To recap, my first article was about how the BJP mistakenly believed it had found a foolproof formula to win elections. Just as the Congress thought povertarianism and doles plus the glamour of the Nehru-Gandhi name was sufficient to win them all elections, the BJP believes Modi plus the plank of ‘development’ is sufficient to win them all elections, overriding local factors, caste etc.
Basing their campaigns on this belief and attempting to fight state elections in the name of Modi is among the factors that lost the BJP two back-to-back elections in Delhi and Bihar.
This article will focus on the BJP’s policy agenda, particularly on the economic front- or the lack of it, because the BJP lacks one.
Throughout the 2014 elections, Rahul Gandhi looked clueless and confused, with no coherent vision or policy. Narendra Modi looked confident and purposeful, the man with a plan.
It looks no different even now, despite the electoral setbacks Modi has suffered.
Yet we know with frightening clarity what a UPA-3 government under Rahul Gandhi would look like. We can map out it’s agenda and policies. Reservations in the Private sector. The Communal Violence Bill. Possible there will be an equivalent of the RTE for Higher Education too, sounding the death-knell for Hindu-run institutions in higher education as the RTE has for primary education.
The legislative and policy agenda of a hypothetical UPA-3 government is crystal clear. And the intellectual ecosystem that will draft these laws lies in wait, ready to be called on when it is required. Not just that, this same ecosystem is at the coordinating the manufactured revolt of ‘intellectuals’ against the government. They helped slowly prepare the narrative in the run-up to the Bihar elections, and will now unleash a barrage of op-eds at the government blaming ‘intolerance’ for the Bihar defeat trying to force it to become Congress-lite.
Within months of the UPA coming to power in 2004, this ecosystem, with it’s most prominent members elevated to an extra-constitutional law-framing institution (the NAC) had an assortment of laws written and ready for the UPA to pass, in particular the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution.
Many of these laws even reversed setbacks the Congress ecosystem had suffered in the judiciary during the NDA period.
Thus, while Rahul Gandhi the individual may be clueless, the hydra-headed monster he heads is not. A UPA-3 government led by him will have a clear, definite agenda and policy direction.
By contrast, the BJP has made no effort to evolve a clear and coherent ideology on economic issues. Their economic policy can best be described as ad-hocism (i.e. that quintessentially Indian trait – jugaad). It could perhaps more charitably be described as pragmatism.
The BJP did not (and still has not) come up with any sort of coherent response to the economic policy agenda of the Congress. The only critique it could muster of the UPA’s loan waiver, MNREGA and Food Security Bill were that they did not go far enough in their largesse/cover enough people. Quite apart from the numerous problems with these moves, such a response comes across as petty carping to the voter, and also betrays a lack of any clear thinking or well-defined opinion on the issue.
The BJP is thus reactive rather than proactive in response to the UPA’s policy agenda when out of power, that much is clear. But what about when it is in office? Is it any better then?
Let us go over the significant components of the Modi government’s policy programme so far.
The government’s showpiece policy is the Jan Dhan Yojana (and more broadly, JAM- Jan Dhan-Aadhar-Mobile). The aim is to transfer subsidies and other benefits directly to bank accounts created under the PMJDY (Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana), thus reducing corruption and waste, saving the exchequer thousands of crores as well as making welfare spending more efficient. While this government has moved faster and more effectively than the UPA did in roll out and implementation, this is nothing but a continuation of the UPA’s efforts at DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer). As we will see, this is true of the Modi government’s entire policy agenda. All of it is either an effort to either implement the UPA’s plans better, or to fix damage created by the UPA. The BJP has no new policies or ideas of it’s own to offer beyond that as yet.
Nevertheless, the JAM, when implemented successfully, is likely to be a political trump card for Modi. Direct transfer of welfare benefits to rural voters is likely to be an electoral game changer, and also improve countless lives.
A key component of JAM is Aadhar. When in Opposition, the BJP had vociferously opposed Aadhar and raised numerous concerns regarding it. And yet now the party seems to have done a complete U-turn on the issue, and it has not even bothered to explain the reasons for it’s sudden embrace of Aadhar to the public, nor did it make any attempt to reassure the public regarding the concerns it had earlier raised.
