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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Narendra Modi At Three

Winning elections is a science; good governance is an art. Modi has mastered the first in the past three years...

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes three years in office in May 2017. With just two years of his term left and 2018 likely to be a populist-driven pre-general election year, time is running out to complete the agenda he has set for the BJP-led NDA government.

The outcomes over the past three years can be placed into two silos: good and indifferent. Start with good outcomes.

The successful navigation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) through choppy Opposition waters has been a stand-out triumph. The proof of this particular pudding will lie in its implementation on 1 July or 1 September, depending on last-minute back-end technicalities and state Assembly approvals. However, once GST is in place, trade efficiencies of a one-nation-one-market system will kick in. Over the next two years, the incremental impact on GDP growth could be between 1.5 per cent and two per cent, lifting India’s economic growth trend line to around 8.5 per cent to 9.0 per cent. This impact will be long term and result in a significant reduction in poverty.

The second good outcome of Modi’s prime ministership so far, is the absence of government corruption. There is transparency in handing out contracts in civil and defence projects. Corruption at the individual and state level remains endemic. But that is a function of a deep-rooted culture of “speed money” across public institutions. That will need a social revolution, not a Modi, to root out.

The third positive result the Modi government has wrung out of India’s soporific polity is the plethora of schemes for a cleaner, more hygienic India, financial inclusion, Aadhaar unique identity biometrics, skill development and digitisation. Some of the schemes have been uneven in implementation but the direction has been set.

The fourth achievement in Modi’s first three years has been in specific areas of foreign policy. He has deftly balanced India’s interests in the Middle East with mutually antagonistic Arabs, Iranians and Israelis. The momentum in the India-US strategic partnership, built up during the Obama presidency, may have slowed with the advent of the unpredictable Donald Trump. However, a Modi-Trump summit, likely to take place in the next two months, should restore the India-US relationship as both confront an increasingly assertive China. Meanwhile, Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy has brought Japan, Vietnam and littoral states of the South China Sea into India’s expanding orbit of maritime influence.

Finally, Modi’s emphasis on federalism and reviving Inter-State Council meetings has enhanced Centre-state cooperation. This was best reflected in the passage of the complex GST Bill which needed the assent of the states who feared loss of control over decades-old streams of tax revenue.

The Modi government has, however, faltered on several other counts. Its Pakistan and China policies have vacillated over the past three years. Modi made strenuous efforts to woo both Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the first year of his tenure. The former was invited to Modi’s inauguration, the latter to a walkabout summit on the Narmada river front in Ahmedabad. Both relationships have since soured. India’s inconsistent blow hot, blow cold strategy — oscillating between a surgical strike on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) last September to an effete response to incessant Pakistan-abetted terror attacks in J&K — has emboldened Islamabad.

China has, meanwhile, used every tactic to push India into a geopolitical corner. It has blocked India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and hectored New Delhi over the Dalai Lama’s perfectly legitimate visit to Arunachal Pradesh last month. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is understaffed and overwhelmed. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), stretched across several ministerial jurisdictions, has not been able to impose a coherent policy on India’s two difficult neighbours. Rectifying that must be Modi’s priority in the next two years of his prime ministership.

Equally serious is the drift in strengthening the institutions of governance. The courts are short of judges. The Army at the Line of Control (LoC) is short of ammunition. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) lacks modern weaponry to stun, not maim, protestors in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). These shortcomings are damaging the morale of our security forces as well as slowing down our criminal justice system.

The second disappointment in the last three Modi years is the failure to sanitise the old corrupt ecosystem within the bureaucracy. Its tentacles have a long reach. They have not been neutralised. As a result, an internal speed-breaker stymies corruption cases against former UPA leaders. Old habits die hard and old loyalties die harder still. The vacuum cleaning of the old ecosystem must top Modi’s priorities over the next 24 months.

Not all of this government’s weaknesses can be blamed on the past. The government’s attempt to balance electoral winnability with good governance has led to polarisation, vigilantism and intrusiveness. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has shown how, once you win an election, you must switch to governance. He has been ruthless in enforcing law and order, kick starting moribund infrastructure projects, and being pointedly inclusive by displaying the communal amity that pervades his Gorakhpur mutt.

There are several things Modi must now focus on in the final two-year stretch leading to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. First, appoint a new defence minister. The job cannot be done on a part-time basis by the finance minister. The decapitation of two jawans by the Pakistan Army underscores the need for a more proactive defence posture on the LoC.

Second, ensure execution of current schemes rather than creating new ones. Modi will be judged on outcomes, not ideas and schemes, however well-intentioned. Third, stick to an assertive policy on China. It will pay dividends. Prevaricating won’t. Finally, strengthen institutions. Appoint a Lokpal, implement long-delayed judicial and police reforms, give our paramilitaries the weapons and self-respect they lack to fight insurgencies by Maoists, jihadi-backed stone pelters in Kashmir and the rogue Pakistani Army.

Winning elections is a science; good governance is an art. Modi has mastered the first in the past three years. In the next two, he must master the second.

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