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India’s development debate must move beyond Modi

With Modi at its heart, discussion about India’s development remains overly simplistic. Gopal Shetty/Newzulu/AAP

One year on from Narendra Modi’s swearing in as India’s Prime Minister, the mood of the country is less buoyant.

Some say Modi’s much-touted “development” agenda has been waylaid by the noxious partisans of Hindu nationalism. Modi’s apparent appeasement of their regressive social agenda is corroding the allegiance of his development-oriented flock of supporters. Such a zero-sum approach posits that a focus on divisive social issues eclipses the real agenda of development.

This narrative oversimplifies the debate.

That Modi wants development is not the issue – every politician will claim to champion the cause of development including Modi’s opponents. The problem is the way the word “development” is employed in public discussion. It is used with little qualification or elaboration. Throwaway references to, say, coal and mining reform constitute the extent to which the development agenda is specified. Why the changes to the coal and mining industries are bestowed with the appellation “reform” is more often than not left unanswered.

Modi’s development agenda itself does not lack merit. The point is that our public debate does not even extend to an analytical interrogation of the elements contained within it. Instead, we fall prey to generalisations and empty slogans such as “Acche Din” (good days are coming) and “Swachh Bharat” (Clean India).

Our failure to go beyond a superficial engagement with the government’s development agenda leaves us acutely uninformed about what development is actually taking place. In a recent poll, respondents were asked what they thought of Modi’s Swachh Bharat initiative. Unsurprisingly a plurality of voters supported it. Why wouldn’t they? Virtually everyone wants the country to be cleaned up.

However, such a poll and the general discussion surrounding the issue of public hygiene are not very informative about the actual content of the PM’s initiative. The vacuous nature of the discussion thus renders opaque the nature of the program to clean India. As a result there isn’t sufficient public debate about the concrete steps needed to bring about an improvement in public hygiene and sanitation levels and to evaluate the progress being made by the government.

Simplicity makes for inconsistency

The lack of clarity concerning Modi’s vision for development means the discussion is mired in a web of inconsistencies. Take growth. Modi wants rapid economic growth but also seeks to significantly pare down the role of government in the economy. These two goals are vigorously at odds with each other.

A plethora of studies show that rapid GDP growth has been achieved in the industrial world through significant government intervention in the economy. The pioneering technological breakthroughs in say, computers and satellites, would not have occurred without years of extensive government support and intervention in the US economy. How is Modi’s growth vision of less government going to buck this historical trend? Only a deeper analysis of the government’s development narrative can bring to light satisfactory answers.

Further cracks in the “more governance, less government” edifice become evident upon scrutiny. The claim of reducing the role of government cannot be reconciled with the numerous bans that have been instituted in the country over the past year. Infringement of free speech achieved via a ban constitutes a classical embodiment of big government wherein the government decides on your behalf that something is not to be seen.

The government’s decision to suspend Greenpeace India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act [FCRA] license also exposes the gap between rhetoric and reality. Here the government is claiming, among other charges, that Greenpeace is retarding India’s economic development. In doing so, the government is propounding a narrow view of development. As Greenpeace’s notion of development falls outside these parameters, it has run afoul of the government. Such a punitive approach is fundamentally at odds with the “more governance, less government” paradigm associated with Modi.

The limited prism through which the actions of the Modi government are viewed also results in a stymied understanding of the tension in the Modi - RSS relationship. The media is right to suggest that Modi does not see eye to eye with the Hindu nationalist group. But their concentration on the social agenda of Hindu nationalists causes them to overlook Modi’s clashes with the Saffron brigade on the development front. One fault-line splitting Modi and the RSS over development is the issue of land acquisition.

Here too there is a gap between the narrative of “less government, more governance” and the reality of the changes Modi has pushed for in the Land Acquisition Act [LAA]. Modi wants less government. But removal of the LAA provision for consultations with affected people empowers the government to ignore the wishes of key stakeholders. Such unilateralism is redolent of big government intervention in the economy.

That’s the problem with the current state of debate concerning the Modi government. The emphasis is on Modi’s problems with the Hindu Right’s social agenda, whereas the problematic issues of development are sorely neglected.

Read the other pieces in our Modi one year on series here.

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