Dreaming and Doing:
How does a young kid, one of six siblings, born in a lower income family in Vadnagar, Gujarat, schooled in a government school, working in his free time to supplement parental income, find the motivation to develop, upgrade his knowledge, learn multiple languages, to emerge as one India’s greatest orators and a two term Prime Minister. Let’s look at his unique journey.
Young Narendra after completing his schooling, left home on a path of self discovery, traversing the Himalayas and other parts of India, spending time at various missions imbibing the teachings of Swami Vivekanand and understanding different cultures. He returned to Ahmedabad and at the ripe age of 17 joined the RSS. Married at an early age he explained to his spouse that his life was dedicated to the nation, and they lived separately thereafter. His sheer hard work, executing assignments without ever complaining, endeared him to his mentors leading him to be made the youngest ever Pracharak for the city of Ahmedabad at the age of 24. He learnt to lead, and work with elders. In 1987, the RSS felt that he had the ability to contribute to the political space, and assigned him to the BJP as General Secretary for Gujarat.
The emergence of a Challenger:
He was a key organiser in the long marches and rath yatras of party doyens Dr. Joshi and Mr. Advani. In the 1995 state elections in Gujarat, as the chief strategist he brought the party victory. In 1996 he was moved by the party as the State head for Haryana, and then in time was given charge of Himachal and J&K also. In 1998 he became the General Secretary Organisation of the BJP and held the post till October 2001, when he was sent to Gujarat as Chief Minister. Gujarat had been struck by a disastrous earthquake in Jan 2001, leaving over 2 lacs dead and Bhuj totally devastated, and relief work was languishing.
Becoming Chief Minister at the age of 52, and having barely settled into the role, catastrophe struck. On 27/2/2002 a train carrying returning Kar Sevaks from Ayodhya had a bogy torched at Godhra leading to 59 charred bodies. This triggered a violent state wide carnage and the state administration and police was overwhelmed for 3 long days and nights with over 2000 dead, and multiple properties gutted. This event was subject to multiple state and centre led enquiry commissions, a Supreme Court monitored Special Investigation, and subsequent prosecution and convictions over the next fifteen years, but Narendra Modi was absolved by the courts of any negligence or wrongdoing.
This singular event changed CM Modi’s attitude and narrative. He transformed the state bureaucracy by empowering officials and plunging into the reconstruction of Bhuj in record time as his redemption. He pushed Gujarat towards rapid industrialization, agricultural growth and rural infrastructural development. Gujarat’s PSU’s were revived and made profitable. New ports, power projects-thermal, solar and wind were set up. A sleepy state became food surplus, and challenged Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu in industrialization. A new breed of politician had emerged, one who was administratively competent, had people connect, empathized with the poor, and wanted development of the state as his new identity. He demonstrated the trait of finding the best quality resource, absorbing and learning rapidly across a spectrum of subjects, putting in 16 hour days, and creating a breed of bureaucrats and politicians who could keep pace with him.
The mandarins within the congress identified the long term challenger very early, and used legal, administrative and extra-constitutional means to hound him. They used their loyal media cohorts to keep raising the Godhra riots , globally identify him as a right wing pariah, got his travel visa blocked in a few major countries, and set the NGO armies to tie him down in litigation. Little did they know the resolve of the man. Whilst they understood power, he was a master of oratory and people connect. He converted Sonia Gandhi’s vicious personal attacks like “maut ka saudagar” into attacks on Gujarati Asmita, uniting a global Gujarati diaspora in supporting him. It was truly a David mocking Goliath with an arrogant “bring it on” attitude. He was re-elected CM for three successive terms, setting a precedent in the BJP that administratively competent people should lead states.
This rise to becoming the Prime Ministerial face not an easy one. He had to take on his mentor Lal Krishan Advani, the man responsible for having resurrected the party along with Mr. Vajpayee when it faced political oblivion in 1984 winning only two seats in parliament. Mr. Advani had stood with him in 2002, in the process politically emasculating his friend of five decades. However Mr. Advani had lost the 2009 election to Dr. Manmohan Singh, and was now in his mid eighties. In the Goa conclave in 2013, younger leaders like Manohar Parrikar and Arun Jaitley who had been his strategist for the three Gujarat elections and the Godhra litigations endorsed him, and with cadres sensing potential victory pushed his candidature through.