Aadhar seems to be on it’s way to becoming yet another essential document that forms part of the never-ending paperwork that is the bread-and-butter of the Indian babudom. In my opinion if the government wants to truly use Aadhar to make the lives of Indian citizens easier, it should work towards Aadhar becoming a single comprehensive ID proof that replaces all the other various documents that are currently required for various procedures. Sadly, it looks like Aadhar will end up becoming yet another of them.
The Modi government’s biggest achievement on the economic front is undoubtedly the successful conduct of the coal auctions and the revamping of the coal sector, reversing to a large extent the damage done by the coal scam. Yet even this was ultimately a reaction by the BJP to a mess leftover by the UPA. And it was essentially reform by stealth.
The GST (Goods And Sales Tax) has been crawling towards implementation through the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments, and under the Modi government, it is finally close to fruition. And yet there is no clarity over the specifics of the proposed GST, or it’s clauses, or the GST rate.
A GST is not an end in and of itself; it is a means to an end. The motive behind attempting to have a GST is to simplify and streamline the tax structure. A high GST, or one with many exceptions is worse than no GST at all. And yet the Modi government seems to be treating the GST as an end in itself. Not just that, it seems likely we will end up with a very high GST rate, and this could mean that the GST could end up doing more harm than good.
The knots the BJP tied itself into over the LAB (Land Acquisition Bill) are yet another example of this tendency of the BJP to react to the agenda set by it’s opponents rather than set the agenda itself. Firstly, it is ridiculous that rolling back some of the more harmful clauses of a law passed just a couple of years ago was touted as a ‘reform’.
Secondly, the BJP was foolish in allowing the law to pass in the first place. The BJP voted for the very clauses they later decided to amend. Whether this shows lack of foresight or sheer stupidity, I leave it to you to judge.
The UPA pushed the law through just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, hoping to reap electoral benefits. That the BJP could not delay the bill for a few months with an extremely unpopular government in power speaks volumes about it’s performance as an Opposition party. The Congress has managed to grind the BJP’s legislative agenda to a halt with just 44 members in Parliament.
In fact, Mamata Banerjee had managed to singlehandedly stall the Land Acquisition bill in 2011 with just 19 Lok Sabha members and push it back by two years.
Having decided to amend the Land Acquisition laws, the BJP tried to force changes through Parliament, when it clearly did not have the numbers to do so. Not just that, bringing such a delicate and politically volatile issue to Parliament naturally brings it to national prominence. There was no way the BJP was possibly going to gain anything from this, yet it persevered with an endeavour that was doomed from the very beginning.
The right approach would have been to amend the laws as required at the states, several of which the BJP holds with commanding majorities in the legislature. The same approach should be followed with other reform measures like labour reforms etc that are likely to be unpopular. Lead by example, create a swathe of prosperity that will inspire the rest of India to follow suit.
The Modi government’s other big policy measures on the economic front have been it’s insurance schemes and the MUDRA bank, both of which are essentially welfare schemes. While they are better designed than UPA’s schemes and likely to be electorally beneficial, they do not fundamentally change anything about the Indian economy as such.
As we have seen, the Modi government’s entire policy agenda is either an attempt to more efficiently implement what the UPA failed to, or to correct the mess the UPA left behind. The Modi government has so far offered no new ideas or policy direction of it’s own (other than smart cities, which I will address in a later blog post). Even when it is in power, the BJP is reactive, playing within a framework drawn up by it’s opponents and defined by their agenda.
So the question is – has the BJP bothered to do any serious thinking on economic issues at all? Does it know where it stands on major economic issues? Does it have a concrete agenda regarding what it wants to change about India’s economic architecture over the course of the five-year mandate it has? Or perhaps its argument is that the UPA was right in it’s policies after all, and only efficiency and honesty in implementation was lacking?
In this article I have only managed to cover about a third of the planned scope of the article I set out to write, so there will be a few more articles forthcoming. As this one has grown too long already, I shall end it here. Coming articles will be more focused on what the BJP should be doing rather than pointing out the flaws with their approach.