A can-do helmsman

Like other politicians Rahul Gandhi has only talked change; Narendra Modi has actually implemented it. Who should the people trust to deliver the goods?

Nations on the march, or those in the dumps, have sometimes found great leaders to lift their spirits, offer a guiding vision, fuel ambition and help them leap forward. A down and out China found Deng Xiaoping, a fast-declining Britain got Margaret Thatcher, and a de-spirited America had Ronald Reagan.

They brightened the material prospects of the countries they led, of course. But, more vitally, they imbued the people with a sense of national mission and pride that transcended the circumstances their countries found themselves in. India has yet to find such a helmsman to set it on the course of self-belief and glory in the 21st century.
How much leadership matters, just how critical a difference one inspiring leader can make in changing the destiny of a country, is relevantly evidenced for India, in the phenomenon of Deng Xiaoping and the rocketing rise of China he triggered. A man of uncommon common sense, Xiaoping, who was once paraded with a dunce cap during the Cultural Revolution in the Sixties, waded through the shallows in the still ideologically treacherous Maoist China by “feeling the stones with his feet” (as he put it).
No high-sounding ideals or straitjacketing ideology animated him. But his overwhelming desire to realise the aspirations of downtrodden masses for a better life while ensuring the country packed big guns — in line with Mao’s dictum that power flowed from the barrel of a gun — did the trick. Free enterprise and state capitalism were given free rein and, as part of the 1979 “Four Modernisations” programme, the Chinese military was frogmarched into self-reliant modernisation. This two-pronged policy has restored to China its lost greatness.
Milton Friedman, the laissez faire economics guru, touring India in the late 1950s to
assess Indian economic trends, concluded that Jawaharlal Nehru with his emphasis on a gigantic public sector was doing little right, but at the grassroots level, sans government interference, little was going wrong. He was particularly impressed by the small industry-driven Ludhiana, which he suggested was the free-market model of raw muscularity which, if followed, would fast-track India into the industrial age. Nehru paid no heed. Indira Gandhi had her moment in 1966 when, with the economy plummeting, she contemplated freeing it from its socialist thrall, but ultimately chose to remain within her comfort zone and tighten the state’s grip on it, instead. The economic reforms P.V. Narasimha Rao began in the 1990s, while not comprehensive, were irreversible. Atal Behari Vajpayee could have but didn’t push the pedal, and the economic liberalisation that Manmohan Singh has overseen assumed a pedestrian pace, even as an unending series of scams using the vestigial socialist state machinery, unspooled.
It cannot be that the Xiaoping-kind of common sense is missing in the Indian establishment. It is just drowned by the self-interest of the vast hordes of politicians and apparatchiks (the armies of babus, from peons to beat constables to secretaries to the Indian government) manning the rusted colonial-era administrative structure geared primarily to revenue-collection and maintaining law and order. Post-1947, this system at the Central, state and local levels has evolved into a mechanism to exempt its handlers from accountability, leading to politicians and those on the public payroll milking it for all it’s worth while not being answerable for anything they did. Why would these beneficiaries want anything to change? This is the challenge facing the country. But which leader is best placed to tackle it?
The choice is stark. There’s Rahul Gandhi heading the Congress Party and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi leading the Bharatiya Janata Party. As the ablest chief minister in the Indian Union of states and the only one to run a provincial dispensation providing water and electricity 24/7, Mr Modi has no peers. He has relied on the same bureaucratic structure that proved hopeless elsewhere and, with his can-do attitude, problem-solving mindset, no-nonsense managerial methods, and fixing of responsibility, transformed it into a well-oiled machine. Corruption and waste have been trimmed, and Gujarat is at the top using any development metric. The Gram Jyoti programme epitomises his innovative thinking. With Mr Modi decreeing a binary feeder mode, the state electricity board now has power coursing to villages through a 24-hour line, and for agricultural use at nights and non-peak periods. This has revolutionised farming and brought prosperity to the hinterland. So confident is Mr Modi of his outcomes-based policies and programmes that, not too long ago in a closed forum, after articulating his own he asked the Prime Minister point-blank: “What’s your vision?” and received the usual blank Dr Singh stare. Importantly, Mr Modi is the first leader to trash public sector enterprises — the biggest drain on the treasury, saying “government has no business to be in business”.
The 2002 Gujarat riots are seen by many as too big an obstacle for Mr Modi. Except that elections over the years at all levels in Gujarat have shown that his record of good governance — a hafta-free life and hassle-free delivery of services and benefits to all the people — has trumped bad memories and can, in significant measure, win over Muslim voters. Otherwise, they have to rely on the empty promises, symbolic gestures, and Modi-bashing fulminations by run-of-the-mill politicians and token Muslim leaders — the stock-in-trade of “secular” parties ranging from the Congress to the Samajwadi Party of the Mulayam Singh parivar. In response, Mr Modi has enunciated his “Índia First” theme as a secularist credo. Moreover, the blunting of the Hindutva spearhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in Gujarat has not gone unnoticed.
The Congress is relying on the untested and unproven Rahul Gandhi in the hope that, like his father Rajiv, he’ll bring fresh thinking to government. But lacking hands-on experience of managing under-performing institutions, Rajiv was consumed by the system; his tenure is remembered for the iconic Bofors corruption case (the model, incidentally, for defence scandals in the current Congress rule). Finally, like other politicians Rahul has only talked change; Modi has actually implemented it. Who should the people trust to deliver the goods?

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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