When a new Prime Minister takes over the reins of power in a country of more than a billion people, he would normally be entitled to a bit of breathing space to settle down, gather together a team of ministers and aides, study the challenges, formulate the strategies and get down to implementing them. But for Narendra Modi there seems to have been no such period of indulgence from the public, the press and rival political parties. Almost from the day he assumed office on May 26, after an emphatic victory in the parliamentary elections, he has been under pressure tostart delivering on his promise of providing good governance and ushering in a new era of progress and prosperity.
Even though just five weeks have elapsed out of his five year term, Narendra Modi is already being subjected to searching questions about his government’s policies, programmes and priorities. Each of his moves and pronouncements so far are being closely examined and dissected and commented upon. Such is the weight of public expectations of a rapid transition from policy paralysis to fast-track revival and resurgence that the first inklings of impatience seem to be creeping into the post-poll mood of eager anticipation. The truth is that the Modi government has hit the ground running on several fronts. Strong signals have been sent out galvanize the government machinery and inculcate a new work ethic. A result-oriented chain of command has been spelt out, related Ministries have been clubbed and Ministers have been instructed to talk less and work more. Investor-friendly policies have been promised and a series of industry-friendly incentives are in the pipeline.
While there has been general appreciation that such steps are in the right direction, some other decisions and actions taken have raised quite a few eyebrows. Among these are the attempt to make the use of Hindi mandatory, the raking up of the debate on Article 370 vis-à-vis Jammu & Kashmir, the move to change Governors in several States and the inability to control rising inflation. For the man in the street, the sudden hike in railway fares hardly augurs the “achche din” he had been led to expect would come soon. To be fair to the Prime Minister, nobody can blame him for not giving advance warning to the people that the good days he had promised during his election campaign will not materialize overnight. Foe he will have to first diagnose what’s wrong with the country, the economy, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the educational institutions, etc., etc., Then, he will have to set things right by administering some “bitter medicine”. There might even have to be some surgery and blood-letting. No pain, no gain. It looks like things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.
Nor can anyone accuse Modi of inaction or complacency. He has already taken several harsh measures. Import duty on raw sugar has been raised from 15 percent to 40 percent to protect the interests of the cane-growers; it is another matter that retail prices of sugar have spiraled by 40 percent for extraneous reasons like the truant monsoon. If Railway fares and freight rates have been hiked steeply, the intention behind it is to raise urgently-needed funds to upgrade services and safety.
On balance, there has been no dearth of tough decisions within the first five weeks of coming to power. The message has gone out that this is a government that works. Clearly, more non-populist measures will have to be pushed through before the political capital of public goodwill dries out. As the Prime Minister himself said: “I am well aware that my steps may dent the immense love that the country has given to me. But when my countrymen realize that these steps would result in getting the country’s financial health back, then I will regain that love …”. However, with the first murmurs of doubts and misgivings beginning to be heard in party and government circles, the feeling is growing among his supporters that Modi needs to reach out to the public and explain the rationale behind some of the hard decisions being taken. Th e general perception is that it was his extraordinary communication skills on the poll campaign trail that established a direct connect with the public at large and won him such a decisive election victory. In contrast, over the past month, probably due to his preoccupations with the task of getting to grips with the business of governance, Modi seems not to have had the time to maintain direct contact with ordinary citizens. Already, the relentless rise in prices of items of daily consumption is causing concern in some sections of society. High prices are pinching the people where it hurts the most. And some of the government’s controversial decisions are also causing misgivings in some quarters. Even though the general view among the people is that one month is too short a time to judge a new government, this may not be the case two or three months down the line, particularly if a sub-normal monsoon adds to the woes of the farming community, and by corollary, to the woes of the common man too.
One suggestion that has been doing the rounds is that Narendra Modi should get back into ‘directcommunication-mode’ with the people. Th is is what he does best. But since he cannot revert to the tried and tested formula of addressing public rallies all over the country, with his awe-inspiring oratory and dapper designer kurtas, perhaps he should consider a regular weekly talk on national media to reignite his personal rapport with the people. He could also utilize social media to keep the country updated on various issues, take people into confidence on the challenges his government is facing, and share some inkling of the steps that are being envisaged. Most observers feel that since Modi’s gift of the gab is one of his strongest assets, he will be able to carry public opinion with him as he sets about ringing in drastic policy changes and re-jigging institutional mechanisms. Th is would help to stave off the danger of growing public disillusionment and discontent. Some commentators are even harking back to the days of the Great Depression in the United States, when the then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his “Fireside Chats” – a series of radio addresses – to speak directly to the American people and explain his diffi cult economic and social policy choices. It is being suggested that Modi would do well to take a leaf out of Roosevelt’s book, as he leads the nation out of the present crisis-ridden diffi cult phase. It appears that Narendra Modi himself is not unaware of the need to communicate with the people more often and more directly, rather than rely on the fickle Indian media to give its own spin on potentially controversial government decisions. Last Thursday, the Prime Minister took the first step by outlining his agenda in a blog post on the Internet. Ostensibly, the blog was written to mark the completion of his government’s first month in office. But the aim was clearly to counter some of the charges that are beginning to be leveled against his policies by Opposition parties and sections of the media alike.
This is borne out by the fact that the Prime Minister directly referred to the murmurs of criticism that are already starting to be heard. In his characteristically blunt style, Modi says: “A big challenge I am facing in Delhi is to convey to a select group of people about our intentions and sincerity to bring a positive change in this country”. He then referred to a 100-day honeymoon period that is usually granted by critics to any new government: “Forget 100 days, the series of allegations in our case have begun in less than a 100 hours”. Without naming names, Modi went on to elaborate: “These are people who are both within and outside the government system. Th ere have been some instances in the last month with which our Government had nothing to do, yet these controversies have persisted”. He added signifi cantly: “I don’t blame anybody, but I surely feel that we need to strengthen systems whereby the right things are communicated to the right people at the right time,” thereby dropping a hint that this blog post may perhaps be the first of a series. As the price of onions in big cities gallops towards the 100 rupee a kilo danger-level and the El Nino effect spreads pessimism in the crop-growing hinterland, the time seems to be ripe for another dose of direct connect NaMo magic to revive the morale of the faithful.