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For Modi, the dust has settled and the heat is on

Going by his past decisions, the new prime minister will be pro-business but will also quickly move on headline-grabbing issues

Dinesh Narayanan | May 24, 2014 | Updated 18:36 IST
For Modi, the dust has settled and the heat is on
Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

Dinesh Narayananan
After he led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to its biggest electoral victory, Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi went to Varanasi to thank voters and the multitude of Gods in the Hindus' holiest city.

"There's a lot of work that god has put me on this earth for," Modi said on the banks of the Ganges. "A lot of it is dirty work, but I am up to the task."

Modi's work as India's 15th prime minister begins Monday, May 26 amid heightened anticipation of a torrent of policy decisions that will jolt the somnolent economy into supercharged wakefulness. Throughout most of his eight-month-long election campaign during which he traveled over 3,00,000 km and addressed 457 rallies across the length and breadth of the country, Modi positioned himself as the deliverer of development to his 125 crore fellow Indians. (Business Today's case study on the creation of Brand Modi is here.)

That is a refrain carried over and expanded from his days as the Gujarat chief minister when, in an attempt to reiterate his inclusiveness, he was accustomed to saying that he worked for his own six crore Gujaratis . If Narendra Modi began his long stint as the chief minister of Gujarat in late 2001 as an unknown political entity and inexperienced administrator, he steps into South Block with the image of an autocrat high on an intoxicating popular mandate and over a dozen years of experience running a state that has grown at a rate well beyond the national average but comparable to several other states .

"He was not in tune with economic policies and government functioning (in 2001),'' a finance and management professional, who has advised Modi for the past 14 years, says. 

And now "there are limitations to his power as the prime minister compared to as chief minister," he said. "He will have to take along chief ministers and also bow to regional aspirations and sensitivities.'' (Read Business Today's story on how Team Modi is padding up to tackle pressing problems on the economic front here.)

Modi has said that being the first prime minister who has long experience as the chief minister of a large state, he brings to the table something no previous head of government in India has-a unique grasp of how states work and their relationship with the centre.
"It is all about communication. The way I see it is there should be a Team India comprising the PM and the chief ministers,'' Modi told Sanjay Pugalia of Hindi business news network CNBC-Awaaz .

"It should be a family-like environment. It is all about communication.'' That informal way of debate and decision-making is a hallmark of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the organization Modi credits with shaping his weltanschauung.

Given his reputation and mandate, the new prime minister will be watched closely not only at home but across the globe for the first steps he would take. They need not be transformational but should suggest fresh thinking and a keenness to act. That he is mindful of the million eyes watching him and his future position on the high table of world leaders was clear when he invited all neighbours , including arch rival Pakistan, to see him taking oath as prime minister.

The advisor says on becoming chief minister Modi was quick to listen, learn and apply his mind to the various aspects of administration and governance. The first thing he did was picking up a fresh report of the state finance commission on reforming the administrative set-up and various departments and implementing the recommendations aggressively.

To be sure, he will face resistance from powerful quarters. According to the advisor, Modi's reforms, including revising tariffs, in the power sector created a lot of resistance, especially from the powerful Patel community. "He fought them off and implemented the reforms,'' he says. The Jyotigram yojana which created two power delivery networks -one for farms and the other for homes-has since been touted as one of the solutions for the country's power woes.

The new prime minister has many reports to pick up from at the centre as well. Among the scores of reports there is the Administrative Reforms Commission report that is gathering dust. So is a Planning Commission report that suggested ways to improve efficiency of government spending ; one of the key recommendations was doing away with the restrictive distinction of plan and non-plan expenditure. Then there are the comprehensive suggestions of the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission which, if implemented, would untangle the byzantine legal structure that holds together the country's financial architecture.
Modi has incessantly been harping on "minimum government and maximum governance'', a catchy euphemism for reclaiming the cliche-cutting red tape.

As chief minister, Modi ran an administration that empowered bureaucrats and technocrats, allowing them to ignore patronage politics but holding them to performance targets and public accountability. One of the informal ways Modi kept track of departmental performance was by scanning newspapers. While he avoided speaking to the media, he kept a close eye on what they were writing. He set up a team to scour newspapers and magazines and prepare notes on the issues raised by them, especially those related to government services, according to a former member of the team. 

These were sent out to the departments with instructions to respond quickly. What started off as media monitoring eventually evolved into a feedback and response mechanism. A person, who worked on Modi's campaign in Varanasi, says that the volunteer network built through Mission272+ , an online platform for BJP volunteers for the elections, could be redeployed as a nationwide feedback-and-response mechanism.

The Citizens for Accountable Governance, an organization that handled parts of Modi's election campaign, could become a consultancy whose members could be attached to government bodies. Modi has crowd-sourced ideas before. In July 2013, before he went to speak at Fergusson College, Pune, he asked his Facebook friends to suggest ideas for education. In his speech , he said he was articulating the suggestions made by about 2500 young people on facebook.

In the interview to Pugalia , he gave a hint of how he planned to heavily rely on technology to improve governance and efficiency. "We can make the railways the nation's growth engine. It needs a complete overhaul. Why can't we use supercomputers to manage the network?''

Improving the railways' performance will add to the country's GDP and help combat price rise. A fast and efficient rail network coupled with modern warehouses will help quickly move food and vegetables from producer states to consumers, reducing time lags and eliminating the opportunity to hoard.

The prime minister is expected to reassure the Reserve Bank of India that he would do everything to cut supply side constraints that persist in the Indian economy. As capacities increase the RBI will have better flexibility in setting monetary policy and more room to adjust interest rates which in turn could fuel investment. Some call it a shrinking of the RBI's role.

The one question which many are eagerly awaiting an answer to is what will Modi do with his inheritance of the massive welfare programmes run by the United Progressive Alliance Government. His record in Gujarat shows that he is no great fan of such doles even though his party's other chief ministers such as Raman Singh in Chattisgarh run big state-funded welfare projects. Speaking to BJP's newly elected lawmakers in the Central Hall of the Parliament House, Modi did say that his government will be "dedicated to the poor, millions of youth and mothers and daughters who are striving for their respect and honour''.

It is this messianic promise that will be on scrutiny when Modi presents his report card five years from now. For he has asked not to be judged before that and refused to be tied down by conventional time-frames of government performance-no 100-day targets and year-end reviews. "There is no need to do anything for publicity. People can evaluate the government's performance after five years,'' he told the television interviewer.

(Dinesh Narayanan is a Delhi-based journalist.)

*The author's name was misspelt in an earlier version of the story.

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