Expectation weighs heavily on India’s new prime minister.
This morning I was sternly ticked off four times. My misdemeanours were: talking, pointing, waving a piece of paper and sitting with my legs crossed. The occasion was not a time-travel journey back to infant school but a visit to the Indian parliament in Delhi.The visitor’s gallery in the lower house of parliament is policed by a team of ushers who take their job of maintaining decorum among visiting Indian citizens – and in this case a rare foreigner – extremely seriously. The behaviour they require of visitors is in stark contrast to that exhibited by the parliamentarians in the chamber below.
Running the world’s largest democracy is a noisy, raucous and passionate business with members of parliament running up and down the aisles, shouting each other down in a bewildering blend of Hindi and English (debates are officially conducted in 18 languages) and – like most parliaments – suffering from a preponderance of too many alpha male egos. Sitting serenely on the opposition front bench, peering over her spectacles at the boisterous behaviour is the elegant figure of Mrs. Gandhi, still an iconic figure but the head of a political dynasty and a party that has been trounced by the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Much rests on Modi’s shoulders. Two years ago when I was last in Delhi, nearly everybody I spoke to – investors, business people, diplomats and senior journalists – were despondent, fed up with the constipated consensus-building government of Dr Manmohan Singh and fearful that Indian growth had been permanently outpaced by China and the other BRIC economies. That pessimism has been replaced by something close to exuberance even among those people not naturally inclined to back the more authoritarian nationalism of Modi and his BJP supporters.
During his first six months in power Modi has worked to change the tone of Indian government; obliging civil servants to turn up for work on time and starting the process of eradicating the plethora of redundant legislation that congests India’s infamous red-tape bound bureaucracy. It is this dense jungle of regulation that sucks the life out of business struggling to obtain the necessary permits and licenses as well as offering plenty of opportunity for the venal and corrupt to snag the unwary investor. But the tough reforms – tax, labour, land registration – are yet to come and this will be a test of Modi’s guile – his reputation as a political street fighter, honed as Chief Minister of Gujarat – that distinguishes him from his cerebral and academic predecessor.
He has been lucky with his timing. Obligingly, the other BRICS countries have slowed down just as India starts to perk up and there is much less talk of arch-rival China with its slowing economy and vexed relations with its neighbours. So far, Modi has shown reasonable shrewdness in foreign affairs and President Obama’s scheduled appearance as Modi’s guest at India’s Republic Day celebration in January will be a clear reminder that a man previously denied entry to the United States for his handling of Gujarat’s race riots is now a sought-after ally for Obama in an increasingly friendless world.
Hopefully, Modi understands the fickle nature of political prestige. Fawning articles about Modinomics and Modi Magic will quickly give way to the familiar tale of dashed hope as the hero-to-zero nature of political popularity asserts itself in India as elsewhere. The greatest risk he faces is over-enthusiasm and unsustainable expectations.
Reforming India in the way he has set out will take several years – far longer that the attention span of the international investment community, hungry for quick narratives, can sustain. He knows this. But political power in India and elsewhere is more ephemeral and harder to use than ever before – and likely to end in failure or worse. Something that Sonia Gandhi – sitting quietly and demurely on the benches opposite him- much to the approval of the ushers in the gallery above – knows so well.