There is little ambiguity about the stature of Narendra Modi on the world stage. The foreign gaze tends to be more detached and objective, and not just in his case. No doubt aware of this, approaching the end of his first five-year term, Modi carried himself with the demeanour, deportment and assurance of a much re-elected Angela Merkel, wrong or right, at the recent G20 Summit in Argentina. And the other heads of government—President Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin, President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe amongst them, met Modi as a familiar figure and with the warmth reserved for an ally.
They not only appear to accept Modi in the first rank of world leaders, but take for granted that he is going to be at the helm in India till at least 2024. The two unique trilateral meetings Modi attended at the G20 underlined the strategic importance attached to India in the geopolitical order. One was with Trump and Abe, and the other with Putin and Xi.
Modi has managed, through his signature style of hugs and homespun sincerity, underpinning solid research by his foreign office teams, to befriend many who may be at loggerheads with each other.
Lest he gave the impression of grandstanding, Modi also attended a series of bilateral meetings and was careful to plump for a multilateral world order. And he pointed out, yet again, that the scourge of global terrorism spared no country. The new emphasis Modi laid was on cooperating to nab fugitive economic offenders and their assets. This found its way into the final communiqué too.
All this earned him enough goodwill to shift India’s hosting of the G20 Summit to 2022, India’s 75th year as an independent nation. This too seemed to assume that Modi would be standing at the ceremonial gate to welcome the world leaders in 2022.
Modi has been making plans and issuing deadlines, such as housing for all by 2022, from the very first year of his government in 2014. Many of his initiatives tacitly assume a decade in power to see it through. Voters too may be well-persuaded of his honesty, sincerity, drive to give him the time to execute his transformational vision.
This Indian Prime Minister has acquired the stature of a man of destiny globally, and is still astonishingly popular at home. His unbounded energy, personal charisma, patriotism and sense of purpose have been noted with approval in the capitals of the world. By way of contrast, the amount of domestic abuse from the Opposition that Modi seems to eat for lunch daily is recognised as a virtue, almost a personal trademark of Zen-like tolerance. In a related context, Modi has also put World Yoga Day into the calendar with India as its champion.
At the same time, India has strengthened its military and technological reach. Its fledgling nuclear triad capability is a reality. An indigenous aircraft carrier will join its Navy in 2020. Naval ships in addition to land batteries and aircraft are armed with Brahmos, Barak and other of the latest missiles. There are new howitzers and field guns from America and South Korea, capable of hitting targets at 30 km. Armed Predator drones are on their way from the US. The Army will soon be equipped with India manufactured AK-47s. There are bullet-proof vests and night vision goggles. A new deep-strike commando force is being readied. Fleets of new attack helicopters are on their way, from both America and Russia. A most advanced missile shield has been ordered.
ISRO is notching up success after success in the launching of satellites of all kinds. India is preparing for manned space flight. It is making ready to mine the seas for minerals.
The difficult economic changes the Modi government has brought in a boisterously democratic country are admired by all. Even totalitarian USSR fell, after all, because it could not be reformed by Mikhail Gorbachev.
This new Modi style can-do-ism is in stark contrast to an India long regarded, with wry humour, as no more than a “functioning anarchy”.
India is the fastest growing major economy in the world, and has raced up the ladder in terms of ease of doing business. The World Bank, IMF and other multilateral lending institutions are very pleased, despite Opposition bids to denigrate, doubt and belittle.
Major economic reforms such as GST, the bankruptcy code, massive digitisation, internet connectivity, empowerment of rural hinterlands, strides in alternate energy production, have all scored good marks.
There is electrification of every village. 90% of all households are now converted to cooking gas. Rural roads, micro-finance, banking of the unbanked, health insurance, direct subsidies and the provision of livelihood, if not the requisite number of jobs, are seen as dynamic innovations. Yes, there is rural distress still, despite acquisition floor prices for crops and guaranteed off-take, farmer loans, subsidies. But much more needs to be done to modernise rural India in term two.
However, achievements in multiple priority areas have whetted international appetite for even more modernisation. Foreign governments are beginning to visualise a developed India, one finally on the road to fulfilling its potential.
India’s massive appetite for oil, technology, nuclear power, armaments, electronics and millions of other goods and services is both lucrative and most impressive. None of the powers-that-be want to see this political dispensation destabilised. The Indian stock markets, with a significant FII presence, seem to concur.
And going into the last months before general elections, as luck would have it, oil prices have come down, the rupee has gained strength against the US dollar, even as bilateral currency swap deals have been executed both with Iran and the UAE, both major trading partners.
Inflation and the deficits are under admirable control, and bad debt problems in banks and NBFCs are being tackled. Infrastructure development has hit new highs, connecting business hubs, rural hinterlands and strategic outer reaches. Diplomatic initiatives have avoided sanctions for India’s purchases and dealings with Iran and Russia.
Corruption and criminality are being tackled. Extradition of criminals not only brought in a key Dawood aide, Chhota Rajan from Indonesia, but again now, a British middleman, Christian Michel, from the UAE, wanted in the Augusta Westland helicopter bribery case. Fugitive business baron Vijay Mallya, sheltering in the UK, could well be next.
Even the higher judiciary and the Supreme Court, long perceived to be partial towards the Congress, has started giving decisions that favour the Modi government. It has allowed income-tax cases against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case to be reopened. The government has also moved at last against Robert Vadra.
Five exit polls on 7 December mostly predict a close contest in the Hindi heartland. There is, however, no sweep in favour of the Congress. The BJP has managed to hold fast despite expected anti-incumbency, even though two of their chief ministerial candidates, in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, are seeking re-election for the fourth time. Rajasthan, which tends to alternate winning parties, might yet give the state once again to the incumbent Vasundhara Raje. Telangana is likely to be retained by KCR, and tiny Mizoram may be the only state to stay with Congress.
Results of these so-called “semi-finals” will be announced on 11 December, coinciding with the first day of the Winter Session of Parliament.
In addition, the Modi government also proposes to present an unprecedented full budget instead of a traditional vote-on-account on 1 February 2019.
Notwithstanding all this, there is a furious Opposition narrative of Modi on his last legs, about to be swept out on a wave of popular discontent. There are no jobs, they cry. Farmers are dying. Statistics are fudged. This is a corrupt, communal and crony government. Institutions are being subverted.
But if this negative sentiment fails to deliver wins for the Congress when these Assembly election results come, the prospect of even the broader Opposition reviving its fortunes in the general elections of 2019 appear bleak.
The global powers are a step ahead. India’s economy will double to $5 trillion before the next election in 2024, putting it ahead of all others, except the US and China. There is no going back. And an aspirational India realises as much. It seems to have found the leader to take it where it wants to go.
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