Narendra Modi’s first hundred days have seen the emergence of a distinctive form of govern- ment. Historical comparisons are fraught, but Modi’s democratic sensibility seems closest of all people to Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was
described by Jonathan Fenby as a republican monarch. This
phrase was not meant to suggest an oxymoron or hypocrisy.
It was meant to rather capture something distinctive about
the nature of De Gaulle’s democratic engagement: His unique ability
to both wield authority and yet personify the people.
Modi’s engagement has a similar
quality. It rests on the conviction
that authority come directly from
the people. It has the confidence
only self made men can have. He
tries to project in his persona a
national consensus. He wants the
country to march in lock step. And
in times recently marked by a paralytic rancour, this message resonates.
So the first noticeable achievement of the hundred days is he is
acting as a prime minister with the
authority of the people behind him.
And he is acting that part with flair.
But it is also a government that
has the trappings of centralization
and monarchy. The simple truth is
that at the moment all power is
vested in one individual. When
power is so centralized, the prime
minister can act like a school principal: Both morally exhorting everyone and holding them to discipline
from the top. In some cases the prime minister has
deployed this brilliantly.
His Independence Day focus on sanitation was powerful,
and only he could have carried it out. In almost any other
leader so far, talk of toilets or cleanliness, either carried the
faint odour of a paternalistic elitism, or a grim reminder
that we all want clean so long as someone else is doing it for
us: Cleanliness was something you escaped into, not a general condition for the country you desired.
If nothing else, Modi’s singular achievement has been
politically and administratively mainstreaming the issue of
sanitation. It has been to tell an unpalatable truth with rare
political directness, conviction and lack of embarrassment:
You cannot be a great country if you cannot take care of
your filth and your shit.
He has also told us, in no uncertain terms that India’s
main failures are not market failures or State failures, they
are social failures. These failures are most grimly reflected
in the horrendous gender violence in the country. The
prime minister did well to remind us of that.
The strength of this republican monarchy is that things
will move in all those areas where the prime minister takes
an interest; the danger is they will move only in those areas
where he takes an interest.
On the economy, the prime minister has made a reasonable start. His approach has been to go for lots of incremental initiatives rather than big bang reforms. There is now a
palpable optimism about the economy. There is visibly a
new energy in some parts of government, particularly in the
infrastructure sectors. The government has taken some
path breaking initiatives which, if implemented, have a
The Jan Dhan Yojana, is an innovative way of providing
bank accounts to all households in India. But the government will have to ensure that this becomes a scheme for
financial inclusion, not just another loan mela. The government’s first Budget was not spectacular. But it did have the
virtue of signalling that the government is committed to
sound macro economics: It is not going to let the fiscal
deficit go out of control. The ministry of commerce has
some interesting proposals on the ease of doing business.
The government has so far not come up with any new initiative to fight inflation: As of yet it does not have a new
India’s biggest challenge is institutional regeneration.
Here the government has a worrying record. On the one
hand, it is reassuring that a prime minister is in charge. But
there are as yet no signs of institutional regeneration. In
many ways there are worrying signs. The government has
not set a good precedent in the appointment of governors;
there is a palpable fear that it is seeking to unduly influence
the judiciary. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s conduct in Delhi
has too many shades of the old politics of manipulation.
There is not even a whiff of institutional reform in the air,
particularly around institutions that are at the core of government’s power, like the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The government has, for the most part, settled into the
ways of parties in power: They do things because they can,
not because they are right.
One ministry that is an area of particular concern is the
ministry of environment. India has poisoned air, polluted
water, and a precarious ecology. Yet this ministry is weakening environmental protections. This is doubly dangerous.
On the one hand it does not recognize that the environment
is irretrievable. On the other hand, it will also make business vulnerable.
Rather than building a credible environmental regime,
the government is taking too many short cuts, which will be
open to challenge in the courts later on. Similarly, the ministry of human resource development seems in practice to
have regressed. At least in the realm of higher education, it
seems be going back to a command and control structure.
The sense you get is that this government is strong on the
hardware of development: Roads, power, infrastructure. It
is weak on the software of governance: Education, building
institutions, and looking at long-term issues like the environment.
But the single biggest political challenge facing India is
the growing communalization and rural violence in Uttar
Pradesh. To be fair, Uttar Pradesh’s problems are a creation
of the Samajwadi Party that is now more like a mafia mas-
querading as a political party. But the BJP is contributing
its fair share to communal polar-
ization in the state.
The prime minister had promised not just a moratorium on
communal violence, but a new
kind of discourse, where we
would rise above being Hindu or
Muslim. But in UP his party is
doing its best to deepen the communal divide. And the prime
minister, who claims to take a
moral lead on so many matters is
silent and is not reigning in his
On foreign policy the prime
minister has made a confident
start, but it is too early to tell how
he will handle the complicated
chessboard of international relations. His commitment to regional integration in South Asia and
his recognition of India’s responsibility is admirable. Pakistan has
been a tough nut to crack for any
government, because of its own
internal problems and the intransigence off the Pakistani military.
So drawing some red lines may
not be a bad idea. But we need a
strong political engagement in Kashmir to address simmer-
ing discontent there. Unfortunately, the situation in
Kashmir also risks further polarisation as elections
The first hundred days are a reminder of the risks and
possibilities of a republican monarchy. On the one hand
there is a palpable energy and authority in the prime minister. On the other hand there is a risk of centralizing power
to the point where it becomes unaware of longer term problems brewing in the country. The support scaffolding that
it will take to execute the prime minister’s ideas is being
built far too slowly: The government is remarkably slow on
appointments, and creating new structures that can give
De Gaulle made the mistake of thinking that his country
would change simply because he represented change. Modi
will slip into the same mistake unless he matches his intoxicating oratory with a real strategy.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President, Center for Policy Research,
a New Delhi-based think tank, is one of India’s leading polit-
Narendra Modi must
match his intoxicating
oratory with a real
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
‘Modi’s first hundred days are a reminder of the risks and possibilities of a republican monarchy. On the one hand there is a palpable energy and authority in the prime minister. On the other hand there is a risk of centralizing power to the point where it becomes unaware of longer term problems brewing in the country.’
AHMAD MASOOD /REU TERS
A Republican Monarch