Nearly a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power on a wave of high expectations and a slew of promises that were destined to bring “Acche Din” — “Good Days” — for the common Indian. Yet, a year in, the very same rhetoric is being used by Mr. Modi’s critics who claim that the promises are yet to be translated into reality.
Even the staunchest of Modi’s critics praise him for his foreign policy agenda thus far. Enhancing India’s image, Modi started by inviting all SAARC leaders during his swearing in ceremony and engaged in constant outreach to foreign leaders in the U.S., Europe, China, South East Asia, and Japan, among other countries. The pro-business perception of the Prime Minister has also shored up investor confidence as is reflected in the upgraded ratings of Moody’s and other rating agencies. Lastly, Modi has endeared himself to millions in the Indian diaspora and in turn has invoked in them a sense of patriotism that has been missing for some time now.
However, Modi’s focus on external affairs has resulted in him ignoring burning domestic issues. Among them are the increased suicide rate of farmers due to distress, the resurgence of anti-state movements like Naxalism, as well as the growing incidences of communal tensions across the country.
The opposition, led by Rahul Gandhi, has been agitating against the revised Land Acquisition bill and have painted the Modi government as “pro-rich” and “anti-farmer.” The public response to Gandhi’s “suit-boot ki aarkar” comment is a warning bell to the government and calls for a quick course correction. Insensitive comments by senior leaders of the ruling party toward farmers, including the Haryana state Agricultural Minister who called farmers who have committed suicide “cowards”, has further aggravated matters.
Yet instead of embarking on a corrective course, the government seems adamant on pushing the Land Acquisition bill, among others, through the ordinance route thus bypassing the Parliament. The BJP-led NDA government has a majority in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) and therefore can pass any bill it desires. The government has promulgated as many as six ordinances (temporary laws meant to be issued by the President at the request of the government when Parliament is not in session) due to stiff opposition in the Upper House where it lacks a majority, rather than engaging the opposition in debate and pursuing a negotiated solution. This approach has further aggravated and unified the opposition against the government, resulting in stalled progress on key bills like the GST bill calling for a uniform tax code across India — considered a key reform that could improve the country’s economy further.
Despite the expectation of a pro-reform government, the Modi government has done little to make India business-friendly. Retroactive taxes that were to be discontinued in the government’s first budget are still in force. As such, foreign companies do not see India as a business-friendly location as they are continually hit with heavy new retroactive taxes. Indian corporations continue to wait for long-standing demands like labor and tax reforms, which are yet to see the light of day in the new regime. Even small business owners, who voted for Modi expecting pro-SME (small and medium enterprise) sector policies and less bureaucratic red tape, feel dejected due to lack of any initiatives on this front.
The 250 to 300 million strong Indian middle class that stood firmly behind Modi also seems to be disenchanted with the slow pace of reforms and increasing cases of religious intolerance. Above all, the middle class wants peace and security. Yet the increasing trend of communal violence between religious communities, coupled with the administration’s inability to reign in fringe fundamentalist leaders within its rank, has not done much to help Modi’s image. He has also been criticized for his stoic silence and lack of disciplinary action against fringe leaders within his party who hold key positions within the BJP.
Already bearing the burden of high taxes, the middle class will endure increased taxes if certain proposals involving the disclosure of every foreign trip and every purchase of more than Rs 1 lakh pass. This will not sit well with an aspirational, young and consumption-driven middle class.
The honeymoon period is most certainly over for Modi as the end of his first year in office comes to a close. A string of electoral losses in the Bihar by-polls, the Uttar Pradesh by polls, the Delhi Assembly polls and the West Bengal local body election results have more than proved this. It is clear that the Modi government now needs to translate rhetoric into reality and promises into performance. If not, the “Acche Din” of the Modi government will soon be a thing of the past.