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CAA, CDS, OBCs – Modi govt has perfected the art of creating big bang headlines & dithering

Narendra Modi is arguably the most popular leader. And yet, most of the government’s big bang reforms are seeing no progress.

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Army Chief General MM Naravane retired from service Saturday, ending speculation about his likely elevation as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). It has been almost five months since General Bipin Rawat died in a helicopter crash. The government hasn’t been able to appoint his successor yet. The last time one heard a reference to the CDS from the government was when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an election rally in Uttarakhand, attacked the Congress for ‘using’ the late Rawat’s cut-outs for votes. That was in February. Creation of the post of CDS was the first big decision of PM Modi in his second term in office. He chose to declare it from the ramparts of Red Fort on Independence Day in 2019. Barely three years since then, the appointment of the CDS has become a matter of speculation.

It’s not a Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi government that was hit by policy paralysis in its second term. Decisiveness is Modi’s forte, isn’t it? Maybe he has something in mind about the CDS, which the government can’t share at this stage. Let’s leave it at that. But it does serve as a trigger to look at how the Modi government in its second term seems to be dithering on a host of issues after making a big song and dance about them.

Early in its first tenure, it went gaga about its proposed amendments to UPA-era land acquisition law and sought to implement it through the ordinance route. It promulgated the ordinance thrice before Modi declared in Mann ki Baat that it wouldn’t be re-issued. That was two months before the 2015 Bihar assembly election. Those were early days yet for the Modi government. What’s surprising is its inability to follow through its ambitious initiatives even in its second term. One isn’t even talking about the three contentious farm laws that it dropped ahead of the assembly elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Sample a few others.

Also read: India’s new CDS will have to decide: Where does the loyalty of the military lie

Citizenship (Amendment) Act: The legislation got parliamentary approval in December 2019. Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah hail this law every now and then. Yet, the law is not operational because the Home Ministry hasn’t framed the rules, which should have been in place by June 2020. In the meantime, the ministry has got five extensions from the Parliamentary Committees on Subordinate Legislation. If the PM and the HM are so convinced about the merits of the CAA, what’s holding the home ministry from notifying the rules?

Sub-categorisation of OBCs: In October 2017, the Modi government constituted the Justice Rohini-headed Commission for the Sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). It was to submit its report by 2 January 2018. It has got 12 extensions so far. Meanwhile, its terms of reference were tweaked, which would seem to justify the delay. It’s May 2022, and the Commission hasn’t finalised its report. If a few dominant communities among OBCs were cornering the benefits of reservation and it had to be addressed, why is the government giving tareekh pe tareekh, instead of giving a final deadline to the commission to submit the report? Or is it because those dominant communities have become more relevant in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s electoral scheme?

Labour Codes: Four labour codes on wages, industrial relations, social security and occupation safety, health and working conditions got parliamentary approval in 2019 and 2020. The government described them as “historic”. These codes have, however, not been implemented because the Centre hasn’t notified the rules. In an interview to ThePrint in June 2021, then Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Gangwar said that the government wanted to notify the rules from 1 July but it might have to defer it to 1 October that year. As labour is part of the Concurrent List, both the Centre and the states have to notify the rules under their jurisdiction. But many states were yet to finalise the rules, Gangwar explained.

About seven months after the minister at the time set a new deadline, labour codes are yet to be operational, with officials at the Centre giving the same explanation. Did the Centre not know about the states’ commitment to these reforms? And if all states don’t come on board, will the Centre keep these historic reforms in abeyance for good?

River-linking project: In her Budget speech last year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that draft detailed project reports (DPRs) of five river-linking projects had been finalised and consensus among beneficiary states was awaited. Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat added in a tweet that these projects would “go a long way” in easing the problem of water shortage in remote and arid parts of India. A year later, in March 2022, the Centre decided to put one of these five, Par-Tapi-Narmada river-linking project, on hold. Gujarat minister Hrishikesh Patel informed the state assembly that his government had asked the Centre not to go ahead with the project. The Centre had got the states’ consent before finalising the DPRs. So, if the states chicken out due to protests by a section of people, what will be the fate of the ambitious river-linking projects?

Also read: Indian govt can’t introduce quality reforms because it’s ignoring these three issues


Big Bang reforms on the back burner

So, what’s going wrong? It’s not a remote-controlled government where someone sitting at 10, Janpath would stymie the initiatives of 7, Race Course Road (now Lok Kalyan Marg). And it’s not a Narasimha Rao-led government in which not taking a decision is also a decision. And it’s also not a coalition government of yore, whose hands would be tied up due to survival instincts. It’s a government led by Narendra Modi, the most popular leader in India who can just announce demonetisation one fine evening and national lockdown another, with the people clapping regardless of their impact on their day-to-day lives. Nobody would, therefore, question why a government, headed by a crusader against corruption, should render Lokpal toothless by keeping vacancies of judicial members and directors of enquiry and persecution vacant. Nobody has an answer as to why India should keep its census exercise in abeyance on account of Covid-19 while countries such as China and the US completed it during the pandemic.

So, what explains the dilly-dallying in decision-making? Why should a government take so much pain to ensure parliamentary approval of laws and then leave them inoperative in the absence of rules? Why should a government announce grand projects only to put them on the back burner?

There are so many ‘whys’ for which there are no definitive answers. When it comes to government matters, only Modi or Amit Shah know. And when you talk about them, it’s safe to bring politics into it, with a few exceptions such as the CDS’ appointment. Grand announcements, even when not followed through, serve their purpose. Look at the headlines they generate. And the longer the gestation period, the better their recall value in politics. Call it politics of governance or governance of politics. It’s working well for Modi and the BJP, so far. Period.

DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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