The Congress led UPA had won 2009 on the back of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s tough stand on the nuclear deal with the USA. Thereafter Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council took over the reigns of the country, and we witnessed a wave of nepotism, crony capitalism, loot of national resources, defence needs being ignored, surge in terrorism, and ceding of territory to China. CM Modi led consistent verbal attacks on PM Manmohan Singh for abdicating his duty, who by his silence conceded defeat in the eyes of the public. The shadow PM Modi in 2013 put together a war room with talent sourced globally. Many retired and serving bureaucrats now came out of the closet sensing a major change. A nation buffeted by scams, frauds, incompetence and indifference gave the BJP the numbers to cross the line on its own. The hopes of Modi challengers were over, and a new era in Indian politics began.
Victory in 2014 had been credited to the pull effect of Narendra Modi, but victory at the polls comes from a powerful organizational machinery that delivers consistently in getting committed voters to polling stations. The man who delivered on the ground was his “strike force” from Gujarat, the “chanakya” Amit Shah, tasked with taking on a formidable challenge of Samajwadi and BSP stronghold in Uttar Pradesh and its 80 seats in the Lok sabha. The rout of every other party was so unprecedented that the BJP swept 73 seats and even won in muslim dominated areas. With such a performance the anointment of Amit Shah as party President was a formality. Mr. Modi now had control of the government and the party.
PM Modi 1.0:
PM Modi once again had a baptism by fire. He realized that the coffers were empty, the bureaucracy was used to being a power centre, many had benefited from the previous regime, and were major roadblocks to his plans. New Delhi was dominated by power brokers with deep roots and deeper pockets. He needed something to give him momentum and needed it fast. Dr.Manmohan Singh had conceived the underlying concept of what has become the “JanDhan AAdhar Mobile aka” JAM trinity, brought Nandan Nilekani from Infosys to deliver the creation of a national IT backbone on which multiple applications could reside. Unfortunately he did not display the spine to overrule the likes of Mr. Chidambaram who ostensibly stymied and delayed the project even though the project would save Rs.40000 crores annually. PM Modi took less than 24 hours to issue the administrative orders to get the process moving.
The rest is history. Within 6 months the largest global “financial inclusion” program was implemented by making the Nationalised Banks open 33 crores new bank accounts for the poor who had never entered the portals of a bank earlier. A nationwide exercise to issue Aadhar a de-facto national identity card to every citizen was completed. Citizens already had mobile phones. By linking all three, we had the perfect delivery platform for any Direct Benefit Transfer System. Emboldened by the early success, he implemented the Ujjwala Yojna by providing a free first cylinder and subsidized subsequent ones to 6 crore village homes-50% of them were SC/ST. He created a national furore by addressing the issue of open defecation and had over 9 crores new toilets constructed. Infrastructure sector logjams had a crisis with banks facing nearly Rs.4 lac crores of NPA’s from incomplete projects. He gave Mr. Nitin Gadkari a free hand to resolve and build. Within six months the former party president had all projects moving, and his ministry delivered the construction of roads at 27 Km per day compared to 12 Km in the UPA period. Mr. Modi’s most ambitious project was Aayushman Bharat, a health insurance scheme which covers 50 crores people and provides free hospitalization. Never before was this scale of social security been contemplated or seen even in China the world’s poster boy.
Faced with the unique challenge of the Nationalised Banking sector collapsing with over Rs.11 lac crores of NPA’s thanks to fiscal profligacy of 10 years of UPA. The government had to find 2 lac crores to fund capital requirements of banks. It also needed a legal framework which would enforce accountability and change of management. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy code implemented in 2016 is path breaking in this regard.
