View: If not Narendra Modi, then who?
Modi oozes leadership and people tend to think he is a strong, courageous leader. But his performance shows extreme timidity.
It is a reality check: you probably confuse the sales pitch for the real thing and love superheroes who do all the heavy lifting when it comes to saving the world, leaving little for the man in the street to do except when it’s time to cheer.
Missing Political Courage
Modi oozes leadership and people tend to think he is a strong, courageous leader. But his performance shows extreme timidity. One jibe — suit-boot ki Sarkar — was all it took for Modi to wind up his reform of land acquisition and labour laws.
In the sphere of economics, Modi brought about exactly two new changes. One, he did away with state monopoly in coal. Two, he brought in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. The rest of all the schemes and initiatives that he parades are re-packaged, rebranded schemes of the predecessor UPA government, including goods and services tax (GST), albeit given greater political commitment and visibility. State monopoly in coal was done away with in 2015. India has some of the world’s largest deposits of thermal coal but the inefficiency and incapacity of the state-owned monopoly, Coal India, has meant that the country has been importing coal, adding tens of billions of dollars to India’s current account deficit, incurring huge costs in transporting coal inland, diversion of rail resources for it, delaying the transport of other bulk goods and overall rise in costs.
Yet, four years after acquiring the legal freedom to commence merchant mining, the Modi government has not been able to open the country’s coal to professional mining. Essentially because Modi lacked the political will to take on Coal India unions.
Consider the wreck that is the Indian power sector. The country’s power generation capacity is 350,000 MW. But at peak summer, when people face blackouts, India hardly runs 160,000 MW of that capacity. This is because most state utilities are too broke to pay for the power they buy from generators. The problem is political. The utilities are broke because politicians believe they have to give power away for free and patronise large-scale power theft. Courage means telling people they have to pay for the power they consume.
Estimates of how much of the power that is generated is not paid for vary from 30% to 40% (as in many other areas, the government is shy about publishing data on state utility losses). Can any business survive if 40% of its output is not paid for? The net result is the perversity that in India, with desperately low levels of per-capita power consumption, power capacity is deemed surplus, even as tier 2 towns run diesel generators for up to 12 hours a day for their power needs.
About Rs 1,80,000 crore is the debt load of 34 power plants that are deemed stressed. This is or is becoming part of the banks’ bad loan portfolio. This is not a natural calamity but a result of political wimpishness. India has a stock of bad loans instead of electricity powering machinery, offices and jobs.
Democracy, Not Saviours
So, where exactly does the image of Modi as a courageous leader meet reality? In first condemning the employment guarantee scheme as the Congress’ monument to failure and later taking credit for increasing its outlay? In rebranding ongoing government schemes? In announcing handouts for farmers? In seeking extradition of economic fugitives?
The capacity to gamble is different from courage. Demonetisation was a gamble, that class antagonism is strong enough for people to swallow hardship in the hope that the illicit rich would suffer. It paid off, initially. Now, every thief who makes off with a cash hoard mocks the claim that demonetisation killed black money.
Balakot was another successful gamble. Using air power to strike within Pakistan called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff while sending out the message that India would retaliate against aggression using non-state actors. It gambled that global outrage over Pulwama, widespread recognition of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror and its dire economic conditions would inhibit war. The domestic political payoff was immense. It was a tempting gamble, and paid off.
Dokalam, in contrast, was a display of courage, born, perhaps, out of compulsion that did not leave much room for another response, but courage, nevertheless. India’s past leaders have shown greater courage under more trying conditions when India was a much weaker power.
The point about democracy is that it throws up bold leaders and policy from within the totality of available resources in most unexpected ways. Cometh the hour, cometh the man — or woman. No one expected Shastri or Goongi Gudiya (Dumb Doll) Indira Gandhi to shape up as leaders.
India needs democracy, not saviours. Modi harms democracy, not strengthens it.