Sunday, May 04, 2014
It has been an exhilarating month. We have marvelled at the sights and sounds of India's great election mela on our television screens. The image, most memorably etched in my mind is of a confident Muslim boy, Fareed, in a small town in Western UP. When the female interviewer asks his name, he retorts with a flirtatious smile, "Who wants to know?" He tells us proudly that the pucca street on which they are standing was a kaccha village road not long ago. As the camera pans, he points to three barber shops, two beauty parlours, an electronics store and an unfinished tower. "This is going to be our mall!" Fareed runs a small business delivering flowers to the big city nearby, but business has been rotten in the past two years; most of his friends have lost their jobs. "Do you think I'd be hanging around chatting... even to a beautiful woman?" She blushes. "That's why I plan to vote for Modi. Yes, I know, Muslim and Modi, but he promises jobs and growth."
It is because of Fareed and the million hopes of young Indians that I endorsed Narendra Modi in my last column . It brought lots of hate mail. BJP's supporters were offended that I had called Modi communal and they passionately tried to convince me, an unrepentant liberal, about the true meaning of secularism. Congress fans dismissed my column as 'paid news' . My intellectual friends were aghast - how could I have abandoned sacred secularism for profane growth? Since I had made enemies of everyone, I must have done something right. A friend in Mumbai tweeted despairingly, 'why can't we have growth and secularism?' That would be a no brainer. Alas, it is not on offer. None of us wants to give up secularism but if growth continues to fumble, it is secularism which will be endangered. History shows that right-wing extremism thrives during unemployment and disaffection. Yes, it is a risk to vote for Modi but it is riskier not to vote for him as he is our best chance for jobs, growth and the demographic dividend.
In less than two weeks there will be a new government. Going by the latest polls, Modi is clearly ahead. If the polls are right - which they were not in 2004 and 2009 - and assuming he is elected, his first priority should be to reassure Muslims that he is the leader of all Indians and his government will not allow the events of 2002 to happen again (as they haven't in Gujarat); he is also duty bound to protect minorities against the daily acts of discrimination, especially by functionaries of the state.
The next priority should be to forge an alliance with chief ministers, making them partners in governing India and bring about genuine federalism. Having been chief minister for three terms this should be a natural. This alliance will allow well-managed states to implement reforms rapidly that would take too long to enact in a fractured central Parliament. Arun Shourie has recently explained that Article 254(2) of the Constitution allows a state law to prevail over a central law provided the President gives assent (which means, in effect, Modi's government has to be in favour of it.) Once a few states begin to implement the reform, others will see the benefits and follow suit. A partnership with chief ministers will motivate the more aspirational states to focus on raising India's Doing Business ranking, and as India becomes more competitive, investors who are presently fleeing China for Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh might well add India to their list.
Modi should begin each day by remembering why he was elected by Fareed and millions like him: to create jobs and skills. Expectations are running high and he must cool them down, explaining the lag between investment and growth. Attacking inflation is equally important and there is no better ally than Raghuram Rajan. Modi should follow the recipe which has brought No 1 rank to Gujarat in economic freedom - focus on infrastructure, bring in lots of talented persons, free up space for private initiative, empower the bureaucracy, and deliver public goods brilliantly (water, roads, electricity, education and health). Finally, don't subvert institutions; respect them but reform them.