Mr. Modi’s government was fiscally responsible, the deficits reduced consistently and yet massive social welfare and social security projects were executed. Where did the money come from? An absolute no brainer-the brave also need their share of luck. Global oil prices collapsed. Duties collected by the UPA varied between Rs. 3-5 a litre, but the NDA did not pass on the price reduction to the consumer. Duties today are nearly Rs.30 per litre. This oil revenue
largesse and plugging the leakages has been the mainstay of government finances. Very early in his term the PM realized that India’s global image had taken a severe beating, and needed work. The PM travelled relentlessly, rallying the Indian community, having their travel pinpricks resolved, created a feeling of confidence and positivity. He engaged world leaders and built relationships. India’s stature with the polity of nations rose as he used Trade & Market Access in a highly transactional world. FDI flows to India started rising, and the government focused on improving our ranking from 140+ in ease of doing business to reaching 60+ by the end of the first term.
There were two actions taken by the PM in the country’s long term interest which could be termed controversial in timing and implementation. The first was the “demonetization” of currency. In an attempt to curb black money or the parallel economy, the government overnight abolished Rs.500 and 1000 currency notes, ostensibly 99 % of notes in circulation by value. Overnight the SME sector collapsed as working capital cycles of these businesses broke.
Real estate transactions stopped.The RBI/Bank’s slow execution increased the misery of citizens. Yet 70% of India who had never seen or held such notes exulted. They had found a champion who could stick it to the rich. The political dividend was huge and the BJP won a landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh India’s largest state.
The second was the implementation of GST. The need for “one nation one tax” has been a no brainer, but no one had the political will to finally implement it. The discussions and resolution of issues with states amicably and unanimously was perhaps Arun Jaitley’s swan song. However the hurry to implement without fully testing the system, resolving all Information Technology issues for once showed gaps in project management. This is probably where the PM erred in trusting his friend and lost oversight on a flagship project. Coming immediately on the back of
demonetization, it set back India’s SME sector totally and led to consolidation in favour of large industry. A decade from today, history will credit Mr. Modi for having the stature and political will to implement a path breaking legislation which is good for India, and was one more of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s conceived but incomplete agendas.
Every Indian PM has the romanticised notion of resolving issues with our rogue neighbor, and PM Modi was no exception. Yet one rebuff was enough for him to recalibrate and change strategy. When Pakistani terrorists killed 17 sleeping unarmed soldiers in an army camp in Uri, the army was given a free hand to cross into Pakistan and in a daring surgical strike the army killed 65+ to send a clear message that rules of engagement had changed. When Pakistan erred by using a suicide bomber to kill 40 CRPF men in Pulwama, another first was initiated and the Indian Airforce hit a terrorist camp in Balakote which media claimed killed nearly 300. These two raised PM Modi’s stature as the second Iron Man of India with the masses.
PM Rajiv Gandhi had under pressure from Muslim men in his close circles which included MJ Akbar had reversed the Supreme Court decision on Triple Talaq in parliament in 1986, a cross the Congress carries to this date. PM Modi instructed the law ministry to throw its weight behind a fresh case in the Supreme Court on the same subject, and in a landmark judgement the court has held Triple Talaq illegal, and corrected the wrong done in Parliament in 1986.This was delivering justice to all muslim women in India.
Delivering safety to citizens of India was a key poll plank, and The NSA Mr. Doval was tasked with this, a task he has performed admirably. Working closely with the Defence Chiefs, the critical backlog in our defense arsenal is being filled very quickly. Terrorist activity is now localized in the Kashmir valley, being specifically targeted with many leaders eliminated. There has been a perceptible improvement in India’s relations with Middle East nations to the chagrin of Pakistan, that they get negligible backing in Islamic nations now. The PM also gets the credit for successfully resolving the 43 year injustice to Armed Forces on “one rank one pay”. This sent a very strong signal that the government is sensitive to men in uniform and would overrule the civil services in such matters.
