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The Underachiever

The Underachiever

From an ancient nation that was a pioneer in astronomical science and leader in medical and textile technology to a mediaeval society that became so complacent that one invader after another colonised it, India finally became a country in modern history freed from an imperial power this day 70 years ago. While the antiquity of the nation is still a matter of research by geologists, archaeologists, anthropologists and palaeontologists alike — discounting the opinions of historians — we must concentrate on the present; for sitting pretty on past laurels would take us back to the dark era when our smugness had halted the wheels of civilisation, blunted the edge of our military might and invited successive conquerors from central Asia and Europe. In this day and age, it is the post-Independence narrative that matters. Whereas Jawaharlal Nehru and his legacy created behemoths in the shape of Stalinist institutions and factories, the entrepreneurial skills of the small and medium-scale couldn’t flourish, burdened with insurmountable entry and sustenance barriers of permits and licences. Worse, politics became a game of sycophancy for politicians during the era of Nehru’s daughter and communities took turns for entitlements in the dispensation of his grandson. Most regretfully, two hostile neighbours continue to lay claims on parts of the Indian territory. Beyond the south Asian neighbourhood, we were further saddled by a wrong choice of friends; the hypocrisy and worthlessness of the Non-Aligned Movement apart, nobody doubted we were on the losing side during the Cold War. It took half a century to usher in a PV Narasimha Rao under compulsion and an Atal Bihari Vajpayee of conviction followed again, unfortunately, by a decade of recession of the advocates of market freedom. Thanks to the near simultaneous rise of an able administrator of Gujarat, an overwhelming public endorsement of his prime ministerial candidacy eventually brought an end to the epoch of gloom. Or so one thought! In the meantime, while the last 25 years have seen the breed of pro-market people grow, India has yet to see a statesman who champions the cause of individual liberty. To that extent, our freedom is limited indeed.

One is not sure of the middle and long-term plans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi even as everybody who is anybody is presuming he will get a second term. The current term is certainly a socialist one, with all indicators predictably exuding modesty. Presuming that Modi is building a launch pad comprising a critical mass of competitors for a future of open markets, this socialism displays his foresight. The other probability is that he has reduced to being just another politician, cultivating so many vote-banks like the poor, the Gandhians, the samajwadis, etc that, in due course, he would disremember where he had come from. A Gujarati swayamsevak whose provincial identity was, to his votaries, as promising as his organisational affiliation was important!

Modi cannot yet be dismissed as a flagbearer of status quo. He has done almost everything that was reasonably expected of him. A sense of ennui is gradually setting in among a class of his voters because of his incremental approach to reforms. He confesses he is wary of trade unions. He does not challenge triple talaq; instead, he waits for the court to ask his government to speak up against the social evil. He does not abrogate Article 370; he rather triggers a debate on Article 35A to find excuses to tackle the greater problem. There is no palpable change in the condition of health of the citizens. The Right to Education Act, which makes education inaccessible and expensive for the underprivileged, sees no sign of revision. Modi wants the young to take to business, but he makes a bunch of bureaucrats the arbiters of their destiny while dispensing Mudra loans and kick-starting Stand Up India. He does not stop leaky welfare schemes; he desperately tries to plug the holes. He does not have the courage to say he is selling Air India; he instead makes some friendly journalists create an atmosphere conducive to the sale, which his Finance Minister Arun Jaitley calls “strategic disinvestment”; the politically incorrect term “privatisation” is cleverly avoided. He embraces Israel, but cannot say India has had enough of Palestine… In the absence of sudden, big changes, under the reign of all-powerful tax inspectors, the patience of the middle class is running thin even as they keep his popularity ratings high because of another absence: that of a viable opposition. The tentative nature of change and the tendency of circumspection in the leader who was once perceived as a game changer are, one desperately hopes, providing an erroneous assessment of Modi. The society virtually fed off his hands when he had begun his innings, lapping up his lectures on the cleanliness of our cities and safety of the womenfolk. Once the prime minister realises again his talent for communication, his circumlocutions will give way to bold steps and their persuasive explanations. Maybe the nation’s premier can still afford underachievement; the nation can’t.

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