For the last week, Indian newspapers, channels and websites have been plastered with evaluations of Narendra Modi’s first 100 days. From dedicating entire editions to the 100-day landmark to building complex timelines describing every policy announcement over the last three months (and even comparing what has been achieved to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign promises), there has been so much content that it’s hard to arrive at a conclusion about whether Modi’s Prime Ministership has been good or bad.
That might be expected, considering the scale of the challenge that the new government has set for itself. Alternatively, it might also be surprising: many expected Modi Sarkar to be a hate-it-or-love-it administration, rather than one that would leave people with lukewarm feelings.
Another way to approach the question might be to try and figure out how Modi’s first 100 days will be remembered. The first few months of new governments can often set the tone for what is to come. In hindsight, the trends picked up in the first days are then grafted on to narratives that are applied to entire tenures.
A look back at previous prime ministers might give us an inkling of how this will play out.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee
The 100-day milestone wasn’t as prevalent as a marker in the late 1990s as it has now become. That might have something to do with the instability of governments and the compulsions of coalition politics. Yet it’s still possible to find reflections of the first 100 days of Vajpayee’s stint as Prime Minister (naturally, not counting his 13-day government in 1996).
One thing looms large over the former prime minister’s time in power: the nuclear tests. Inflation might have been skyrocketing, law-and-order problems had started to surface, Kashmir was getting even more serious. But all the government had to do was to point to Pokhran-II. In one fell swoop, India discarded five decades of foreign policy thinking and asserted its rights as a major geopolitical player.
In 1999, in the aftermath of the Kargil war, Vajpayee returned to power with a much more secure coalition and a larger majority. With signs that this government was more likely to last a full term, power started to be concentrated again in the Prime Minister’s Office, prompting the same sort of headlines that turned up soon after Modi’s win.
Yet again, within three months the government made international headlines, this time without intending to. The hijacking of Indian Airlines IC814 and the subsequent decision to make a deal with the terrorists sent a huge message about the new government.
The appointment of an economist-prime minister in 2004 gave Indians hope that the economy would do even better than the signs of improvement that it had hinted at in the NDA years. Yet, just as was seen in the early days of the Vajpayee government and, for that matter, under Modi, inflation spiked and complaints were raised about an administration that had promised better days.
Singh’s first 100 days also gave clear signs of what was to follow, although the economic boom of the next few years would hide some of the problems. Coalition issues cropped up from the very get-go, with the Prime Minister unable to introduce his cabinet after the opposition decided to take issue with the inclusion of tainted-Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. Almost directly replicating what Modi did in his early days, Singh used to regularly complain that he was not given a “honeymoon” period despite a surprising popular victory.
Five years later, following the United Progressive Alliance's return to power, Singh expressly laid out a plan for the first 100 days, which included the promise of a food security law, overhauling rural health insurance and improving NREGA. The first few months would end up being reasonably tepid, but expectations had been tempered by the economic crisis as well as the previous year’s Mumbai attacks. Focused as the country and the media was on getting over these challenges, there was little foresight about the expected scams that would come to define UPA-II.
Although some of the cultural storylines might resemble Vajpayee’s governments, Modi has neither had to face a major crisis nor unveiled a new policy on the scale of the 1998 nuclear tests. His first 100 days in fact, bear the most resemblance to Manmohan Singh’s second tenure, with the sense that India was heading out of a crisis, albeit with hints of trouble within the ranks and internal problems on the horizon.