A promising start

Modi has been faulted for ‘desecrating’ the I-Day address with references to toilets and garbage, but most Indians would agree with his priorities.

As the Narendra Modi-led NDA government at the Centre completes 100 days in office, it is perhaps too early to evaluate its performance, but some people have already expressed their disappointment that the prime minister, having promised much in the pre-election rhetoric, does not seem to have even one ‘big’ achievement to his credit so far.

His long silences, barring 140-character comments on his Twitter account, his infrequent presence during the two sessions of parliament that he has faced, his deliberate attempt to keep not only himself but his colleagues also away from the media as much as possible, have led to  tongues wagging about a government tightly controlled by an ‘authoritarian’ prime minister.

The venerable ‘The Economist’ called Narendra Modi’s performance in the first three months as that of “a stern, hard-working headmaster,” who had kept a tight leash on his cabinet. Perceptions of a man’s style of functioning can differ, but no one can accuse Modi of being lazy or laid-back.

He has obviously been putting in 14 hours or more of work a day, prompting his cabinet colleagues and top bureaucracy to fall in line; he has reportedly even ticked off a couple of his colleagues who were taking it easy.

Many Indians will agree that it is refreshing to have a ‘headmaster’ who intends to run the ‘school’ efficiently. It is especially so when the Central government under Manmohan Singh in the later years resembled a chaotic class without a teacher who had gone on permanent ‘chutti.’

Modi’s Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort revealed that he has been working on a number of long-term and short-term ideas which, if implemented, can transform the nation.

For the first time in many years, millions of people tuned in to the annual ritual of the address and stayed on not only because of Modi’s impressive oratory, but also because he came across as someone who had a clear vision with well-thought out programmes for the near future.

He spoke about the need for financial inclusion by integrating the poorest of the poor through bank accounts, about building toilets in every school with separate toilets for girls and eradicating the shame of forcing women to defecate in the open in the countryside; he wanted the investors to come and ‘make in India’; he laid out a plan for ‘digital India’ for faster progress.

And as for Modi’s call for a ‘clean India’ to coincide with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in four years, it was a measure of the stench from filth across the country’s cities, towns and villages reaching high heavens and hopefully, the people’s prayers for better hygiene would be answered soon.

Some Opposition leaders have faulted Modi for ‘desecrating’ an address from the Red Fort with references to toilets and garbage, but most Indians would have whole-heartedly agreed with Modi’s priorities, rather than hearing him throw empty cartridges at our troublesome neighbours! 

Keeping his promise

Acting on one of Modi’s important promises, in less than a fortnight, the banking industry and the insurance sector have been galvanised into opening on a single day 1.5 crore bank accounts across the country.

Each account holder has been offered RuPay debit card, Rs 5,000 overdraft, Rs 1 lakh accident insurance and an additional Rs 30,000 life insurance cover. Though the initial plan of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana was to open bank accounts for 7.5 crore families in one year, the prime minister has exhorted officials in charge of the scheme to accomplish the task before the next Republic Day.

This innovative step not only removes at one go the ‘financial untouchability’ as the prime minister called it, but also its spin-off effects could be enormous, if not epoch-making.

Apart from helping the banks and insurance companies to expand their operations and infrastructure manifold with a massive impact on job creation, the scheme could eventually go a long away towards reducing poverty and debt among the under-privileged, besides offering ‘seed money’ to millions of small entrepreneurial enterprises.

In the 1980s, the then government led by Indira Gandhi did make a similar attempt at financial inclusion by offering loans to the needy and achieved some success, but the scheme fizzled out due to lack of follow up action and commitment on the part of the banks. In the pre-computer era, it was seen as an unnecessary burden on the bank officials who wilted under its weight.

The advent of technology aided by computers and mobiles now makes it possible to cater to the needs of such a large customer base at minimal cost, but the success of the programme still depends on sustained effort on a missionary mode.

Opening a bank account can be truly transformational, specially for the poor or the unlettered, as it confers a certain level of dignity and acceptance. It will also enable the Government of India or the state governments to transfer the funds under various welfare schemes directly to the beneficiary’s account.

According to some estimates, the current leakage of funds (going into the pockets of officials and middlemen) is as high as 60 per cent and the direct transfer can only benefit the nation. This is a ‘Big Bang’ initiative which can be accomplished within a year.

The decision to open up certain segments of the defence and the railways up to 100 per cent to the private sector and to encourage Indian companies to scale up their operations are no less significant.

The Modi government has also made it clear that the future import of defence and other high-tech equipment will come with a strong rider for technology transfer and/or co-production. These initiatives could ‘Make in India’ dream a reality.

On the flip side, the Modi government has faced criticism for its lacklustre budget, its rigid approach to talks with Pakistan, its silence on party’s rabble-rousers voicing discordant notes and the early signs of tensions within the cabinet la affaire Rajnath Singh and his son. But Narendra Modi as prime minister, at least, cannot be accused of sleeping on the job!

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