Evolution of a country is complex — it is not just a “highlights” reel. Beyond epochal events, it is a process, bringing together events, leadership etc. within a global context. Narendra Modi’s eight years as prime minister mark an important stage in India’s evolution — the emergence of a ‘new’ India with hugely ambitious expectations and a self-confidence worn like a badge of honour.
After Independence, starting with Louis Mountbatten’s appointment as Governor General, there was continuity in administration and politics. Leadership remained uncontested with the Congress. After Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, the shackles of government tightened around the country and its citizens, and denuded the high-spirited exuberance of 1947. The stranglehold grew into the Emergency and we only got relief thanks to Jayaprakash Narayan and the Janata Party’s victory in the 1977 general elections. Rajiv Gandhi started unravelling the Licence Raj, but real evolutionary change occurred under P.V. Narasimha Rao. The animal spirits of private enterprise took flight and India started decoupling from the government. Rao’s legacy was a largely markets-driven economy — with its potential and some of its warts. If 1947 was political freedom, Rao’s reforms freed our economy.
Modi took over as PM in 2014. Despite gargantuan challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic, his eight years have seen game-changing initiatives like Jan Dhan, Ayushman Bharat (National Health Protection Scheme). Beyond the “highlights reel”, perhaps of greater significance is that Modi’s eight years represent a decisive stage in India’s evolution. India and Indians have “stepped out” and come of age.
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Pre-Modi India had a resigned, passive acceptance of status-quo — the Hindu rate of growth, poverty in villages, repeated natural disasters with huge losses of life. We perennially played catch-up with events, and were over-reliant on “mother state”. Under Modi, the paradigm changed to proactivity and anticipation.
Handling Covid was an example. The first lockdown was ordered while many countries were fumbling. Though many people, especially migrant labourers, faced immense hardships, millions of lives were saved. Then came the vaccination drive. While advanced countries debated minutiae of vaccination policy, India gave 194 crore+ vaccine doses. To provide perspective, that is more than the aggregate population of the 10 most populous countries after India.
Proactivity was also evident in defence. Our Achilles heel was long-drawn procurement processes and coordination. Modi appointed General Bipin Rawat as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Before Gen Rawat’s demise, huge strides had been made in streamlining procurement and improving inter-service coordination. Kashmir was a festering issue with the state’s inhabitants artificially excluded from India’s progress. Like Alexander cutting the Gordian knot, Article 370 was abrogated. Despite vested interests using every trick including violence, true integration of Jammu and Kashmir into India is now irreversible. Modi engendered a belief that we can substantially be master of our fates.
Higher expectations also encompass the political leadership. M.S. Dhoni’s rise brought non-metro India into cricket — a phenomenon reflected in the huge IPL talent pool. Modi took political leadership out of the incumbent, urban-elite establishment. While we had PMs — Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda, and Charan Singh from non-urban backgrounds — they got overpowered-assimilated by the Delhi durbar. Modi did not owe his rise to “Lutyens”. Hence, we see a freshness of approach drawing on regional, state influences in policy and personnel. State politicians like Manohar Parrikar were pulled in. Another aspect has been the expectation of personal probity. Modi has set a benchmark with his work ethic and integrity. His family leading middle-class lives provides daily proof.
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A new self-belief
Translating expectations into reality has been Modi’s altered policy approach. Most visible is the focus on process and scalability instead of short-termism. Whether it was Jan Dhan, sanitation or electrification, each initiative was carefully planned and executed in project mode. Timelines were adhered to, and synergistic benefits recognised and realised. Each had a scale – 45 crore Jan Dhan accounts are an example.
Modi also avoided dogma or ego-based policy making. Aadhaar was grown and GST implemented. Internationally, despite domestic criticism, Modi made an outreach to India’s neighbours without being weighed down by legacy. He was also not browbeaten internationally — as Donald Trump found out while lobbying for Harley-Davidson. Modi showed comfort with disruption. The emphasis on renewable energy, NITI Aayog replacing the outdated Planning Commission or the Start-Up India — all recognise that faster, leap-frogging development needs disruption. There is also an openness to learn from others. Instead of defensiveness or mere admiration, there is a hunger to apply global best practices to India. The policy platform leads to the third leg of India’s evolution under Modi – self-belief.
Modi’s approach to welfare policy is inspired by M.K. Gandhi’s sarvodaya (welfare of all). Equally important has been delivery of welfare — technology-driven; “blind” to caste, creed or region; and cutting-out middlemen. Whether it’s Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), distribution of rations or delivery of health services, technology brings services to citizens and minimises manual interface “leakages”. Even the withdrawn agriculture bills sought to give farmers freedom of choice and from middlemen. “Sabka prayas” – contribution of citizens has been harnessed. Thousands of households gave up LPG subsidies. Creating “confidence” needs more than welfare.
Modi is creating an ecosystem of opportunity for people and enterprises to succeed and become global champions. Initiatives like Skill India and Start-Up India have transformed the mindset of the country’s youth. Instead of looking for government jobs, there is a flourishing entrepreneurial culture that creates jobs. Atmanirbhar Bharat, launched during the pandemic, gave Indian businesses a path to recovery and future growth. Combined with the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme, Atmanirbhar Bharat can unleash India’s manufacturing potential. It is no surprise that 40+ unicorns were created in 2021.
In the eight years under Modi, India has evolved into a country with significantly more ambitious expectations for itself, and a confidence in its ability to fulfil its aspirations. It’s a tricky political challenge, because no longer will Indians be fooled for long with freebies and pithy slogans — they insist on a sustainable, better future.
The author is a banker and ex-IPS officer. He tweets @saketmisra_ Views are personal.