Dinesh Sharma, Ph.D.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, said the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Perhaps, Prime Minister Modi can attest to this truism. As he has crisscrossed the globe since becoming Prime Minister — Bhutan, Brazil, Nepal, Japan, U.S., Burma, Australia, Fiji, Nepal, Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Singapore, France, Germany, and Canada — he has left far behind the trail stretching back to his humble origins. He is due to be in China, Mongolia, South Korea, and Russia later this year.
As PM Modi tries to remake India’s brand image, he’s been championing a “Make in India” manufacturing campaign and searching for new sources of energy to fuel India’s growth. While the Non-Resident Indians, also known as “Not-Really Indians,” or the Indian diaspora is elated at India’s newfound place in the world, the Modi-mania at home has been fading with discontent growing by the day. Some are even calling the Prime Minister’s Office (or the PMO), the Prime Minister Overseas.
Nowadays, in India people want instant karma; waiting for a lifetime to attain nirvana is the theoretical notion of antiquity and requires a lot of grinding struggle. The days when the Indian population could wait for a leader to prove his mettle through his long tenure are gone. In the age of instant connectivity the natives want instant results.
Can PM Modi deliver instant change in a society that is polytheistic, polymorphous and complex — in terms of class, caste, religion, gender and income — at every level of social organization? Will India’s polytheistic divisions hold India back in the 21st century? Will the Modi juggernaut continue to roll on or simply grind down to a creaking halt?
Under Modi’s Leadership:
After Modi’s landmark election, as expected, there was a significant increase in approval ratings of leadership (from 30% to 63%), according to Gallup, but the recent defeat of the BJP in the Delhi elections seem to have put an end to this rise.
India’s stock market, Sensex, which showed a significant increase (30%) after the Modi election is now showing signs of sluggish growth. While there is a significant increase in the perception that things are getting better (29% vs 45%), there is a sense that the suffering has not abated yet (28% vs 31%), according to Gallup. The gaps between the segments of the population that are seen as thriving (81%) vs struggling (66%) vs suffering (48%) have not improved, according to Gallup.
While PM Modi is seen as a man of action, his challenges remain significant. As President Obama said in recent Time magazine article:
“As a boy, Narendra Modi helped his father sell tea to support their family. Today, he’s the leader of the world’s largest democracy, and his life story — from poverty to Prime Minister — reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise. Determined to help more Indians follow in his path, he’s laid out an ambitious vision to reduce extreme poverty, improve education, empower women and girls and unleash India’s true economic potential while confronting climate change. Like India, he transcends the ancient and the modern — a devotee of yoga who connects with Indian citizens on Twitter and imagines a “digital India. … Prime Minister Modi recognizes that more than 1 billion Indians living and succeeding together can be an inspiring model for the world.”
Yet, the grounding realities of Indian politics may be encircling PM Modi already. His harshest critics are calling him the PM for the global Indians living abroad, whose corporate interests he is trying to safe-guard.
Only if India had no aspirations to be a global power, this may be seen as an insult or a “bad joke.”
Corporates vs. Farmers:
The recent roadblock to hit the Modi juggernaut is the land reform issue. For India to transform from an agricultural, subsistence-based economy to an industrial and information-age powerhouse, it would have to reform its land use. Farmers would give up some of their land for industrial development, in favor of an urban or semi-urban life-style and higher incomes.
Many farmers living in and around metropolitan centers, working day jobs in the urban centers while hiring migrant laborers to do the heavy farming, have been selling land to the government and other industries. Modi government wants to reform the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 passed by the Congress-led coalition and speed-up the pace of change. While some of the farmers have rallied against this policy change, and one has openly committed suicide as a form of protest, the opposition has found a voice to claim that the Modi government is corporatist, looking out for the interest of the rich and the powerful.
The farmer who committed suicide stated in a yet unauthenticated note, “Friends, I am a farmer’s son. I’m thrown out by my father because my crop is destroyed. I have three children. Please tell me, how do I go back to my home?” The note concluded with a slogan from 1965 war between India and Pakistan: “Hail the soldier, hail the farmer,” signed by Gajender Singh.
Modi has pushed the land reform early in the first year of his first term because it could potentially clear the way for steady economic growth, the emergence of smart cities, and greater direct foreign investment. However, it has mobilized the opposition and brought back Rahul Gandhi from his hibernation on the side of the poor farmers.
Congress MP and celebrity author Tharoor, in an opinion on NDTV, has hit back at Modi as out of touch with the common people, the rural poor:
“From statements to photo-ops — from the ubiquitous pictures of the Prime Minister accompanied by prosperous fat-cats on increasingly obscure junkets to the now notorious pin-striped suit with the PM’s name embossed on every stripe — the Modi Sarkar advertised its distance from the people in whose name it claimed to rule. The transformation of Mr. Modi himself epitomized this change. To move from the assiduously-cultivated image of the chai-wallah with the ascetic lifestyle who had sacrificed the comforts of home and a doting wife to serve the RSS and the nation, to the omnipresent celebrity figure changing from one gaudily expensive outfit to another while hobnobbing with other celebrities, was a long way to travel in a very short while.”
PM Modi hasn’t quite completed his first year in office, has many miles still to travel, and so many roads not yet taken.
Fueling India’s Growth:
There is an emerging pattern to PM Modi’s busy itinerary: securing the energy resources for India’s quantum leap forward, while keeping pace with China.
Modi government has signed joint agreements with Nepal, U.S., Australia, Bhutan, and Canada among others, according to a report by Saritha Rai in Forbes.
Nepalese and Indian firms plan to build hydroelectricity plants; A $1.04 billion 900 MW Arun III hydropower station will be operational by 2020.
American Ex-Im Bank and India’s renewable energy agency, IREDA, which will buy U.S. equipment for solar projects in India, have signed a $1 billion loan agreement.
In coal-rich Australia, Modi and Abbott agreed to expedite approvals for investment in key mining projects.
In Bhutan, three projects are underway and will be operational in the coming two-three years. Bhutan has potential to generate at least 24,000 MW of hydropower, making it key to India’s energy security, according to Forbes.
Similarly, large nuclear agreements are underway with the U.S. and Canada. The nuclear liability clause was cleared when President Obama visited India in January, while a uranium deal was finalized with Canada this month. These projects may provide the energy to fuel the Modi juggernaut, powering India’s economic growth, but perhaps not as instant karma.
All eyes are on Modi’s India, as China’s growth may be slowing down.
Dinesh Sharma is associate research professor at Binghamton University’s Institute for Global Cultural Studies in Binghamton, N.Y. He is the editor of “The Global Obama: Crossroads of Leadership in the 21st Century,” published by Routledge Press. His previous book, “Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,” was rated as the Top Ten Black History Book for 2012.
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