Modi wins the popularity contest

Electoral popularity is the only currency of success in democracies.

This month, Narendra Modi completes his first two years as PM. Let’s have a look at how he has performed.

Political record: Mr Modi remains our most popular politician by far. The aura he had two years ago, he retains. Every opinion poll last year has shown his popularity at around 70 per cent. This is what Americans call approval rating, and 70 per cent is an incredibly high number. Mr Modi may be assisted by the fact that his rival Rahul Gandhi is not charismatic and that regional leaders like Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal do not have a large enough stage to project their talents. But even with this admission, it must be accepted that Mr Modi has a credibility with Indians that nobody else has. The BJP lost elections in Delhi and Bihar, but its march towards dominance and the Congress’ march towards irrelevance continues under Mr Modi.

Economy: I talked to P. Chidambaram a few days ago. I asked him whether his analysis of Mr Modi’s economic policies was not overly harsh. Even if the data on exports and manufacturing and companies’ profitability was grim, as he has been writing it is, surely two years is too short a span of time to judge Mr Modi on economic performance? That is what I asked. No, Mr Chidambaram said, it is 40 per cent of the term.

It is fair to say that here the government has promised more than it has delivered. The breakout phase into double digit growth, more jobs, an escape from “socialist” schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Aadhaar that Mr Modi promised has not come. Indeed, he has embraced some of the policies he promised to end. I still believe that though the numbers indicate otherwise, Mr Modi must be given time to show whether he has made a difference.

Corruption: This was one of the items on which the 2014 election was fought. It is said that Mr Modi has either ended big-ticket corruption in the Central government or news of it has not yet come out. As in Gujarat, he has been personally involved in this issue. I have known businessmen in Gujarat who have had to face bribe demands from those lower down, because it is impossible for one individual to change a centuries old culture. However, just as in Gujarat, I know Mr Modi regularly calls people to ask if they are facing a problem from his ministers and bureaucrats, and he asks them to inform him if they are.

Legislation and governance: The role of a Central government is to make new laws. Governance, in the way we understand the word, means controlling the structure of the state, is secondary. I say this because any Union government governs India through a few hundred IAS officers. Given the smallness of the apparatus, it is not possible for there to be much difference in governance performance.

On legislation, it is not easy to name successes because a theme is missing. If we look at the Manmohan government’s legislative focus, we can identity the following: Right to Information, Right to Food, Aadhaar, Direct Benefits Transfer, Right to Education, Right to Work and so on. There is a clear aim here: these laws are for the poor. Mr Modi’s record lacks such focus. Perhaps this will emerge in time.

Foreign policy: It is strange that here there is a wide difference between the perception of amateurs and experts. Those who have been attracted to the spectacle of Mr Modi’s first year have been impressed. The PM held many glittering events in foreign capitals where thousands of Indians gathered to cheer him. This was seen as a foreign policy success, though it was not. The truth, and experts admit it, is that Mr Modi’s highly personalised diplomacy has been a failure. On Pakistan we have no policy that anyone can explain coherently. Mr Modi’s record has been to talk, not-talk, embrace, sulk, blame, invite over, set conditions and remove conditions randomly. I hope he changes this because it shows India’s foreign policy as not serious.

Overall: If we return to the first point, popularity, we should admit that Mr Modi’s term has so far been a success. Electoral popularity is the only currency of success in democracies. It doesn’t really matter ultimately what commentators say about Mr Modi. So long as he continues the BJP’s march towards greater vote share, and the crushing of the Congress, he is a success.

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