Why Modi still stands tall

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Why Modi still stands tall

Tuesday, 01 December 2020 | Bindu Dalmia

Why Modi still stands tall

The answer lies in his minutiae precision on last-mile micro-management of 269 key projects, down to the district level percolation

As we enter the last month of a calamitous year, my year-end musings have been pivotted around the key question —What led to a surge in Modi’s popularity while the opposite happened to the elected leaders of US and UK? Why did his persona prevail despite the pandemic challenging resources and policies? I would say that he kept the response specific to our reality rather than promising the moon and went in for long-term transformative measures that would equip the nation against any such unforeseen crisis in the future.

Trusteeship paradigm of governing the largest democracy: At the recently concluded G20 summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a new global index based on “respecting nature in the spirit of trusteeship of Mother Earth.” His collaborative response in sync with multi-lateral institutions to prioritise ESG-centric concerns (based on the tri-pillar of environment, sustainability and governance) commits to a much-needed collective responsibility of all nations in managing the planet’s resources.

By the same yardstick, the Prime Minister’s post-pandemic management of his own country has paved the way for a new and distinct style of governing democracies on a similar “trusteeship paradigm.” When benchmarked against global counterparts, Modi’s crises-management places him in the league of the tallest global leaders for coming across as a trustee-head of the nation, who from the beginning, remained visible, accountable, admonishing, nudging and persuasive. At the same time, he was empathetically “shepherding his people, instead of resorting to punitive measures that would have regressed economic recovery.”

Democracies, noticeably for the last five years, have mutated their strains, deviating from the original concept of fair, inclusive and participative governance to morphing into illiberal and totalitarian regimes. Viewed in this context, a “trusteeship model of democracy” is in sharp contrast to the ascent of authoritarian leaders, even in the most advanced democracies.

Was the Modi-led Government’s response to the crisis financially adequate? This will remain a subjective question as developed countries had greater flexibility for welfarist measures to cushion vulnerable sections of society. In contrast, injecting four stimulus packages worth 10 per cent of the GDP to fire up the economy was the extent to which the Government could stretch its limits, with the fiscal deficit doubling to 7.7 per cent of the GDP.

Were India’s containment measures and public messaging of the Covid crisis the best? Certainly not, when compared to Vietnam, Taiwan, Canada, Germany or New Zealand.

Was Modi’s early lockdown proactive or premature? Initially, the response to relief and rehabilitation was ad-hoc and knee-jerk. But then the Government swung into streamlining Centre-State coordination for DBTs and food grains reaching 800 million people.

During disaster management, it is impossible to forecast the duration or depths of force majeure damages as no leader can possibly see the end of the tunnel clearly when adversities strike. While the US and the UK’s health infrastructure is ranked among the best by the Global Health Security Index, India’s “mortality rate per million” remained among the lowest.

Modi’s popularity: Modi 2.0 in 2020 is a distinctly changed persona, in image, in demeanour, in electoral rhetoric, in elevating the national agenda above narrow political, ideological or populist gains, and in taking the moral high ground at international fora by demanding the reform of archaic multilateral institutions.

As we enter the last month of a calamitous year, one is compelled to assess just what was it about Modi that he not only retained but exponentially widened his electoral base as seen in the recently-concluded Bihar elections, despite a severely pandemic-ravaged economy? Because 2020 was a year that savagely punished elected leaders for acts of omissions in administering inadequate relief and rehabilitation, while outrightly rejecting Trump for remaining in denial of a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale.

The answer lies in Modi’s minutiae precision on last-mile micro-management of 269 key projects, down to the district level percolation. As India approaches the delivery stage of the vaccine, Modi’s forward-planning is becoming more job-stepped by visiting vaccine hubs to fine-tune distribution mechanisms, down to assessing the availability of cold storage chains and ancillary equipment like syringes.

India ready for economic take-off? In January 2021, the levers of global growth are expected to rebalance more favourably towards a partial return to globalisation, which is a distinct reversal from the economic insularity of the Trump era. With President-elect Joe Biden taking charge next month, economic recovery is expected to accelerate with the liberalisation of international trade as America regains its leadership as the primary engine of growth, instead of China, which augurs well for global recovery.

India is now uniquely positioned for a faster climb-back after a contraction of -7.5 per cent, with the grounds being laid to expand economic activity. Optimism for an economic rebound is based on the structural reforms undertaken in 2020, the lowered rate of corporate taxation, a stable currency backed by strong foreign reserves, vibrant FDI flows of £35.73 billion and the Finance Minister’s nudge to increase CAPEX spending by public sector enterprises to drive economic growth. Sustained buoyancy will, of course, depend on the budgetary proposals and the efficacy of the vaccine in controlling future surges.

Going beyond crisis management, the Government needs to scale up human resource capital and find newer avenues for raising capital resources.

Second, if we aspire to make India a “Plus One” investment destination, gaps must be plugged for delays in contract enforcement.  India takes 1,440 days to implement contracts against 150 days in Singapore. We need to hasten dispute resolution and follow Vietnam’s example of allocating large land parcels on lease/rent/ mortgage.

Third, the pandemic forces a relook at our woefully inadequate investment in healthcare, education and labour-skilling, all of which are State subjects and constitute three vitals of the Human Resource Development index. The Centre and States need to work more closely to incentivise private participation in education and healthcare by not restricting brick and mortar hospitals and universities to compulsory compliance with “not-for-profit agenda,” as any prospective investor will look for a lucrative return on capital.

Removing the regulatory restrictions on “not-for-profit” institutions in education will create a facilitative environment for private participation by big domestic and overseas brands, build optimal capacities and bring in technology while lowering costs per-child per-annum.

UNDP estimates that the total financial requirement for India to reach SDG 4 by 2030 is $173 billion per year, as against the current budgeted outlay of $76 billion annually for education.

The education sector will see explosive growth if Modi’s plans to turn 1.2 million schools into “smart classrooms” is implemented by connecting 60,000 villages within three years with high-speed optic fibre. The Ministry of Electronics and IT is contemplating a public-private business model for this visionary project, which will lower the cost of education per child through e-learning.

In order to evolve as a knowledge-based economy and transit towards optimal digitisation, the Modi Government has made great strides to push brand India into the top 50 countries club in the Global Innovation Index for the first time. Our higher education institutions have improved their global rankings and in the Employability Rankings 2020 Index, India has scaled up to the 15th position globally. However, we need to scale up to skill/re-skill 40 crore people by 2022 in order to match up to the pace of virtualisation which is a key enabler for economic recovery as these measures remain a work-in-progress.

I conclude this analysis by paraphrasing an opinion from The New York Times, which lauded Modi’s initiatives by stating that he fared “better than many peers because he acted decisively, pre-emptively and relatively early...Modi’s success, analysts say, may be more durable. He’s widely seen as a mobiliser, not a despot...”

(The author is a columnist and Chairperson for the National Committee on Financial Inclusion at the Niti Aayog)

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