This is not a column to assess the performance of the new govern ment. One month is simply not enough to judge or perform a meaningful analysis. However, one month is enough to peek into the working style of the new w announcements and controver sarkar. The few announcements and controversies give us an insight into what the attitudes and actions of the government are likely to be in the coming months and years.
The first meaningful analysis of government’s policies could possibly occur on July 10, when it presents a new budget. It will be the first bag of tricks the government will open. If it has to make a mark, it needs to have some radical pro-business announcements, helping every entrepreneur ranging from a billion dollar FDI investor to the college guy with a start-up. Lower taxes, regulations and government interference will help as well as incentives to locate to smaller cities, lending growth to interiors and easing stress on the big cities.
Let’s see what July 10 brings. For now, let’s look at certain signs the government exhibited in the past month.
One, it has been more silent than people expected. The noisiness of the election campaign, a rather visual and vocal style of governance adopted not so long ago by AAP, and the attacks by the BJP on the silence of the previous PM made citizens believe this government will talk more than it actually did. The new Modi government is somewhat silent. Is it good or bad? Well, it is too early to tell. Silence, as in let us be quiet and do our work, can be a virtue. Silence can also be a device to dodge accountability, as evidenced in the previous government. Being silent or vocal is a balance that has to be struck on a case-by-case basis. For now, I think people are a little surprised at the sudden huddle of silence in the BJP which, until two months ago, felt almost anything the
Congress did needed comment.
Two, there is an aura of authority and discipline created in the government and babu circles.
Government employees have been asked to come on time, clean their desks and in general work better. Is it a good thing? Well, yes for the most part. One of the reasons the Indian middle-class liked Modi was the proverbial ‘danda’ or stick he would wield on the stereotypical lazy babus. However, the reason for our babus’ sub-optimal performance is not only because nobody has a ‘danda’ on them. The incentive structure is warped, the arbitrary transfer system is onerous and there is an undercurrent of disdain and mistrust among babus for the political class. Until these issues are fixed, efficiency will not improve. Management by fear only goes so far.
Three, there have been some communication mistakes. The prime example is the rail price hike and how it was announced. There are two separate issues here — the hike and its communication. A railway tariff increase is long overdue and justified. However, a knee-jerk hike of 15% and Mumbai local train passes rising 100% overnight without proper communication is hardly the best political move. There weren’t enough explanations given, or regret expressed.
No other measures to increase revenues were suggested. For instance, the railways own land worth billions. A structured land sales programme could create a lot of cash flow. All we are told is ‘bitter medicine’ is necessary, and it won’t even be delivered with compassion. It was shoved down people’s throats.
As expected, the decision didn’t go down well, even with the party’s own MPs and the government was forced to rollback on part of the scheme. But they’re lucky. Given its ‘nayi bahu’ status, people kept silent. Also, it enjoys an extraordinarily weak opposition in the Congress and its key mascot Rahul Gandhi. If the opposition was better organized, they could have had a field day over this move.
The broader issue is this. How did such a PR disaster occur so early in the new regime? Did nobody say doubling rail fares in Mumbai overnight would be a terrible idea? Did nobody say raising fares 3.5% a quarter for a year is the same as one-time 15% rise? Or that let us also sell some of the land the railways own? Or if we should offer more and better services to people first if we want them to pay more tariffs? What is the issue? Is it that the government is smug? Or does nobody in the BJP raise their hand anymore? Is the party that once encouraged differences now slowly doing what their opponents did — being silent and enjoying the gravy train? Nobody knows the answer yet. Time will tell.
After all, nayi bahu or nayi sarkar, doesn’t remain nayi forever. The honeymoon phase ends. After that, bahu or sarkar, has to manage not only actions but also expectations.