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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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Modi At Mid-point

The Government’s recent outreach to the muslim community in Haryana and elsewhere underscores the priority that Modi attaches to communal harmony

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the mid-point of his five-year tenure in November. It is a good time to assess the PM and his cabinet’s performance on key parameters across various sectors.

Foreign policy: This has been the Prime Minister’s strongest suit. He has established a viable strategic partnership with the United States. Whatever the outcome of the US presidential election on November 8, the India-US relationship is set to strengthen.

Modi has meanwhile reached out to the Middle East in an effort to ringfence India’s vital national interest on terrorism. His visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular have tempered the support Pakistan receives. As a result of this ringfencing, Modi has been able to counter the “Islamic card” Pakistan has played for decades to garner support at the United Nations and in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). That support has been noticeably absent from a broad swathe of countries in the Middle East during the recent stand-off with Islamabad.

The Prime Minister has forged close trade links with the European Union (EU) and at the same time pursued a vigorous “Act East” policy in an arc from Myanmar to Vietnam. But the PM’s greatest policy success lies in coalescing South Asia into an India-centric bloc. Following the Uri terror attack and India’s surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) on September 29, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives joined India’s boycott of SAARC which was scheduled to be held in November 2016. Summit chair Nepal too issued a strong statement condemning terrorism after announcing the cancellation of the summit.

This unprecedented display of solidarity has succeeded in isolating Pakistan in the subcontinent. It presents Modi an opportunity to press ahead with BIMSTEC, a grouping comprising Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan as an alternative to SAARC which Pakistan has reduced to a farce with its anti-India posturing.

In the area of foreign policy, Pakistan and China remain Modi’s most serious challenges. The PM’s implacable response to the Uri terror attack with surgical strikes in PoK has rattled Pakistan. Islamabad has turned to China, its toxic ally, and Beijing — despite President Xi Jinping’s relatively cordial relationship with Modi — has revelled in being India’s bête noir.

In the second half of his term, Modi will need to recalibrate his China policy with a more robust approach. Beijing respects strength. India must display it in its dealings with the Middle Kingdom in the various global fora the two countries share and where Pakistan is absent — especially BRICS and the G-20.

Economic Policy: Despite three disappointing Union budgets that lacked coherence and vision, India’s economy has turned the corner. The global economy remains soporific but India’s inherent strengths — youthful demographics, a strong services sector and a big, consuming middle class — will ensure GDP growth of 7.5 per cent in 2016-17.

The success of the black money disclosure scheme, key fiscal reforms and renewed public sector divestment are set to give the economy a fillip. The PM says he spent the first two years of his term fixing the broken economy he inherited from the UPA government. Now though it is his government which will be judged over the next 30 months on how the economy performs.

Modi’s reputation in rapid project implementation was cemented during his over 12-year tenure as chief minister of Gujarat. This report in a leading daily on 4 October 2016 explains how the PM is replicating the Gujarat model of project execution across the country: “Nearly one and a half years after its launch, Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation or Pragati is turning out to be quite a help for the Modi government as it tries to speed up development schemes. Official figures show that the mechanism rolled out on 25 March 2015 has pushed 136 projects involving investments of around Rs 8 lakh crore. While the focus is on infrastructure at a time when the private sector continues to be reluctant to invest, the ambit of Pragati is not limited to power, roads or railways alone.

“Every project or issue taken up at Pragati meetings comes with a deadline, which government agencies have to adhere to. Officials said that with the Prime Minister personally involved, even state governments were complying with the deadline set for projects involving them. There are projects such as the Nangal Dam-Talwara railway line, which has been pending since 1981-82, where the Punjab government has now been advised to speed up handing over the remaining land besides giving forest clearance ‘immediately’.

“Over the past 18 months, 136 issues have been discussed at the level of the Prime Minister with several projects being of strategic importance such as a transmission system in the Kargil-Drass-Leh area. At times, projects funded by the Indian government in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Bhutan have been discussed. For instance, the parliament project in Afghanistan and hydro-power project in Bhutan were on Pragati’s agenda.”

Social policy: Modi’s most acute challenge lies in the social sector: health, sanitation, education, skills and community relations. India’s education sector remains moribund. Though new IITs and IIMs are being built, primary education suffers from lack of resources and infrastructure. The government’s ambitious schemes on sanitation and health are meanwhile making a difference but progress is slow. Even the plan to clean the Ganga has moved glacially.

When the government took office in May 2014, doomsayers predicted “riot after riot”. Despite isolated communal incidents, that prophecy has not been fulfilled. And yet Modi more than anyone else knows that his government will be judged as much on how the country’s secular fabric has fared under a right-of-centre government as on economic and foreign policy successes. The government’s recent outreach to the Muslim community in Haryana and elsewhere underscores the priority that Modi attaches to communal harmony. And yet, sensibly, he has eschewed the old Congress policy of appeasement for the sake of minority votes, stressing rightly the need to empower Muslims.

Encouragingly, Muslims have largely rallied around Modi following his strong response to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. With elections in key states around the corner, the Prime Minister will soon have to go back to playing a double role: a star campaigner for his party as well as the custodian of a government that in the second half of its tenure must justify the faith the electorate reposed in it by handing it 282 Lok Sabha seats.

In a fractious democracy like India’s, such electoral opportunities don’t knock twice.