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Two months on, mantra’s clear: Less talk, more action

It’s been a little over two months since the Modi sarkar came to power. Too soon, perhaps, for a definitive assessment, but there are signs of change; patterns are emerging; and even hints of a larger picture. Where we had expected discontinuity there is surprising continuity. This may say something about the evolution of authority, a maturing of the Indian state. Those who expected big bang reforms are disappointed and those who feared an intolerant autocracy are reassured. Modi himself has been remarkably silent. He has been busy getting things done — those who act often say little. Here is a brief inventory with positive and negative examples.

The most palpable change is an upbeat mood in the central bureaucracy. No straggling in at 11 am. There are reports of quick appointments to the public; the same arrogant officer comes on the phone line, and is more helpful; meetings begin on time, some as early as 9 am. The manner in which nurses from Kerala were brought home from Iraq’s war zone in 48 hours showed a new professionalism. Another change is the quiet way that infrastructure projects have got going and begun to create jobs. There is a sense of purpose and vigour in repairing relations with our neighbours that could transform our security.

The noiseless shift to self-attestation is a major administrative reform. Documents — such as birth certificates, mark sheets etc — no longer require to be attested by gazetted officers or affidavits by notaries. Imagine the benefit to a poor village widow who travelled a whole day to find an officer and finally ended up paying a tout or a notary. Original papers are still needed but miles of red tape have been cut, and a 150-year-old process decolonized.

Three archaic labour laws are about to be scrapped, enhancing employee benefits and making it easier to do business. New rules on inspections have also struck a quiet blow against the dreaded inspector raj. Merely the announcement that five to ten million tons of grain from the FCI stockpile will be sold has reduced grain prices. Tactically importing a few planeloads of vegetables will underline the resolve to fight food inflation through augmenting supply. The announcement to break the monopoly of the feared Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) through private mandis is also antiinflationary and has instilled fear among wholesale warlords. So is the courageous cap on farmer support prices that has offended both BJP-ruled MP and Chhattisgarh.

The pragmatic restoration of Aadhar, despite the BJP’s and the bureaucracy’s hostility, is an example of continuity. This biometric technology linked to payments through mobile phones will save thousands of crores and lead to clean, accountable governance while easing the aam aadmi’s life. With its focus on implementation, this government will fix its minor glitches and cover the whole country in two years. Now to a few negatives. India should not have played ‘spoiler’ in the recent WTO talks. India is a major agriculture exporter and it is in our interest to cut red tape and harmonize customs formalities. By insisting on linking trade facilitation to food security issues, India has undermined the fragile multilateral system that benefits India the most. By not applying its mind, the Modi government became a victim of bureaucratic capture.

While it is virtuous to act rather than speak, Modi should have spoken boldly in the recent spate of Hindutva incidents. He should have countered the Goa minister’s claim — India is not a Hindu rashtra, which is why it is different from Pakistan; condemned the Shiv Sena goons for force-feeding a Muslim during Ramzan; and publicly distanced himself from the vision of ‘akhand Bharat’ in Batra’s textbooks that risk undoing his government’s fine work in building trust with our neighbours.

This is not an exhaustive list but it points to a mantra of quiet execution, which matters in a country with too much talk and too little action. Those expecting visionary statements should wait for August 15.

Gurcharan Das, August 5th 2014

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