Modi's Head Start: The First 100 Days by H.N. Bali SignUp

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Modi's Head Start: The First 100 Days
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

“In my beginning is my end.”
TS Eliot, East Coker

May I start this assessment of Narerndra Modi’s First Hundred Days in Office with three Americanisms? First, a word about each of them.

Have you ever run into the term DEF factor? Probably, not! It’s another American coinage which has invaded the language. It stands for the broad direction, energy and faith of what lies ahead. And there is hardly any doubt that Modi began his innings with a pronounced print of DEF factor.

Secondly, Head Start — the caption I’ve chosen for this piece — is also an Americanism. It means an advantage that you have or get when you are starting to do something. And Modi did indeed have one — the ground swell of unstinted nation-wide support to his ideas and programs.

Originally, Head Start Program was a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society campaign. It was a program of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families.

Launched in 1965 by its creator and first director Jule Sugarman, Head Start was originally conceived as a catch-up summer school program that would teach low-income children in a few weeks what they needed to know to start elementary school. The Head Start Act of 1981 expanded the program. The program was revised when it was reauthorized in December, 2007. Head Start is one of the longest-running programs attempting to address systemic poverty in the United States.

First Hundred Days

Thirdly, the enduring practice of discussing what a new Government in office did or failed to do, during its first 100 days in its attempt to resolve long-standing issues, providing thereby an indicator of what’s to expect of it in the months and years to come, is of American origin. Talking, however, about the performance of a government that is supposed to rule for five years, on the basis of 100 days, does sound a half-baked idea. And like most new-fangled ideas of governance, it is as American as Coca Cola is. However, it is a favorite of the media, which is always in search of a debatable issue.

The tool has been used by the public, the media, and scholars as a gauge of success and activism ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the 100-day concept when he took office in 1933. Confronting the calamity of the Depression, he had to move with unprecedented dispatch to address the stark problems he faced. Ever since then “The first hundred days of the New Deal have served as a model for future presidents of bold leadership and executive-legislative harmony,” observes Cambridge historian Anthony Badger in his FDR: The First Hundred Days.

Faced with the spreading catastrophe of the Depression in 1933, Roosevelt knew from the start that what Americans wanted most of all was reassurance that under his leadership, they could weather the storm. Amid shattering rates of unemployment, bank failures, and a widespread loss of confidence, FDR said in his inaugural speech March 4, 1933:

This nation asks for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.

Roosevelt quickly won congressional passage for a series of social, economic, and job-creating bills that greatly increased the authority of the federal government. In all, Roosevelt got 15 major bills through Congress in his first 100 days. “Congress doesn’t pass legislation anymore — they just wave at the bills as they go by,” said humorist Will Rogers.

Historian James McGregor Burns summed up this dazzling performance in The Lion and the Fox: “Never before had a president converted so many promises into so much legislation so quickly.”

Modi’s First 100 Days

The puppetry show of UPA had vastly devalued the office of the Prime Minister. Modi’s first task, therefore, was to entrench himself as a real Prime Minister with his hand firmly on the Helm to steer the ship of the State.

His trusted lieutenant and right hand man, Amit Shah, as BJP president has put Modi’s hold on the party beyond doubt. The two BJP stalwarts, Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, have been neatly checkmated and completely marginalized. Most importantly, there are no dual power centers: one at Nagpur attempting to guide the second in New Delhi.

Modi’s arguably is the most powerful PMO in history, one that routinely short circuits decision-making and leaves ministers scrambling to catch up. His measured and determined approach to governance suggests that change, as and when it comes, will be significant indeed.

It may be argued that there’s already over-centralization in the PMO. But a Prime Minister leading from the front and laying down the behavioral norms, targets and programs; has shored up sagging morale and imparted a new sense of purpose to the Government machinery. The fractured governance and policy paralysis that afflicted the UPA in its last two years desperately needed this course correction. It has been achieved by injecting in the system needed measures to restore some basic discipline and accountability.

The launch of the Jan-Dhan scheme in which 15 million bank accounts were opened on the first day itself, is initial evidence of restoration of effective governance. This is clearly the necessary condition for improving delivery of public services and implementing a more ambitious reform agenda.