The economy remained a challenge during Mr. Modi’s entire first term. Capital formation was at an all time low due to huge capacity expansions in the preceding decade. The services sector was growing with productivity improvements and incremental job creation was dropping. The economy could be dubbed to be moving in a phase of jobless growth. The government knew that something out of the box was needed. They conceived the Mudra scheme which would give uncollateralized loans to self-employed entrepreneurs upto Rs. 1 lac, so that they could have adequate working capital and grow, perhaps employ one/two helpers each. Over the 5 year term nearly 3.7 crores people were funded. This provided a critical mass of economic activity generation at the bottom of the pyramid. Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna, a program to complete 1.5 crore dwelling units by providing assistance to weaker sections was a resounding success with great last mile delivery.
In 2018 the global economy started slowing down, foreign trade started contracting, the BJP lost three state elections in a row in MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh where they had incumbent governments. The entire opposition tried coming together as one force to take on the BJP directly or tactically. The BJP faced the scenario of going into elections in 2019 with declining growth rates, high fuel prices, and a globally orchestrated attack on being anti-secular. They structured a strategy which would focus on demonstrated delivery of welfare schemes, India’s security and defence, and the government’s integrity. The opposition fell in the trap of attacking Mr. Modi personally, and the more vicious the attack, the stronger the backlash from the poorer sections across the country. They could identify with the theme of a poor man’s son being attacked by vested classes, because he stood up to their plunder. The landslide victory was now credited to one person only-Narendra Modi. Like it or not, such is his personal
charisma and credibility.
PM Modi 2.0
The second term started with the government focusing on correcting pending historical errors. The first act was to abolish Article 370 which gave special status to J&K, and make it “one country, one law, one constitution”. It signaled to Pakistan and the world that we intend to take POK back sooner than later. Excluding China and Pakistan the world accepted it as an internal reorganization in India. The government then brought in the Citizenship Amendment Act to provide all non muslims of Indian origin who emigrated to India under duress post independence till 2014 with citizenship rights. Kapil Sibal admitted in parliament that the Act takes away no one’s citizenship.
The government moved to appoint a Chief of Defense Staff in General Bipin Rawat to improve co-ordination between all wings of the armed forces and development of combined sectoral strategies. This was a much needed structure and had been delayed by decades. Modi watchers were expecting the next step to be the introduction of the Uniform Civil Code to correct another Nehruvian blunder in the mid 1950’s when he had unanimous parliamentary support but recanted. But then early this year Covid 19 struck and Chinese belligerence to divert world attention from their culpability has changed priorities.
Covid 19 has resulted in a global economic meltdown with over one crore people infected worldwide. All countries responded with their own versions of lockdowns to prevent/slowdown community spread. India’s shutdown with 70 percent of the population having staying power of less than one week, has been really challenging. The PM has addressed the nation frequently keeping the morale of people up. By extending the free food security for over 800 million poor till the end of November 2020; the PM has recognized that COVID battles are not going away in a hurry and empty stomachs must be taken care of. This social welfare program entails providing free food-grains to 2.5 times the USA’s population for 8 months.
In his latest address to the nation, the PM delivered a firm reprimand to sections of society who have let their guard down on social distancing, wearing masks, and hygiene thereby triggering a fresh wave of infections. Implied was that penalties for non-compliance would come from administrative actions. Recognizing that there is no fiscal headroom to alleviate the honest tax-paying middle class, the PM publicly acknowledged his gratitude to them and the farmers for being the backbone to survive this challenge. He also announced the proposed implementation of a one nation ration card, which would be portable across members of a family unit in multiple locations. This is a clear preparatory signal for bringing migrant workers back to work areas and mitigating the hardship they faced in April/May. It is also a signal to Industry to get its game plan in place before November so that the economy could get back on the rails fast.
In the interim, there is clear engagement by the PM in launching short term employment generation programs in rural areas to ensure that buying power is created, and people are not sitting idle. Unemployment numbers as per CEI fell from 26% to 8.5% in May. So while the PM is personally the face for employment and welfare of the poor, he has let the Finance Minister front end SME and large industry issues.
