabling tool to modernise every aspect of the economy is Aadhaar, the unique identity number that now links thousands to government subsidies, pensions and public facilities. Nandan Nilekani, author of the project, recently pointed out that the gains to be made from disruptive technology are not only huge in informal sectors, but also that the pros vastly outweigh the cons. In hundreds of urban and semi urban communities countrywide, he argued, the effects have begun to show.

In a recent article, he wrote, ‘Aggregation by platforms (provided by aggregators such as Amazon, Flipkart, Uber, Ola, etc) is the way jobs creation will happen. This platform aggregation will also lead to formalisation of the economy. India’s economy is largely informal. But once a taxi driver becomes part of Ola, then in fact he becomes part of the formal economy. He is able to use data, get a loan, buy a car and start paying taxes. So the formalisation of a few hundred millions of Indians will spur growth.’ Ola and Uber are not the only examples of a silent trend that is enrolling more and more Indians. A look at online retail platforms helped along by the Government confirms that the bulk of goods sold this way are from micro entrepreneurs in Tier II towns and beyond, creating new electronic transaction trails and credit information that will aid individual economic mobility. As digital utilities penetrate India rapidly, thanks largely to smartphones and telecom networks, the formalisation of the economy gains pace.

That something significant is underway under Modi’s leadership is not lost on voters, as the UP outcome has shown. In a country that has been held in the thrall of caste equations that overrode all developmental issues for decades, the shift in popular perceptions has thrown parties like the SP and BSP in complete disarray, upsetting their caste calculations. The irony of Modi’s approach is that his agenda is closer to the ideals of Socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia, who envisioned a country free of casteism, than the political formations that claim to uphold his legacy. Non-Jatav Dalit voters across UP have joined Modi juggernaut, as have thousands of non-Yadav OBCs disenchanted with the SP brand of politics. The 2014 General Election had already shown that Yadavs were not a monolithic bloc of SP loyalists. Now it is apparent that many others are ready to break down the caste and class barriers sustained by political patronage.

The vast reservoirs of goodwill generated among the masses by Modi’s initiatives are being credited to his political khaata and could enlarge his stature way beyond 2019. Little wonder, he invoked the 75th year of India’s Independence as an appropriate time to take stock of the nation’s progress in wiping out inequity. He prefers the long haul of history.