Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Narendra Modi’s long honeymoon

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Column published in Business Standard, October 10, 2014

Any bridegroom who’s had a long and ardent courtship followed by a thunderously successful marriage celebration knows how to extend the honeymoon for as long as possible. By that standard Narendra Modi belongs to the practiced charm school: he looks good and sounds convincing; he is ubiquitous to the point of being omnipresent; he adheres to touching religious traditions such as living on glasses of warm water during his roller-coaster ride in the United States; he’s punctilious about picking up the broom himself to show how the household is to be kept sparkling clean. Above all, his treasure chest of bridal booty is boundless. Six months into the honeymoon, and the promise of gifts keep coming …

The figures are impressive and the deadline targets ambitious: bank accounts for 75 million households to be opened by January 26, 2015, under the Jan Dhan scheme; 111 million homes to be equipped with toilets by October 2, 2019, during the Swachh Bharat mission; and housing for all by 2022 announces Venkaiah Naidu, the prime minister’s urban development and poverty alleviation minister. Even the MSGs (as Mr Modi’s Madison Square Garden fans are called) had lollipops thrown at them during the euphoric spectacle in New York: life-long visas for Persons of Indian Origin status and visas on arrival for Americans. Sadly, the October 2 deadline for e-visas set by the government has already slipped; as for visas on arrival or life-time visas, given the number of government agencies involved, the ideas are nowhere near completion. There are neither necessary security mechanisms in place nor enough trained immigration staff to handle an onrush of arrivals at metropolitan airports.
Freedom from immigration barriers for overseas visitors, however, is a relatively small matter compared to the financial freedom and freedom from squalor being promised to the millions of unlettered and unwashed at home. The prime minister has a messiah’s eye for the noble gesture and an impresario’s sense of timing – announcing Jan Dhan on Independence Day, Swachh Bharat on Gandhi Jayanti – but less prophetic is how these promised schemes will be completed to the punishing deadlines.

Many of his Cabinet cohorts appeared with brooms for decorous photo-ops on October 2, evidently sweeping the dirt from one corner to another, but if they had dived into the nearest municipal toilet, or faced the mountains of uncleared garbage over the holiday weekend, the pictures would have been more accurate. One of the persisting problems with most urban municipalities is the hordes of unionised and unaccountable safai karamcharis. For example, rosters of the National Capital Region’s three municipal corporations are stuffed with fake employees; in 2011 the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)’s office observed that the number of temporary employees in the department of environment and management services had swelled by 1,055 per cent -from 1,431 in 2006-07 to 16,525 in 2007-08. Biometric IDs to ensure attendance had not helped: one ID was allotted to 17 karamcharis. Wrong dates of birth, the CAG report added, resulted in “increased age of retirement of employees in a range of four months to 11 years”.

In some urban districts, and even villages, enlightened residents have taken matters into their hands by evolving public-private partnerships in sanitation, garbage disposal and waste management. The practice could be made mandatory in alliances between citizens, non-governmental organisations and municipality employees. However, this would mean cutting the inflated workforce, including “ghost” retainers that swell the wage bill. At a micro-level, these on-ground decisions are hard for governments to countenance.

Raise the numbers to scale and other ghosts become visible. Nitin Gadkari’s rural development ministry reckons that the target of 111 million toilets by 2019 can only be met if the government builds 50,000 every day. Finance ministry mandarins are similarly apprehensive about establishing 75 million Aadhaar-linked bank accounts in four months, given the stress faced by debt-laden public-sector banks, short on rural credit and infrastructure.

Several of these schemes – biometric IDs, rural toilets, visas on arrival – are carry-overs from the decade of Congress-led rule. Yet by the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA II) they were an albatross round the government’s neck for being shop-soiled and incompetent. Mr Modi has resonantly amplified these by spelling out targets, numbers and delivery deadlines. Poised to win state elections this month, with assurances backed by personal charisma, his honeymoon is at an all-time high. Post-marital blues for now can safely be postponed.

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