Ellen Barry


New Delhi — During the months leading up to the spring parliamentary elections, Indians looked at Narendra Modi and saw what they wanted to see.


Right-wing Hindus saw a cultural warrior. Working-class voters saw an incorruptible outsider who would impose discipline, from the “Delhi durbar,” the elite cliques dating to the Mughal courts, down to police constables. Industrialists counted on having an advocate at the top. And public intellectuals in New Delhi, among them centrists who had abandoned the Indian National Congress party, saw an economic reformer who would use his enormous mandate to introduce bold, potentially unpopular policies that would reawaken growth.


Someone was bound to be disappointed.


By the summer, around 70 days after Mr. Modi’s swearing-in, the first chorus of disappointment emerged from advocates of radical change, including some who served as economic advisers during his campaign.


What they had expected was not happening. Mr. Modi’s government introduced its first budget on July 10, to the kind of breathless television coverage typically reserved for royal weddings or moon landings. But it was absent any move that could be described as bold, like lifting caps on foreign direct investment; rolling back the previous government’s subsidy programs; or repealing taxes levied on transactions after the fact, which have long driven away potential investors.


Much of the budget suggested that Mr. Modi had decided to adjust, rather than dispose of, the economic policies of the previous government led by the Indian National Congress party — a surprise to those who had listened to his bellowing attacks on the campaign trail. He has made few changes to the top echelon of the bureaucracy appointed by Congress, most notably extending the tenure of the highest-ranking civil servant, the cabinet secretary, Ajit Seth, who had been scheduled to retire in June.


“Here is a government that came in with a lot of hope, riding a tide of high expectations, promising change,” Bibek Debroy, an economist who advised Mr. Modi during the campaign, wrote in a column in India Today. “Ennui has already set in.”


Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the Center for Policy Research, wrote in The Indian Express that Mr. Modi’s government had frittered away its honeymoon period on “an odd combination of trifles, bureaucratic cross hairs, alibis, risk averseness and a shadowy politics of stealth.”


The government risks losing its credibility, Mr. Mehta said, “if the prime minister does not come out swinging soon, in a way that can become an exemplar.”


Mr. Modi is proving to be a quiet leader. He does not attend the late-night, whiskey-fueled gatherings that drive social life among the New Delhi elite, instead maintaining the monastic schedule he kept as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat. His most confident steps have come in the realm of foreign policy, where he has used his rhetorical gifts as hypnotically as he did in his campaign. At home, his trademark oratory — ubiquitous for months before the election — is rarely heard.


Instead, the prime minister is said to be spending many hours in conference with senior bureaucrats, trying to identify bottlenecks and regulatory obstacles that have kept infrastructure projects in limbo for years. This is consistent with what he did when he took control of Gujarat. For the first two or three years, as he worked intensively within the bureaucracy, he “disappeared off the front pages,” said Ashok Malik, a prominent columnist who supported Mr. Modi’s campaign.


Mr. Modi “has a bit of the student in him,” Mr. Malik added, and this, together with the relative inexperience of his ministers, has led to a “degree of overdependence on the bureaucracy.” He said the leader was “finding his feet.”


“When you’re faced with a bureaucrat who has been around for 40 years, throwing jargon at you, it can be very overwhelming,” Mr. Malik said. He added: “It’s only been two months. If he’s still doing the same thing after eight months, that will be something to worry about.”


The markets have continued an upward trend, but the buoyant expectations of the spring have been tempered. Analysts say it will take at least a year and a half to two years for the new government to turn around India’s economy.


One argument for patience is that, despite winning a majority in the lower house of Parliament, Mr. Modi has not yet consolidated enough power to impose coherent economic policies. His Bharatiya Janata Party still hopes to take control of a series of important states in the coming months, which is necessary to make gains in Parliament’s upper house. So it might be safer to introduce significant changes in 2015, during a stretch of time between major elections.


Mr. Modi, with his knack for showmanship, may also be waiting for the right moment to make his presence felt. This week, crews have been preparing the grounds of the Red Fort in Old Delhi, once the residence of Mughal emperors, for Mr. Modi’s first Independence Day speech, on Friday. On the same occasion, 67 years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru informed a new nation of its “tryst with destiny.”


But this early wave of disenchantment is a reminder that the man India elected this year is, in some ways, a cipher.



He captured Indians’ imagination by promising economic growth, but he never gave a blueprint of how he would achieve it. His record in Gujarat establishes him as pro-business, but it says little about how Mr. Modi will use economic policy, or even how he will handle the markets.


When he takes the stage at the Red Fort on Friday, he will do so as a leader who has yet to fully reveal himself — a screen onto which hundreds of millions have projected their hopes.


(August 12, 2014)

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