This Article is From Aug 27, 2014

Modi@100. A Sense of Someone in Charge.

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the United States in March 1933 amid the blight of the Depression, with America's mood at its lowest. He began with a pulsating speech that had many memorable phrases, including: "This nation asks for action, and action now."

In the following three-and-a-half months, Roosevelt lived up those stirring words. There were dramatic announcements of economic and social policy. A flurry of legislation was pushed through Congress. An attempt was made to talk up the national mood. History knows this period as Roosevelt's Hundred Days. Since then, it has become the gold standard by which to measure a new government.

India experienced its own 100 days equivalent in 1991, when P.V. Narasimha Rao changed the direction of economic policy. Jairam Ramesh was in Rao's PMO for exactly 100 days between June and September that year, before being exiled to the Planning Commission. Ramesh later wrote an evocative essay on Rao's 100 days and the foundational chapter of India's liberalisation.

The expression "100 days" came back to the headlines in May 2009, when the UPA government was re-elected. Immediately a series of ministers announced 100-day targets. That was the high point of the UPA's second term; in weeks, internal contradictions caught up. The 100-day programmes were never realised, and became a cruel joke.

When Narendra Modi won a handsome victory in the 2014 election, it led to yet further speculation on "100 days". Tellingly, the Prime Minister himself never advertised this timeline. Indeed, the Modi government is not presenting any 100-day report card and making no effort to treat the day as worthy of special attention. It will probably pass, like so much in this government's life so far, as a media event that Modi and his ministers barely take notice of.

Why is this happening, and what would Modi's 100-day assessment be? Those are different questions, but to some degree their answers converge. The reason the Prime Minister was not excited by the idea of a 100-day agenda was almost certainly a function of his realisation that the challenges before his government were too vast to be rectified by gimmicky and quick-fix lists. The failure of the UPA government to deliver in 2009 would also have influenced him. As the July 10 budget made apparent, Modi and his team have preferred a cautious start to a swashbuckling one.

Was this the only course possible? Maybe not. Nevertheless, Modi has opted for it and has done so keeping in mind political and administrative capacities as he understands them to be. As such, we have to live with it.

What have been Modi's achievements in the past 100 days? The opening of the defence manufacturing sector to greater FDI is certainly a big one. Despite the hopes of many (including this writer) of a cap higher than 49 per cent, the fact is there has been interest in international business, particularly from Israel, Japan and the United States.

In speaking of a fiscal consolidation over the coming two to three years, taking the first steps towards an ambitious urban development mission and abolishing the Planning Commission by citing, among other things, the need for a successor body that is more alive to India's federalism, Modi has been true to several of his election promises.

Few prime ministers have embraced the cause of gender equality and spoken so bluntly on women's issues as Modi has in his early days. His repeated references to the sanitation challenge and the promise to equip every school in India with a toilet for girls in the next one year are commendable as well.

Yet, beyond all this, Modi's principal achievement has been that intangible: the reassurance he has brought to governance. There is a sense of Prime Ministerial authority, of somebody in charge, of the buck stopping with someone. In the UPA period - particularly since the street protests of 2011 - this was painfully absent.

Governments can do two sorts of things when they are elected. First, they can make small but important changes to what they have inherited. They can improve efficiency (or "ease of doing business", as the finance minister puts it). They can be less corrupt and more transparent. They can be less ebullient and more discreet and sober. Second, they can make radical departures from the past.

In his first 100 days, Modi has done the first, but not the second. His instincts and his mandate necessitate the second. They require him to grab history by the scruff of its neck. To be fair, perhaps that is a task for his first 400 days - for 2015 would be a defining year for Modi - and not just for his first 100. As things stand, the Modi Prime Ministry has begun; India still awaits The Modi Project.

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