Nobody, not even Narendra Modi, can drastically change India over the next five years

Overseas Indians think one man—Narendra Modi—could turn the country’s fortunes around. They’re wrong.
Overseas Indians think one man—Narendra Modi—could turn the country’s fortunes around. They’re wrong.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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LONDON—This is the festive season for most of us Indians. Diwali is just around the corner and Indians all over the world are preparing to celebrate this in their own ways, big and small. Last weekend, London’s Trafalgar Square hosted the city’s official Diwali jamboree complete with exorbitantly priced glasses of delicious lassi, swaying Hare Krishna devotees, precariously worn saris, unambitious dancing, and live music performances. Despite predictions of stormy weather, the square was packed.

Yet even here, halfway across the planet from the motherland, it was impossible to miss the political clouds gathering over India. At least a half-dozen volunteers for the Aam Aadmi Party (that’s the party that emerged out of the anti-corruption uproar last year) walked up and down the square’s northern side adjacent to the National Gallery and handed out flyers.

Mega Scams!” screamed the first line on one. “Indian Corruption breaks all records(2010-12) in Billions.”

No safety!  A woman gets raped every 22 minutes in India.

No medical facilities! 400,000 new-born [sic]die every year within the first 24hrs of birth.”

It was a document oozing earnestness—and oddness. The second bullet point in the section titled “How is AAP different from the political parties?” was:

No MLA or MP will be allowed to have a red light on their cars. They will not be entitled for extra security or a government bungalow.”

This was hardly my first brush with Indian politics during a Diwali gathering this year. And it certainly isn’t going to be my last.

Just the evening before, I’d attended the first of the season’s many house parties. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to politics. And because I am usually the only Indian journalist at these gatherings—the rest tend to be bankers, consultants, auditors, lawyers—I get asked a lot of questions.

Will Rahul Gandhi be projected as the Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014?

Is is true that Priyanka Gandhi is being saved up to be used in rural India in case the Congress finds itself in crisis?

What is Sonia Gandhi really suffering from? What are your sources saying?

But by far the most popular question is:

Do you think Modi will win?

This is the last Diwali before Indians participate in what many of us consider the most important elections in the history of post-liberalization India. Many of this year’s parties are going to feature Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.

For many Indians, this particular edition of the elections go beyond the question of who will form the next government. It is a titanic struggle over confirming or rewriting the fundamental ideologies of the Indian state. Should it be socialist? Should it be secular? Should it condone dynastic politics? How can it crush corruption? How can its institutions be rescued? How can it be made safer for its citizens?

In essence: What compromises should the state make? Do the old compromises make sense any more?

Whatever be the individual questions, there are two broad emotions that seem to be driving the next elections: anger and frustration.

All of this has made my fellow non-resident Indians very impatient indeed. They wish to see change in New Delhi immediately. They want to see the status quo toppled right away. And the majority of those who voice their allegiances publicly do so in favor of Narendra Modi. “Give Modi five years,” they tell me, “and he will change India.” I have heard this over and over again from Indian businessmen, writers, retirees and especially young people.

But I don’t think Narendra Modi can fundamentally change India in five years. Nor can Rahul Gandhi. Or the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal. Not because of any individual shortcomings in their leadership style or political prowess.

Rather, none can simply because you can’t fundamentally change a country like India in five years. You can’t redraw terms of engagement, redraft institutions, re-train operatives, re-align incentives and roll out many new systems all in five years. At least not in the wholesale, paradigm-demolishing way that many impatient Indians want.

And even when you do radically transform institutions in New Delhi, it will take time to see those changes percolate down to villages and panchayats in meaningful ways.

The usual counterpoint I am offered to this is that I am measuring speed of change by the old socialist ways. And that freeing up the private sector will accelerate things. This is undoubtedly true. But again we must not overestimate the private sector’s ability to do this. Only four out of India’s 10 largest companies are privately owned. More importantly 53% of India’s half billion workforce still work in agriculture.

Take the case of one of the Indian private sector’s greatest success stories: mobile telecommunication.

In 1994, three years after India embarked on a comprehensive program of liberalization, the government unveiled the landmark “National Telecom Policy 1994” in order to energize what had been a moribund sector.

Five years later the government launched the “New Telecom Policy 1999” in order to take care of shortcomings in the previous policy. Then followed almost a decade of continuous tweaks in policy that went hand-in-hand with exuberant private sector investments, from a host of local and international brands such as Reliance, Tata and Vodafone. In October 2004 the number of mobile phone connections in India overtook the number of landlines, but there were still only 44 million of them in a country of approximately 1.1 billion.

And then slowly penetration began to rocket. In 2010, the industry had its greatest year ever with an estimated incremental addition of around 227 million connections,

It is tempting to look at these numbers and think that they are a direct outcome of NTP 1994 or its successor, NTP 1999. Or to think that one decision in 1994 or 1999 changed everything. They changed things but so did countless other policy tweaks, steps, missteps, corruption scandals, innovations, investments—few of them following any kind of predetermined script. And only a decade or more after the original decisions were the fruits of this policy really tangible for most Indians.

So this, the most rapid of all of India’s growth stories, itself took a decade to pan out. Even after being boosted by policy, investments, entrepreneurs, consumers, favorable duties and fees, intense competition, kickbacks and a plethora of other enablers. Helping this process along was also the use of modern technology to run and maintain these networks, cheap handsets and a proliferation in mobile services.

Few of India’s major prevailing problems enjoy such an abundance of enablers. Whoever forms India’s next government will have five years of hard graft ahead of them just to point (or re-point) policies in the right direction. This government will have to pick the right fights. It will have to topple cozy arrangements between state and citizen, and state and industry. But which ones? Most of all it will have to fight the temptation to do nothing but the bare minimum to come back to power in 2019.

Much of this impatience for change is also coupled with the notion that the immorality and inefficiency that plagues Indian institutions is fed by a national network of evil with its control center in New Delhi.

So all India needs is someone to go to Delhi and shut this network down. This can be done, of course. And Modi has pledged to do so. To some extent, and with lesser credibility, so has Rahul Gandhi. Powerful prime ministers can change the discourse in the capital. But we need to be realistic about how long it will take for policy in Delhi to translate into better police in our neighborhoods and more electricity for our homes.

So the problem is not that so many Indians are impatient, angry or frustrated. But that they need to remain informed, impatient, angry and frustrated for the next several Diwalis and numerous elections. To tweak a famous old quote, the voter needs to stay outraged longer than his favorite politician can stay in office.