India's star abroad, Modi now needs to shine at home

Kevin Rafferty says India's leader, elected amid hope a year ago, must focus on domestic challenges

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 11:12am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 11:12am

A new star, potentially a superstar, hit the world stage in the past year. India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, abandoned the shrinking violet pose of his predecessor Manmohan Singh in touring the world to put India on the map.

India became the flavour of the week in Kyoto, Tokyo, New York, Washington, Sydney, Berlin, Xian and Beijing, as Modi came calling, on first-name terms with leaders of the world, and best-tweeting buddy with Japan's Shinzo Abe.

The only place where Modi's popularity is less certain is at home. Having swept New Delhi in general elections a year ago, he lost it convincingly in local assembly elections in February to the Aam Aadmi party, which took 67 of the 70 seats.

Using the stock market as the acid test, a year of Modi in power saw the benchmark Sensex index rise by 13 per cent, so he is ahead, but underperforming Singh after his first year in office, when the Sensex rose 31 per cent. So much for Modi's bold capitalist promise of getting business moving.

Modi put the relationship with neighbour China on an apparently friendlier footing. He hosted President Xi Jinping in his home state in India, then went to visit China, where he was frank and open with Xi. He had the temerity to tell his hosts face to face that China "should take a strategic and long-term view of our relations".

Modi does not have the same self-assured mastery as Xi. Indeed, Modi sometimes comes across as an uncomfortable mixture of showman and salesman trying too hard.

Was Xi listening? It was surely not a coincidence that when Xi was visiting India, Chinese troops intruded across the disputed line of control in the Himalayas. It was certainly not a coincidence that, as Modi was fêted in Beijing, CCTV was showing a map of India shorn of Jammu and Kashmir (disputed by Pakistan) and Arunachal Pradesh (disputed by China).

India is back on most leaders' world map. But Modi needs to spend time in India before time runs out on him. This may seem harsh. For the first time in years, India's economy is outperforming China's: growth will be above 8 per cent. But India has far to go. Temperatures rising in India to nearly 50 degrees Celsius have already killed more than 1,100 this year, and people have been warned to stay indoors.

More worrying, meteorologists warn that the heatwave may presage a poor monsoon, wretched news for the 65 per cent of rural Indians who depend on the rains and the crops that they irrigate for their livelihood.

Modi has the satisfaction that his opponents are in disarray. Rahul Gandhi, of the opposition Congress Party, took an unexplained break of almost two months away from India, but has come back, without any noticeable difference.

Politics is a remorseless business. By October, Modi will face state elections. At best, they will distract him; at worst, they will begin to whittle away his power.

Milan Vaishnav commented, in a report card for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that Modi's historic mandate still has to be seized. India's people were clearly restless for change because they threw out and almost obliterated the born-to-rule Congress. "Sloganeering should not take the place of getting implementation and execution right, and in several instances, the rhetoric emerging from the government has far outpaced the rate of change on the ground …" wrote Vaishnav. "The government has tended toward incremental adjustments rather than decisive reform."

Modi, while not quite a one-man band, lacks a team of ministers with a get-up-and-go attitude, which India badly needs. He needs more robust ministers in finance, law and education, as well as someone to promote good governance, which is the greatest failing of India.

Multinational companies, greedily eying the next great global growth story, would love to swarm all over India and have complained - correctly from their point of view - about continuing red tape, indecision and erratic tax policies holding them back.

Indians would rightly complain if Modi sold the store cheaply to foreigners. But much of the economic store is in the hands of domestic oligopolists who know how to spin the red tape with corrupt bureaucrats and politicians to keep out competitors and new ideas.

In another sense, no Indian ruler will ever have enough time, given that there are two Indias, that of the sophisticated, educated metropolitan elites and that of the poor villagers and their brave or desperate friends who have fled to the cities to pick crumbs from the tables of the rich.

As I saw in dusty Uttar Pradesh recently, poor villages have made progress: most now have electricity and mobile phones, some have schools. But they need more than 8 per cent growth to provide 300-400 million new jobs, and they need Modi to show more than star power at home as well as abroad.

Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group