Last week, the respected US rating agency Moody’s downgraded India’s sovereign rating to Baa3, the lowest grade. It thereby joined Standard and Poor and Fitch, which had already relegated India to the bottom rung in this regard. Explaining their decision, Moody’s said: “While today’s action is taken in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, it was not driven by the impact of the pandemic. Rather, the pandemic amplifies vulnerabilities in India’s credit profile that were present and building prior to the shock, and which motivated the assignment of a negative outlook last year.”
Embarrassingly, this negative verdict appeared just as the ruling party was marking the sixth anniversary of Narendra Modi’s becoming Prime Minister. Meanwhile, two senior Delhi columnists independently wrote sober assessments of his tenure. Both had once hoped that Modi would be an economic reformer; both felt disappointed that he had turned out otherwise. Writing in The Indian Express, Tavleen Singh thought that these failures were largely the consequence of the premature death of Arun Jaitley, after which (or so she claimed), “Suddenly, the priorities and the image of the government changed dramatically.” Writing in The Print, Shekhar Gupta laid the blame at the feet of the IAS officers who advised Modi, whom he saw as cautious and risk-averse, unlike the “stellar team of civil servants” who had advised previous Prime Ministers such as Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee.
My own analysis is very different. Narendra Modi has been a disappointment as a Prime Minister not because he has bad advisers or because some good advisers died relatively young, but because of his own faults and failings. There are three character traits in particular that help explain why, despite the two resounding electoral mandates he has won, Narendra Modi has not been able to deliver the sort of progress on the economic front that his supporters had once thought he would.
The first trait is the suspicion of experts and expertise. As a self-made man, who has risen to the top on the basis of his own intelligence, his own drive, and his own will-power, Modi is suspicious of those with formal qualifications from elite institutions. His statement that he preferred “hard work to Harvard” was a striking manifestation of this belief. In truth, the second does not preclude the former; had Abhijit Banerjee not worked so industriously after securing a PhD from Harvard, he would never have won a Nobel Prize for economics. Good governance needs both focused energy as well as expert knowledge. The disaster of demonetization – which set the Indian economy back many years – could have been avoided if the Prime Minister had listened to the professional advice of the (MIT-educated) Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. More recently, the fall-out of the COVID-19 pandemic would have been far less serious had the Prime Minister based his policies on the advice of the country’s top epidemiologists rather than on his own penchant for the spectacular and the dramatic.
The second trait, which is related to the first, is the cult of personality that the Prime Minister has built around himself. As a technocrat who has worked with the PM once told me, the rule that all advisers have to observe is “total obsequiousness, no credit”. The line with which the Prime Minister fought and won the 2019 elections, ‘Modi Hai toh Mumkin Hai’, says it all. Only Modi will defeat terrorism, Modi and Modi alone will humiliate Pakistan (and now China), Modi by himself will eliminate corruption, Modi will surely make India the Vishwa Guru – this is the sort of thinking that is ubiquitous within the ruling party and the central government. But a large and complex country like India cannot be governed effectively and well through the force of one person’s will – however farsighted and hardworking that individual might be.
For all the confidence and strength he exudes, the behaviour of the Prime Minister suggests that he is, within himself, a somewhat insecure man. This is evident not just in his reluctance to publicly praise his ministers or advisers when they do a good job, but also in the sort of people he relies on for advice. The preponderance of Gujarat cadre officers around him and in positions of influence in the central government is one sign. A second is his tendency to shun some outstanding IAS officers, merely because they once held important positions in Congress governments. Even within the top ranks of the IAS, loyalty to the Leader, and not the quality of one’s intellect, is what the Modi Government prizes most.
Back in 2013-14, when Narendra Modi launched his campaign to become Prime Minister, he was enthusiastically endorsed by many Indians not otherwise inclined to the Hindutva ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Disgusted by the corruption and cronyism of the Congress regime, they saw Modi as a dynamic economic reformer, an Indian Deng Xiaoping, who would unleash the forces of entrepreneurial dynamism. They were impressed by his energy, by his being self-made, and, of course, by his oratory. And they took at face value his claim that he had put his RSS past behind him.
Tragically, these well-meaning Indians were mistaken in giving Narendra Modi the benefit of doubt. For the third reason that Modi has been such a disappointment as Prime Minister is that he remains a sectarian Sanghi at heart. In his public statements, he has been careful not to appear outrightly communal-though even here he can slip, as in his notorious remark that he could identify those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act by the clothes they wore. In any case, his silences have spoken most eloquently in this regard. His silence when his MPs and even a cabinet minister were publicly praising alleged lynchers of innocent Muslims, his silence when his Home Minister was suggesting that Muslims were ‘termites’, his silence when the BJP IT Cell relentlessly communalized the incident of the Tabilighi Jamaat, and above all, his endorsement of the nakedly discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act all show that he remains committed to the core Hindutva dogma that this is essentially a Hindu country, and that Indian Muslims must forever be proving their loyalty to the Motherland or else risk persecution.
When the energies of Narendra Modi’s party and of his government are so substantially taken up with showing Muslims their place, it is scarcely surprising that the economy was in free fall well before COVID-19, that our media was threatened and intimidated, that our public institutions were compromised, that social peace was so fragile. For a politics based on polarization can never be conducive to a nation’s progress.
If the Acche Din promised by Narendra Modi in May 2014 still remain elusive a full six years after he became Prime Minister, then the buck must stop with Narendra Modi himself. Not the death of a trusted colleague, not the incompetence of a few officers in his inner circle, but his own megalomania, his own suspicion of experts, his own reluctance to share credit, and his own inability to transcend the sectarian ideology that he embraced as a young man – it is these traits of Narendra Modi himself that explain why history will judge him far more harshly than his naïve and trusting supporters believe or hope.