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Modi govt's real agenda: It's not economic reforms

Last updated on: December 08, 2014 14:41 IST

It is time to reset expectations as government will move with alacrity on social policy, not on economic reforms, notes Mihir S Sharma.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photograph: Reuters

Union Minister of State for Food Processing Industries Niranjan Jyoti is unlikely to be fired, no matter how long and hard the Opposition disrupts Parliament to insist she must.

She is likely to be immune for several reasons. First, the government will not want to give in to disruption so early and about something they deem so trivial.

Second, Ms Jyoti is politically important: she represents in her leaders' minds a section of society in Uttar Pradesh that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) desperately wants to woo for its votes. (Given this, and the identity-based defence of Ms Jyoti it has launched, let us never pretend henceforth that Mr Modi's BJP is beyond "vote-bank politics".)

And third, she didn't say anything that the BJP believes is particularly outlandish. 

It is this third reason that we need to think about a little harder, for it has implications for what we should expect from this government. Here's what Ms Jyoti told a public rally: that they should vote for the children of the Hindu deity Rama, and not for those who are illegitimate - the two relevant words rhyme pleasingly in Hindustani.

As far as the BJP is concerned, the problem is that Ms Jyoti used bad language for the BJP's opponents. The problem is, in fact, different and worse: that Ms Jyoti was insisting that nobody opposing the BJP could be a proper Hindu; and, by implication and extension, that non-Hindus are by their very nature illegitimate when it comes to government. But this the BJP cannot admit is an unacceptable sentiment, because it is the very basis of their electoral strategy. 

Many observers, especially those who focus on economic policy, see remarks like Ms Jyoti's as a "distraction" for the government.

This is untrue, although it has been fed by strategically placed leaks from the Prime Minister's Office.

Dealing with the protests is a distraction for the government, and that is why the prime minister may be angry with Ms Jyoti. He certainly sees nothing wrong with the content of the remarks, as his own intervention on the subject showed. 

The remarks themselves are central to the BJP's raison d'être; assuming it appeals to voters purely because of "governance" is a myth that deluded policy wonks should now stop propagating.

In other words: endless hand-wringing op-eds that wonder why the government's reform agenda is being "derailed" by such ministers all miss the point. Social consolidation is more this government's agenda than is economic reform. 

Economic change will be pragmatic and in response to negative events - and the pressure for big change has gone down, given cheap oil and softening inflation. Social change is ideological, and will not be compromised on. 

A digression: none of this means that the Opposition's decision to behave like the 2009-2013 BJP and disrupt Parliament is acceptable. Hold the government accountable within Parliament, don't disrupt it. 

Silly photo-ops like Rahul Gandhi putting a black gag on his own face only draw attention to the fact that Mr Gandhi has shown considerable contempt for the opportunities for speech that being a member of Parliament allows - he has spoken perhaps once in Parliament over the past six years. 

It's a bit much to pretend that you are deeply concerned about your inability to speak in Parliament immediately after you return from spending two days in your constituency instead of in the Lok Sabha. 

Is there not enough evidence now for us to re-centre our expectations from this government, and to accept that social transformation is its priority and not deep-seated economic reform? 

 And if so, what does this imply for the future? Simply this: that economic and administrative change will have to be harder fought for than was expected earlier. 

True, not all ministries are sitting on their hands; Coal and Power Minister Piyush Goyal, for one, seems to be making a serious if slightly confused effort to get things moving in those crucial sectors. 

But others, like the commerce ministry, for example, clearly cannot be relied on for reform. The foreign trade policy, supposed to be out at Budget time, is not yet out. The reason? 

The commerce ministry cannot find a new framework to push trade other than old, discredited, expensive export subsidies. 

If special economic zones (SEZs) don't work and become real-estate boondoggles, because they depend on tax breaks, Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's chosen approach seems to be (a) to double down on tax breaks and (b) make the SEZs more of a real-estate play, by letting them set up hotels and malls and what not to cater to outside demand. 

All this in the absence of real work to make imports and exports easier by reducing paperwork. Almost every relevant small business owner in Delhi has stories of how a crucial import for them is lying piled up at the ports - some restaurant-owners have been driven to bankruptcy. But this dispensation, fixated on subsidising exports, is unable to see how free trade, not import substitution, is essential for "Make in India". 

Free trade keeps productivity high, and embeds India in global manufacturing supply chains. But this basic logic is lost on the government. 

The reason is not hard to see, and is because of the social-policy DNA of the government. 

To the xenophobic, imports are dangerous. To those paranoid about national strength, only exports are good, not trade. 

Most tragic perhaps is the state of the human resource development (HRD) ministry. HRD Minister Smriti Irani has been somewhat needlessly attacked for her ministry's missteps, such as pushing Sanskrit at the cost of German in central schools. 

The truth is that she is implementing her party's and her boss' agenda. On his own website,, speeches are archived of Mr Modi saying that "to foster a child and inculcate good habits in him, teach him 500 Sanskrit maxims & ask him to speak, write, read & discuss in Sanskrit" and that Sanskrit needed to be learnt because the "solution to almost all the problems of the world [is] in scriptures, including recent developments like global warming". 

(Mr Modi added, "Whatever we learn in Science and whatever new discoveries are being made related to planetary orbits, activity of the Earth and the Sun, distance between two planets - all this has already been carried out by our ancestors long time back in the past.") 

Why blame Ms Irani for doing what the prime minister expects of her? Note: forcing Sanskrit into our schools is not merely about reacquainting students with India's classical heritage; if it were, we would also insist on options for classical Tamil or Kannada or Indo-Persian or Pali, notably absent in the BJP's agenda. 

The great tragedy here, of course, is that the HRD ministry should be the place that is panicking the most. Over 10 million people join the workforce every year without the skills they need. Nobody imagined that one of those skills is Sanskrit. Nobody, that is, except for Mr Modi and his party. 

We argue that Mr Modi and his party have been elected for jobs and reform. This may be true. But all I can say is: look at the empirical evidence. Look at the evidence of what they actually do and with what alacrity to see why they think they have been elected. 

And if you do, a very different picture emerges. Economic policy reform is not, and never has been, the number one priority.

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