So, even as the economy is certified by the Reserve Bank governor to be on the mend, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to take the country into a digital age with more e-governance, it is the daily stumbles of ministers and mandarins that are attracting greater attention.
While these missteps may be difficult to prevent, given the casual manner in which rules tend to be flouted by the rich and powerful, a prompt and decisive intervention from the highest levels will be an effective counter to the impression that the government is being overwhelmed by various problems.
The prime minister’s decision to step into the rumpus caused by the deplaning of passengers in Leh, Ladakh, to accommodate VIPs is a sign that the norms are being tightened.
But there has to be more such steps at a time when the various controversies range from la’affaire Lalit Modi to the mysterious deaths of the accused and witnesses associated with a scam in Madhya Pradesh to the holding up of an international flight so that a member of a chief minister’s staff can fetch his passport from home or the non-submission of e-tenders (even as e-governance is being hailed) by a Maharashtra minister for the purchase of fire extinguishers.
Collectively, the drip-drip of allegations can erode the government’s image. It will not be until the economy reaches a high plateau of an 8-9 percent growth rate, or the prime minister’s fabled penchant for enforcing discipline begins to visibly bear fruit on more than one occasion, that the government will be able to breathe easily.
The only success which the government has been able to achieve so far is to prevent a major communal flare-up. This accomplishment cannot but disappoint Congressmen like Mani Shankar Aiyar who was hoping for a “Godhra moment” to tarnish Narendra Modi’s name.
Related to this achievement is the government’s success in taming the saffron hotheads. As a result, the incidents of ‘ghar wapsi’ and ‘love jehad’ have tapered off, suggesting that a stern message is all that is needed to bring the doctrinaire elements to book.
What is curious, however, is why the government has been unwilling to take pre-emptive action against the fundamentalists so that they will not be able to queer the pitch to start with.
Had that been done, much of its image problems could have been avoided. The anticipatory steps might have been expected since the umbilical connections between those in the government and the extremists outside would have warned the former what to expect.
Yet, we have the instances of madrasas (Muslim schools) being downgraded in Maharashtra or the National Investigative Agency’s lawyers being asked to go slow on Hindu militants, which cannot but reinforce the perception of the government being guided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Arguably, by the time the economy picks up and the daily gaffes are curbed, the next general election will not be far away. In the meantime, the state elections in Bihar, Assam, West Bengal and elsewhere, apart from the various by-elections, may not always yield results in the BJP’s favour, thereby denting its confidence.
Since the run-up to a general election is not the time to take what may be unpopular decisions, whatever the government has to do on the economic front has to be done now. If any “bitter medicine” is to be administered, as the prime minister said right at the beginning of his tenure, this is the time for it to be given.
But as long as the government continues to grapple with the various controversies, any movement even on ushering in governance via mobile phones, as Modi promised, or ensuring Swachh Bharat, let alone on the economy, will be tentative.
What the fate of the Congress in the last general election has shown is that the government must always be proactive about its plus points. Otherwise, an accumulation of negative impressions can be fatal.
As is known, the poverty reduction under the Manmohan Singh government was the fastest in the country’s history. This was stated by none other than the present government’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian. Notwithstanding this remarkable achievement, the Congress crashed to its worst defeat in its history simply because the many scams, big and small, undermined the party’s and the government’s credibility.
If the Modi government wants to avoid a similar outcome, it will have to match its performance with promise. And the promise is not only the one on economic growth but also on transparency in official functioning based on trust and credibility.
However, trust cannot be gained by rejecting a Right to Information (RTI) application seeking details on the former cricket impresario, Lalit Modi’s passport. Nor can it be enhanced if a minister of state in the external affairs ministry accuses those seeking such information as conducting a “supari” (contract) operation.
This was the point which L.K. Advani made when he recalled how he resigned when a momentary shadow was cast on his reputation with the mention of his name in a hawala transaction.
Considering that the octogenarian leader is expected to indicate the marg or path which the party should follow, his advice should not be ignored.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)