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Modi vs Modi: Time for unchallenged leader to decide his legacy

Modi now looms over Delhi with no national rival. The other parties have no personality to match Modi.

TOI Contributor|
May 24, 2019, 02.06 PM IST
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By Ruchir Sharma

Narendra Modi’s smashing victory has upended many rules of Indian politics.

For one, never before has a party lost by a landslide in state assembly elections, then come back to win a landslide victory in the same state in the general election, within six months. The BJP achieved that feat in Chhattisgarh, and also flipped Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The only factor present in the general election and not in those state elections: Modi.

Travelling in Uttar Pradesh during the campaign, voters told us that they were again lining up behind traditional caste lines. But when they entered the booth, it appears, the nearly 100 million first-time voters broke with tradition and cast their ballots for Modi, choosing the person over caste.

This is the new, young India. They are mesmerised by the image Modi projects, of a decisive leader who works 18-20 hours a day, an unattached man free of corrupting family ties, a watchman protecting the nation. National elections are getting more presidential, focussed on the executive authority embodied in one figure.

Modi now looms over Delhi with no national rival. The other parties have no personality to match Modi. Certainly not Rahul Gandhi. On the campaign trail we met many voters who said they were for “Modi”, none who said they were for “Rahul”. The prime minister’s second term will be Modi versus Modi, a time for the unchallenged leader to decide his legacy.

To win this big Modi grasped the lay of the land, and recalibrated his message. Though he had run in the past as a champion of development, Modi did not crow about official data showing that India is the fastest-growing major economy in the world. He sensed voter fears that growth is not generating enough jobs. Instead of running on development Modi ran on his decisive and tough guy persona, his tireless work ethic, his claim to lifting India’s stature in the world and stiffening its spine in the recent clashes with Pakistan.

The latest World Values Survey shows that 70% of Indians now favour a strong leader who is not tied down by Parliament and elections. Modi offered himself up as that man, and won big. The question now is why he would change in a second term?

Because even the most successful leaders put their legacy at risk if they fail to change. My studies of emerging democracies cover more than 100 elections going back to 1980, and reveal that just 19 leaders won a second term. In their first terms, the country’s stock market significantly outperformed the rest of emerging markets on average, before flattening out in the second term, when leaders so often grow complacent.

In the United States this tendency to stall after a re-election victory is called “the second term curse”. Noted historian Michael Beschloss has argued that no American president in two centuries has accomplished what he set out to do in a second term.

Modi’s legacy will depend in part on whether he delivers on his original promise of jobs and development. By all independent estimates the economy is slowing faster than official numbers suggest. Growth in airport traffic is at a five-year low. Growth in monthly passenger vehicle sales is at an eight-year low. Growth in power generation is at a 15-year low. India is not generating nearly the millions of new jobs a year needed to meet the demands of its growing population.

Modi subtly acknowledged that his task is unfinished, appealing to voters on the grounds that Congress has ruled for 70 years, so he deserves more than five. If there is one thing Modi can do to keep momentum in his second term, it is to let loose the reins of power. One man can’t make every decision for a nation of 1.3 billion. No man is at his best with just four hours of sleep and Modi can’t remain in campaign mode forever.

One way to refresh his administration would be to bring new voices into his brain trust, reflecting the complex fabric of Indian society, including more voices from the south, the regional parties, private business and technocrats. Modi has come to embrace a populist’s disdain for all elites, but having more expertise in his inner circle might have helped prevent an experiment like demonetisation. His core voters were willing to forgive this self-defeating move as well-intentioned, but they are unlikely to be so forgiving of another big policy mistake.

Though Modi has centralised decision-making in Delhi, when he was chief minister of Gujarat he would tell us about the benefits of giving chief ministers more authority to run their own states. He could begin by following through on a commitment, so far largely unmet, to raise the share of central tax revenue that is transferred to the states. He could transfer funds to the states with fewer demands on how they must be spent: it serves no one, for example, to compel a state like Kerala to administer national literacy programmes when its literacy rate is already 100%.

One-size-fits-all schemes don’t work in a nation of 29 states, as different from one another as the countries of Europe. At last count the number of central government schemes had reached more than 1,000. No politician wants to take blame for cuts, but that leaves many district magistrates trying to run more programmes than is humanly possible. Better to focus on fewer schemes and deliver.

Modi already has a model in the ODF campaign. District magistrates attribute its success of building public toilets to strong backing from the prime minister. That focus, applied to fewer schemes, could be more effective than following the populist template of launching one scheme after another to please every section of society.

It could also allow Modi to revive his 2014 promise of “minimum government”. In his first term Modi proved as statist as his predecessors, with overzealous tax authorities driving thousands of millionaires out of the country. But it is ironic that a nationalist government would target Indian business as particularly dishonest, when international surveys show India is no more corrupt than you would expect of a country with a low per capita income.

Instead, the government might consider reducing the regulatory obstacles that force business people to dodge the rules. In his first term Modi also proved as socialist as his predecessors, doubling down on Congress welfare programmes.

Many commentators see this largesse as necessary to meet voter demands in a lowincome democracy. But it was not only autocracies like China that focussed first on developing roads to promote growth, so they could afford cradle to grave welfare systems. The United States and other democracies also focussed on development first, and then built a welfare state, after they had climbed out of poverty.

Now that Modi has returned to power, he is free to recalibrate priorities, and would be well advised to do so. The second term curse looms in the background. And the latest election results have altered the Indian political landscape in such a way that Modi has no challenger but himself.

The writer is the author of “Democracy on the Road”
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