Budget session, a blow for PM Narendra Modi

Economic Times, May 16, 2015

Balance sheets frequently do not tell the whole truth as a result of which investors often overlook the tabulation. Within government, no one would be wiser to this homily than the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Purely from the perspective of business transacted, parliamentary affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu is justified in his claim that the just-concluded Budget Session of Parliament was one of the most productive ones in recent years. Modi, however, is not a man to rest his oars because he knows that battles of perception cannot be fought with figures alone.

Because the government headlined legislations on land acquisition and GST as fundamental to its pursuit of a reformist agenda, the last hurray has not been Modi?s as they have now been pushed back, at least till the Monsoon Session. In ways more than one, the twopart Session has positive takeaways for both Modi and his main opposition ? the Congress.

An unexpected rally by Rahul Gandhi saw the BJP unnerved for the first time within the House, a fact evidenced by the time and effort made to counter the hitherto reluctant leader. Part of the problem for Modi is that the perceived recovery of the Congress has begun tantalisingly close to the beginning of the first anniversary celebrations of the government.

Ideally, Modi would have wanted to emerge from the Budget Session unscathed. But sending the land acquisition bill to a joint parliamentary panel is considered defeat and is seen as proof that even Modi can be forced to eat the humble pie.

Barring loyalists, the outcome of the Budget Session is unlikely to enthuse people because of the absence of ?big-ticket? achievement. Modi?s biggest adversaries are in no party or within his political fraternity.

Modi faces the biggest challenge from expectations he generated in the course of his campaign. It required little beyond common sense to conclude when the Budget Session began in February that this was a make or break period for Modi because major reforms are best initiated when political risks are safest to take. The Budget was the first indication that the government had recalibrated its strategy.

Modi stressed during parliamentary interventions he made, that his government was focusing on small measures and not dramatic decisions. Such strategy has no identification with the Modi persona. Few would remember that in the first half of the Budget Session, Modi consciously projected a down-to-earth profile by walking down for a meal at the MPs canteen in Parliament. But in a nation that prefers faulting leaders ? over Stalinist political cultures ? Modi?s indiscretions would have greater resonance.

Decisions of the government in recent weeks have not enthused markets and is yet to galvanise investment. To offset the parliamentary setback, the government used the executive route to clear proposals aimed at speeding reforms. But this reflects the dilemma of choosing between reforms and pro-poor policies.

Efforts are needed to convince people that reforms are not necessarily pro-rich. On this matter, Modi failed in convincing even his own political fraternity within the Sangh Parivar. Modi will hope that euphoria generated by the first anniversary will erase memories of a parliamentary session that hasn?t turned out according to the script.

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