Focus on People’s Power. The less discussed and least analyzed but probably the most crucial impact of foreign rule, has been to bring about social degradation of Indian society. And ironically, we haven’t in the last six and a half decades even discussed how to devise measures to correct our social distortions. Modi, through his Independence Day speech, has taken a big step in focusing public attention on social ills of the Indian society. He also called for public participation to address them. In doing so, Modi has emulated Lal Bahadur Shastri whose ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ call focused public participation to tackle forbidding social problems . Is it that, like his predecessor Lal Bahadur Shsastri, Modi too hails from non-elite segments of the society who fought their way up the political hierarchy?

No to Corruption. By stating categorically in blunt overtones that he will neither steal himself nor let anyone else do so, the Prime Minister has put on notice all those layers of vested interests which thrive on bribes and commissions in Delhi. Let’s not however forget that the rot is very deep and it will take Herculean effort to assure the public and investing community that henceforth, the Government will conduct business without what is widely labeled as ‘suvidha shukl’ or speed money. Once achieved, it has the potential to dramatically alter the investment climate for domestic and foreign investors and bring about a sea change in public service delivery.

Modi’s Independence Day address from the ramparts of Red Fort was undoubtedly a tour de force. The message was unambiguously clear: there was a real desire to use his mandate to make a difference. And this was kick-started by reforms in the country’s antiquated labor laws, some of which date back to pre-Independence. However, it has, strategically, left out the most controversial of them all — the Industrial Disputes Act, Chapter V B of which deals with retrenchment or hire and fire policy — for the future.

Strategic Reforms

Less than a month after taking charge, the new government began consultations on amending half a dozen legislations, including the Factories Act, the Labor Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers) Act and the National Minimum Wages Act. All these had been stalled for the past decade despite former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh often pointing out that the country’s labor laws needed first-generation reforms to keep pace with the industrial licensing reforms he initiated in 1991.

Singh had argued that these laws were the biggest stumbling block in creating jobs for the youth and in turning India into a manufacturing destination. The passage of the Apprenticeship Amendment Bill is widely seen as one of the biggest successes in steamrolling labor reforms.

The Rajasthan government is considered a path-breaker in this area and has successfully enacted amendments to the Factories Act, the Industrial Disputes’ Act, the Apprenticeship Act and the Contract Labor (Regulation and Abolition) Act.

Measures have been initiated to end the notorious ‘labour inspector raj’ to counter the all too frequent complaint from investors: “Why would you want to set up a factory in this country when you have to face tough retrenchment laws, arbitrary visits from labor inspectors and adhere to regulations specifying the number of spittoons you must have in your workshop?” .

Similarly, ending uncertainty of subscribers concerning the Employees’ Provident Fund Organization, the government speedily announced a Provident Fund rate of 8.75 per cent for the fiscal on August 26 — a first for an organization whose annual dividend was often announced after the end of the financial year under an indecisive UPA.

The NDA government has also notified a higher wage cap for mandatory PF benefits to employees, revising the Rs. 6,500 per month ceiling set in 2001 to Rs. 15,000 per month. .

Tough Decisions

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to take tough decisions that are necessary to salvage deteriorating situation. Some hard economic policy decisions had to be taken. A substantial hike in railway passenger fare is just one example. Another is continuation of the diesel price hike and allowing petrol prices to reflect changes in global oil prices. An encouraging sign is how these decisions were readily accepted by people. It is very likely that after the round of four State elections, there would be the long-due elimination of consumption subsidies to the middle classes.

Liberalization of FDI in defense production, railway infrastructure and insurance has removed fears that this Government will be under the sway of the swadeshi fringe within the Sangh Parivar.

End of plan panel. In one fell go the Planning Commission has been abolished. It was deemed as an anachronism in an economy that is increasingly globally integrated with the world economy and is largely driven by the private sector. It will, however, be important to ensure that the Commission’s replacement reinforces innovation and the creation of globally competitive capacities, particularly in the manufacturing sector, which must ensure creation of a globally comparable infrastructure.

