Supporters and analysts alike might not have been looking for dramatic improvements in the first few months, but they were looking for signs that a grand vision was being implemented. Yet those beginning to get annoyed with the slow pace of change have come out of the woodwork, and everyone is brandishing a pet theory about why the promised good days still seem so far away. Funnily enough, none of these pet theories involve the prime minister himself.
It’s understandable that a new government will rely heavily on bureaucrats, especially when, like the Bharatiya Janata Party, you have been out of power for a decade. Yet some of the greatest champions of the BJP pre-election are now claiming the incremental approach so far has been an expression of the continuing power of the bureaucracy.
Economist Arvind Panagariya, who was considered one of the front-runners for the PM’s economic advisor post, made his assessment of the budget clear last week, saying “finance ministry bureaucrats effectively hijacked the budget”. Journalist Swapan Dasgupta, another vocal supporter, similarly claimed that the vote against Israel in the United Nations Human Rights Council was the result of a “conservative bureaucracy [that] prefers continuity over breaking new ground.”
Plus ça change
Others are continuing to blame the previous government, the United Progressive Alliance. These critics argue that it is hard to alter the trajectory of the government in two months. Yet the new government has used this as a reason to retain policies that they would not have been able to defend had they introduced them.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made this most explicit in his budget speech when he lamented the fiscal deficit target that his predecessor had used in the interim budget, one that received flak at the time for seeming unreasonable. Jaitley ended up using it anyway. The rail budget too essentially mimicked the one that had been put forward by the previous government in February. Meanwhile, flagship UPA schemes like the Food Security Act, MGNREGA and Aadhaar have been retained, despite expectations from many that they would be altered.
Activist and scholar Madhu Kishwar and former union minister Ram Jethmalani didn’t mince words at a press conference two weeks ago. “The old government has friends in the new government,” Jethmalani said. “There are elements in the present government that are doing their best to protect UPA scamsters,” said Kishwar.
They were referring to the current government’s decision not to open an investigation into allegations of a Rs 5,500 crore scam involving P Chidambaram and news channel NDTV. They were also angry with the government’s willingness to probe foreign donations to Kishwar’s non-governmental organisation, Manushi. Other supporters have also alleged that there are elements in the BJP leadership that aren’t quite as willing to make a clean break with the past as Modi is.
It’s been lost in the outrage over the treatment of a staffer in the Maharashtra Sadan, but the reason for the presence of Shiv Sena Members of Parliament – and TV cameras – that day was to express the Maharashtrian party’s annoyance with the way the BJP is treating it. Instead, thanks to the force-feeding of a Muslim staffer during Ramadan, the Shiv Sena actions turned into an even bigger headache for the BJP.
Additionally, the BJP at first declined to intervene in a brewing religious battle between the Congress-led government of Haryana and Punjab, which is run by BJP ally Shiromani Akali Dal.
One of the chief criticisms of the UPA was that it did not deal firmly with its allies. The BJP’s margin of victory – it has a workable majority on its own – should have ensured that it did not need to kowtow to its allies. Yet the BJP has been strangely submissive.
The daily news cycle means the BJP will have to get used to being questioned on a nightly basis, often in unreasonable terms, to fit in with the compulsions of television. After having leveraged this to pillory the UPA over the last few years, the BJP is, to some extent, falling back on a very familiar argument: it repeatedly claims that these are simply media controversies.
Whether it is allegations of rape against a minister in the government or a legislator calling Sania Mirza a daughter-in-law of Pakistan, the ruling party has found ways to insist that the questions being asked of it have little substance to them; an argument that may be accurate on a daily basis, but nevertheless constitutes terrible media management.