August 6, 2014 5:54 pm

India’s Narendra Modi confounds devotees and detractors alike

India’s prime minister will fulfil neither the hopes of fans nor fears of foes, writes Victor Mallet
©Reuters

At first they thought he would do too much. Now they worry he will not do enough.

When Narendra Modi was swept to power in May by the election victory of his Bharatiya Janata party, Indians were divided between those who eagerly awaited wrenching economic reforms and those nervously anticipating the Hindu nationalist agenda of an authoritarian leader.

Almost three months on, it is clear that Mr Modi will quickly fulfil neither the fervent hopes of his fans nor the worst fears of his detractors.

Indeed, his first weeks in charge of the world’s largest democracy have been marked more by unexpected foreign policy initiatives than by revolutionary economic or political announcements at home.

Mr Modi has sought to improve ties with India’s smaller neighbours. He hosted regional leaders, including Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and Lobsang Sangay, Tibet’s prime minister in exile, at his inauguration, and has visited the Himalayan states of Bhutan and Nepal.

Shashi Tharoor, the Congress member of parliament and former UN official, was so impressed by Mr Modi’s lack of post-election hubris and his foreign policy acumen that he was attacked by his colleagues in the opposition for writing an article in praise of the prime minister.

Some of Mr Modi’s supporters, on the other hand, are nonplussed. They are disappointed by his near-silence on domestic matters, his obsession with foreign affairs and the absence of “big-bang” economic reforms after a decade of lacklustre Congress rule; “underwhelming” is the word used in New Delhi to describe the government’s first budget in July.

“Here is a government that came in with a lot of hope, riding a tide of high expectations, promising change. Ennui has already set in,” writes Bibek Debroy, co-editor of Getting India Back on Track , a book telling the government what it should do.

“Missing energy, the government increasingly looks aged and jaded and is riding one of the steepest anti-incumbency curves witnessed in recent times,” he says in a column in this week’s India Today magazine.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is equally scathing – he says the nation grows restless while Mr Modi seems to be trapped “in his own echo-chamber” – but he is less concerned by the domestic economic agenda than by the government’s clumsy handling of education and environmental protection, its renunciation of a previously agreed international deal on world trade and by Mr Modi’s failure to speak out against communal violence in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

“I think UP is in a real mess. It’s actually frightening,” he says.

Mr Modi’s supporters, however, insist there is more going on than meets the eyes of impatient business leaders who wanted spectacular moves on tax reform, privatisation of state companies and the repeal of old-fashioned labour regulations.

Mr Modi, his defenders say, can be blamed neither for the unrest in UP, which is largely the fault of the corrupt state government, nor for delays to economic reform: the defeated Congress party, for example, intends to use its support in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, to block an increase in the foreign investment cap for insurance businesses from 26 to 49 per cent, despite having championed the same plan when it was in power.

According to Gurcharan Das – a businessman, author and cautious admirer of Mr Modi – the new government may have eschewed dramatic announcements but has quietly moved to improve the bureaucracy and make life easier for India’s 1.3bn inhabitants.

“Self-attestation” means citizens will no longer have to seek out and bribe an arrogant official to certify their documents. Senior civil servants, galvanised by the new prime minister, have apologetically returned calls to potential investors and reopened discussions on deals that had been stalled for months.

“Quiet implementation is the mantra of this new government,” says Mr Das. “The deficit of this country is execution – we are a country of talkers not of doers.”

Arun Jaitley, finance minister and public face of the administration, endorsed this version of events in a television interview this week in which he defended the government’s record and explained why reforms were not proceeding as fast as some had hoped. “The art of reform in India is to persistently, doggedly move in one direction,” he said.

In India, as in other democracies, it is essential for a newly elected government to move quickly to enact reforms that are controversial or take time to bear fruit, before the commitment of the winning party fades and previously enthusiastic voters begin to have doubts.

Mr Modi will rightly be accused of having lost his political touch if he fails to make use of the mandate provided by the biggest Indian election victory for a generation. But he is a methodical manager who likes to hear a range of opinions before making his decisions. After 10 weeks of his new government it is too early convincingly to accuse him of hesitation, let alone failure.

victor.mallet@ft.com

Twitter: @VJMallet

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