Foreign Policy Thrusts

In foreign policy, the Government’s clear prioritization on neighborhood is the most significant development. It shows that India is prepared to take the responsibility for South Asia’s continued stability and prosperity. And this is amply borne out by the Prime Minister’s visits to Bhutan and Nepal. How to deny Pakistani establishment the use of Kashmir as a trump card, in dialogues and negotiations, appears to be the focus of Indo-Pak equation.

But even as Modi does diplomacy with Obama and the Chinese, he’s obviously at greater ease working with those attuned to his center-right vision, as with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Australian PM Tony Abbott. This is a coalition of the likeminded. There are plenty of areas where they can achieve fusion, nuclear as well as non-nuclear.

Work- in- progress includes efforts to improve the climate for doing business, introduction of the GST, establishing e-governance in major ministries and improving inter-ministerial coordination. Other areas of future thrust include labor market reforms; amendment of the land acquisition legislation; a comprehensive export promotion policy and policy measures for raising the share of manufacturing sector in GDP.

Modi Government seems to have taken a leaf out of the Chinese practice, recommended by that great reformist visionary, Xiaoping Deng , of ‘feeling the pebbles under the feet while crossing the river than try and do so in one big leap’. This will ensure avoidance of later disruption and higher social costs.

Legislative Program

In terms of law-making, the government got off to a passable start. A bill on judicial appointments was cleared. Above all, Parliament had returned to business after some extremely unproductive sessions.

The NDA’s maiden Budget was widely regarded as a safe exercise; fiscal difficulties hamstrung the finance minister and kept bold reform moves for another day. Inflation worries are aggravated by a poor monsoon.

On the whole, there’s little doubt that Modi administration has achieved far more in his first hundred days than any Government since 1947.

Certain Negatives

Howsoever impressive the above list of achievements may be, it cannot cancel out certain negatives of the first 100 days. The government still has to demonstrate any new ideas in tackling old issues that plague the polity. Despite tall poll promises to reining inflation, food prices remain high. Except issuing usual instructions to crack down on hoarders, which every government has been doing, Modi has not come up with any solution.

Similarly, despite having made promises of drastic change, Modi has continued with major UPA programs without even the pretense of amendment or modification. Aadhar, which BJP had been describing as a fraud to regularize illegal migrants, is being continued for direct benefits transfer schemes. UPA’s flagship rural jobs program, too, has been retained — at least for the time being. Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu defended the continuity: “If certain good steps were taken by the earlier government, do you mean to say that they should be abandoned? Government is a continuous institution. And we do not abandon or disband schemes because they were started by the UPA.”

Insiders admit that most ministers are yet to come to grips with their departments. All economic portfolios, except Jaitley’s finance, are handled by greenhorns: such Nirmala Sitharaman (Commerce) and Piyush Goyal (Power and Coal). And, above all, assigning two vital portfolios – Finance and Defense — to Jaitley, defies imagination. It is time Jaitley was divested of either finance or defense to be followed up by a full-fledged cabinet expansion. It’s again baffling how Gadkari can be handling two very important ministries - Surface Transport and Shipping as well as Rural Development.

While Modi has generally got good marks for his ministry’s first 100 days of governance, it is highly unlikely that this positive judgment will persist over the next 100 days if he does not expand his ministry pretty soon with competent people. Getting small-time ministers to run important ministries also means all decisions will end up on his table.

The Economist called Modi a one-man band, on account of his presidential style of functioning and however competent his PMO team is, this cannot endure over a long time.

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Comments on this Article


The Economist called Modi a one-man band, on account of his presidential style of functioning and however competent his PMO team is, this cannot endure over a long time. -

And remembering the lines of T.S.Eliot " In my beginning is my end "

the above as put down by Mr. H.H. BALI is worth thinking and reading.

kalyan ghosh

kalyan ghosh
09/24/2014 05:11 AM

Comment That I think is a balanced analysis, although Modi-baiters among the readers might like to argue to the contrary.

The pity is that Indians are looking at Modi's performance through the clouded glasses of the media, which is mostly biased against him. There is, therefore, a danger that they might lose their initial enthusiasm for him if the list on his flip side expands. Looking at the BJP reverses in recent polls, one has to really wonder if the ebb has already begun. God forbid. Let us pray the PM gets down to correcting the course.

09/18/2014 06:36 AM

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