NDA report card

A message to Modi’s supporters: Don’t give up on him, instead get through to him

'Leaving it to the boss' is not a good way to achieve the outcomes we want.

By now, almost everything that can be said about the first year of the Modi government has been said already. Everyone from the wags on Twitter to serious-minded (at least in their own minds) intellectuals has given us their assessment. Even The Economist, which gratuitously did not endorse him during the campaign, and which does not have a vote in Indian elections, has a cover story and special feature on the anniversary.

Ignoring his partisans and his detractors, the wider perception is this: it appears that after one year in office, Narendra Modi’s government has performed decently but disappointed the people who had dramatic expectations of any sort. (Readers beware: it might appear this way to me because I too think its performance was decent, except that I had expected as much from it.)

We must remember that the Modi election campaign came in the context of a nation in the middle of multiple and massive moral panics. By 2013, consumers of news in India were on the edge: the government was paralysed by corruption scandals and internal rifts, the prime minister was silent, some enemies were leaving cigarette packets in our territory with impunity while others were beheading our soldiers, prices were rising and women were unsafe on the streets, the government was unsure how old its top general was, why his troops were moving towards Delhi.

At times like this, it is not uncommon for people – especially, those religiously inclined – to look for a great leader to arrive and sort things out. After momentarily flirting with an octogenarian, army-belt wielding, self-professed Gandhian, middle India settled on the personality of Narendra Modi to lead it out of the mess and into Better Days.

Millions of mental manifestos

Modi’s actual qualifications, promises and agenda were overshadowed by our expectations of him. No good politician wastes such a moment, and Modi being a better politician than most, exploited the opportunity to his advantage. In a sharply polarised polity – there were splits across dinner tables, office cubicles and online communities – he assembled a grand coalition of market liberals, old-style industrialists, reform-minded middle-class professionals, cultural conservatives and bigots of the extreme right, each of whom believed that Modi’s government would deliver their fondest hopes. Note that Modi did not commit to any of this, at least in public. There was no published manifesto. But every one of Modi’s supporters made up a manifesto in his or her own mind and voted for him.

Obviously, it would have been impossible for Modi to deliver on these millions of mental manifestos even if he had wanted to. It is hard to doubt the sincerity of his statements as prime minister – from cleaning up the country, a moratorium on communal violence, to a commitment to the Indian Constitution, to national development that is agnostic about communal divisions. Yet it is unclear if he understands how the government can achieve these goals. To me it appears that he believes in a project implementation approach to achieving these objectives, when what is really called for is a policy-centric approach. The government must create the conditions for people to do good things, not do the good things itself. If at the end of the first year, Modi’s performance is more “decent” than the expected “breathtaking”, it is because of this.

In the event, many quarters that supported Modi are caught in states of disappointment, denial or cognitive dissonance because what they see does not square with their mental manifesto. Instead of becoming disenchanted and disengaged – always a threat in our country – they should give him feedback. It is true that the corridors of power in New Delhi cocoon its denizens from reality. Yet, it is incumbent on Modi’s objective supporters to muster the capacity to channel feedback to him. Arun Shourie’s forthright criticism of the government’s performance is the kind of feedback that Modi’s well-wishers should encourage.

Blind Men and the Elephant

Partisans don’t get it, but desirable policy decisions cannot be produced merely by blind support of their party’s government. In their classic work on governmental decision-making, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow argue that policy decisions are political resultants of various forces at play on the decision-maker. So “leaving it to the boss” is not a good way to achieve the outcomes we want. Once a favourable government is in power, there is a greater need to keep pushing it to do what we want it to do.

As for the Modi’s opponents, they still do not understand why he won by such a majority. A reinvigorated Rahul Gandhi is taking up causes that reinforce among the voters that electing Modi was the right thing to do. The Congress lost because it was wholly out of tune with the aspirations of contemporary India. In parliament and in the media, Modi’s critics must stop trying to judge him by the Congress party’s promises. It would be far more useful to hold Modi to his own big promises.

Usually, describing a government’s performance is akin to the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Each claims that the whole is a larger version of what he feels. With the Modi government, the task is harder because of the interpersonal dynamics of the said blind men. Their descriptions depend not only on what they perceive, but also on what their counterparts perceive. It’s hard to be objective about it, Dear Reader, and I make no claim to be any different.

Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution. The views expressed here are personal.

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