There is much that we certainly did not expect from the Modi sarkar
“We had an emperor on 27th of May 2014,” said industrialist Rahul Bajaj in an interview to NDTV, “but the shine seems to be wearing off.” The Emperor image was perfect for Narendra Modi on 15 August 2014 when he delivered his maiden speech as prime minister (PM), from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort, in a regal red-and-green safa (headgear). When you read this column, the PM would have delivered his second Independence Day (I-day) speech. Many of us, who had scrambled to switch on our television sets to hear the PM on I-day, for the first time ever, are no longer so enthused.
On the positive side, the PM has done well to energise India’s relationship with many nations during his frenetic foreign visits and to connect with the vast Indian diaspora. Mr Modi also earned kudos for raising the issue of latrines and sanitation on I-day and for following it up with the Beti Bachao (save our daughters) campaign. His call to post a ‘selfie with daughter’ touched people across the country.
The Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) was another big I-day announcement with the laudable objective of bringing 40% of unbanked Indians into the formal banking system with a no-frills account, debit card and an insurance cover of Rs1 lakh. According to the PMJDY website, nearly 470 million accounts had been opened at the end of July 2015 and a whopping Rs20,769 crore has been deposited in these accounts. Are these really unbanked Indians rushing to deposit their money in the safety of banks? Or is a PMJDY account a way to avoid scrutiny by the tax authorities due to its lax KYC (know your customer) rules? Only time will tell. The PM followed this up with two more insurance schemes (accident cover and health insurance) at very attractive premiums.
Unfortunately, a series of successful events, product launches and international visits does not make up for a series of mis-steps and inexplicable actions. The government seems badly advised about issues that it needs to prioritise in parliament and outside. It has failed to revitalise the economy, despite the benefit of a sharp fall in oil and gold prices and a decent monsoon. Its failure to manage parliament put it in the ignominious position of allowing the 44-member Congress party to lead a rag-tag opposition to boycott parliament and stall its key bills. But, worse, nobody has a clue why this is happening.
Mr Modi lampooned his predecessor by referring to him as ‘Maun-mohan Singh’ but his silence on several key issues has begun to rankle just as much. Why are so many top public sector banks (PSBs) headless for 13 months when their gross bad loans are set to touch Rs4 lakh crore, and a whopping Rs70,000 crore has been committed for their recapitalisation over the next four years (in addition to Rs45,000 crore in the past four years)? Why is accountability of government-owned banks not a priority for Modi sarkar?
Many of us cheered when the PM announced his plan to shut down the Planning Commission last August. But NITI Aayog, the renamed Planning Commission, is not even Modi sarkar’s primary think tank. According to The Economic Times, the government will dole out nearly Rs500 crore in fees to the Big Four audit and consulting firms—PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Deloitte and KPMG—along with strategy firms such as McKinsey, The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Bain & Company by March. This ‘quantum leap’ in engagements covers Make in India, Digital India, smart cities, Swachch Bharat and skill development. One would not grudge the money spent on consultants, if the government had used them to also produce white papers on various issues like the Black Money (Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets) and Imposition of Tax Bill, 2015, the rollout of the Goods & Services Tax (GST), and to draw up an action plan for implementation of new policies. Had this been done, the government may have avoided a serious loss of face on the amendment to the The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013 (commonly known as the Land Bill) which may now be dropped. A consultant’s study may have exposed the myth that land acquisition is holding back economic development. There is plenty of land under the control of sick public sector undertakings that can be imaginatively redeployed for new industries with some smart planning and out-of-the-box thinking. But the government seems disinclined to look at such options.
R Jagannathan, a senior editor, has correctly pointed out that the rollout of the GST will be fraught with teething problems in the first couple of years. Its impact on traders, BJP’s big support group, and their reaction is still unknown. Yet, Mr Modi seems to have staked so much on it.
Then there is the Black Money Bill which gives rather draconian powers to tax authorities. Moneylife Foundation had flagged these issues in April. BJP leader, Dr Subramaniam Swamy, then said, “I agree that the Bill contains some harshness and powers may be misused by revenue officials. The Bill is more like an I-T Bill and de facto amnesty scheme. The amnesty would also be dropped and in the end it will be just empowerment of I-T officials.” He also said there is nothing to stop the generation of fresh black money. Leading advocate Anil Harish told us how several of his clients were exploring foreign citizenship to avoid the draconian provisions of the Bill. The same thought was echoed by Rahul Bajaj in his interview to NDTV. A report by Ambit Capital says that several Indian businessmen, heading medium and small industries, as well as MNC executives may prefer to leave the country to avoid taxtortion under the Black Money Bill.
The biggest worry for many of us is the repeated autocratic disregard of Supreme Court’s (SC’s) order against mandating biometric-based Aadhaar identification through the backdoor. If that weren’t enough, the government was planning to push through the Human DNA Profiling Bill 2015 in the monsoon session of parliament. In fact, the advocate general even argued that right to privacy is not a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution.
On 11th August, a three-member SC bench said that Aadhaar can only be used for PDS, kerosene and LPG distribution. Personal information collected under Aadhaar cannot be shared by any authority, except for criminal investigation that too with the permission of the court. A Constitutional Bench will separately decide the larger question of whether collecting biometric data for preparing Aadhaar cards infringed on individual privacy and if the right to privacy was a fundamental right.
The UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) project was the brainchild of Nandan Nilekani on the false premise that it will provide an identity to India’s rural, illiterate poor. Activists say that, in response to an RTI query in April 2015, it is learnt that only 219,000, out of 835 million Aadhaar numbers issued, were for those who did not have any other identity proof, i.e., only 0.03%.
When they were in the opposition, both, Mr Modi and Arun Jaitley, were against Aadhaar. If something convinced the PM to change his mind about the efficacy of Aadhaar after assuming power, doesn’t he owe people an explanation?
Finally, what do we make of the brazen display of State aggression against Maggi noodles? The PM has maintained a studied silence over the treatment of an MNC, even as reports have come in from laboratories in India and overseas that there is nothing wrong with the noodles. Having forced a huge loss on the company and damaged its reputation, the consumer affairs ministry, which seldom stirs itself to act, has filed a class action suit before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission seeking Rs640 crore in damages.
If the Congress alarmed investors with the way Vodafone was hounded, then the handling of Nestlé makes a mockery of Mr Modi’s call to Make in India. But the PM hasn’t uttered a word. Well, this is certainly not what we expected from the Modi sarkar.
(Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She can be reached at [email protected])