The face-off with the Chinese in Galwan valley which resulted in 20 Indians and over forty Chinese soldiers dead has crossed another red line. These are the first casualties in fifty years. By taking on the Chinese head-on and helped by the bravery of the Indian Army, the PM has grabbed the opportunity of occupying the global leadership vacuum caused by China’s belligerence. India now is positioned as a key member of the Quad (USA, Japan, Australia, China) and last month become a member of the G10. In his address to the nation honouring our fallen braves in Galwan, the PM was actually addressing the world audiences telling them that the invincibility myth of the People’s Liberation Army had been busted. The contrast in behavior of PM Modi and his Chinese counterpart is truly contrasting. The PM courageously flew to Laddakh with the CDS to honour the fallen army-men and bolster morale of troops who are doing duty in that terrain. His counterpart has not even acknowledged the deaths of his soldiers, and is not visible at a time when his country is being ravaged by floods.
This week India banned 59 Chinese owned telecom Apps on grounds of national security risks and sent global shock waves. Overnight Chinese companies lost 1 Billion Indian subscribers, approximately 30% of their global users. The knock to their business models and valuations is significant. It will also embolden all COVID affected countries to make China hurt if they follow India’s lead. India’s State governments are contributing their bit to add to the pressure by cancelling all infrastructure contracts awarded to Chinese companies. The center has joined the USA led move to eliminate Chinese equipment from the future Telecom and Power sector.
Despite the country facing a health, economic, and defense challenges simultaneously, the Central Government has brilliantly positioned itself as a mature, unflappable leadership, which responds to its critics with equanimity. When Delhi CM Kejriwal raised the red flag on COVID going out of control in his domain, the Home Minister quietly stepped in to provide infrastructure and operational support with no politicisation. The AAP who have drubbed the BJP at the hustings twice in a row, and has been their virulent critic, is quietly sharing and ceding the stage to them. Similarly, on the Chinese face-off, all attacks by the Congress have been totally ignored, pushing the grand old party to desperation, and now often making a mockery of themselves. It reached a stage when Congress allies like Sharad Pawar and Mayawati have snubbed them. In Bihar, a besieged Lalu Yadav trying to provide a challenge to the Nitish/ Modi juggernaut is distraught that the glory earned by the Bihar regiment has been insulted by his alliance partner, and till now the PM has not fired a salvo, which comes election season could be an erupting volcano.
In the midst of all the action The “make in India” and “localization” themes, attracting relocating supply chains to India need attention. We need inter-ministerial task forces with specific, measurable, time-bound objectives of getting at least 300 companies moving out of China to India. Every major leader gets into a comfort zone out of his/her language, exposure and experience, but the PM is in this new term broad-basing his key talent resources beyond his home state, a very welcome development. The untimely demise of both Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj have left a serious vacuum in the BJP, and the PM will need to nurture youngsters to step up.
The PM is nearing seventy, and 65% of our population is below the age of 35 and communicating with them needs a prominent presence on Social Media platforms with a stated public position on multiple issues. It is also a medium which is unforgiving in terms of error or attacks by trolls. Coming from a generation that did not have computers or internet in their adaptive years, he has proved he is a constant learner. The fact that youngsters turn out andvote for him massively signifies that he has mastered their psyche and connects successfully. It would not be out of place to accept that the PM has a presence that would make any global statesman envious.
With great power and popularity come very heightened expectations. Mr. Modi communicates an image of impeccable personal integrity, demonstrated consistent hard work, a man who is action oriented, a fantastic negotiator, and one who has a mailed fist in a velvet glove. He loves the big stage, loves to win, give him a platform and an audience and you see the Pied Piper at work. What this image masks successfully is also a master strategist who is incredibly detailed both in planning and execution, and the next few months will tell how PM Modi and India’s second “tryst with destiny” moment plays out. Disclaimer: I am not a member of any political party. The views expressed are personal. I am a stakeholder in my country, and I exercise my constitutional right to vote.
Sanjit Paul Singh
Managing Partner, S&S Associates