High time for Modi to take opposition into confidence

“Sometimes things fall apart so that better things can fall together,” was among the most famous quotes of Marilyn Monroe. But it is not clear whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi feels so after a washed-out session of Parliament, his not-so trending Independence Day address and a Bihar poll rally speech that has left his political rivals uniting more than before.

More so, if you consider that his government has had to beat a retreat on a landmark but contentious land acquisition bill that was supposed to showcase  a fast approach to create railway and industrial corridors, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, and PPP infrastructure projects.

Also, the bill to introduce Goods and Services Tax (GST), one of the biggest taxation reforms in India to integrate state economies and boost overall growth could not get moving in the Rajya Sabha where the numerical minority of the ruling NDA is quite known.
Among other things, the U-turns by the Centre, whether it was the ban on pornographic websites and later its amendment, the Income-Tax Return form, the Indian Financial Code, and the seeming confrontation with the RBI, did no good to its image.

All these steps or “missteps” were seen by his critics, even within his own party and outside, as examples of a government that has either gone weak or confused and even as the ministers appeared to be on the defensive after the opposition’s criticism.

True to his style, however, Modi has tried to show that he’s still in great form and his penchant for political dramatics remains high. Even his Independence Day address was a sort of a message to his voters that he is not down and his government is right on the track, and course corrections, if any, is in order.

However, beyond the headline-creating events, big questions have haunted the official and ruling party circles as to when he would contemplate some action to bring back the fizz in governance in the coming months.

Will the PM act against the laggards in his ministries? Will the non-performing ministers be shown the door? Even if the PM feels that there is not a single allegation of corruption against his government, will he act against even the “whispers” in the corridors of power against some people closed to the establishment?

Those asking these questions say Modi, perhaps, realises that people’s expectations, that went up vastly with his election campaigns, will have to be addressed with more energy and success in governance.

They cite Modi appearing to acknowledge the criticism directed at him about the credibility issue when he made the announcement about a whopping Rs 1.25 lakh crore economic package for an election-bound Bihar. Without mincing words, the PM referred to “some people” saying that he was too fast to make big promises but slow when it came to delivery on them.

Take for instance, the issue of One Rank One Pension (OROP), which was a major promise in Modi’s campaign. It has hung like an albatross around the neck of his government with many ex-servicemen and their families upset at what they see as an inordinate delay and the government repeating its “in-principle” decision to implement it.

The crux lies in deciding which pension scales should be applied in compensating soldiers – the rates of 2011, which the government wants, or those of 2014, which are higher and the choice of the ex-servicemen community.

Even in his Independence Day address, which was embellished with announcements like “Start up India, Stand up India,” Modi sounded like a “defence counsel”, as a leading columnist put it, against the backdrop of his own promises and a sense of little drift in the government.

Ending the impasse

Modi will have to go beyond rhetoric to end the impasse, argue many analysts. They hold that he cannot rest content with the fact that he may still feel he stands tall and above his rivals as the main Congress is yet to come with any convincing electoral victory to show it is on a comeback trail. Remember, the hare and tortoise story.

For a new beginning as the prime minister, Modi will have to address his government’s relationship with the main opposition parties and civil society groups, which has nosedived in recent months to touch rock bottom, with neither side willing to let go any single opportunity to spar with one another.

The Congress is clear that it will not cooperate with Modi in any manner whatsoever in the passage of any legislation including the GST Bill, which was its own baby. It has said it cannot forget that Modi had “single-handedly” sabotaged tax reform for four years. It also sees Modi’s retreat on the land acquisition bill as a sign of double speak, driven more by fear of antagonising farmers.

How can Modi engage the Congress now? More importantly, is he willing to take the first step? Will Rahul Gandhi, who is scripting a new course for the Congress under his leadership, be ready for any understanding with the PM when the personal chemistry has gone so bad?

In this context, Modi may like to wait for the outcome of the crucial elections in Bihar, which will determine the direction of India’s political wind in the next year and thereafter, when major states like Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and, of course, Uttar Pradesh, face the electorate.

As a fresh beginning, insiders say, Modi could, perhaps, follow the adage, “Let well enough alone. Do not try to change something lest you make it worse.” So goes an Aesop’s fable about a fox who refused a hedgehog’s offer to take out its ticks lest, by removing those that are full, other hungry ones will replace them. Modi’s problem is that he thinks he is a lion and won’t adopt any “foxy” approach to realpolitik?

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