The best way for Narendra Modi to neutralise his critics would be to show that secularism thrives, not through public arguments and abuse, but through development

We are among the millions of Indians who can hardly wait for a change in leadership. As is widely predicted, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, seems headed to become the next Prime Minister. Indian electorates, particularly the young, have responded overwhelmingly to his promise of ushering in good governance and rapid development, through swift actions, which will bring about speedy results on the ground.

If the poll predictions are right and if he does indeed become the next Prime Minister, Mr. Modi’s immediate challenge would be to restore confidence in the government. He has promised that his government will “not to be vindictive” towards his political opponents. Indeed, the best way to neutralise his critics would be for Mr. Modi to show that secularism thrives, not through public arguments and abuse, but through development. As he has demonstrated in Gujarat, he is serious about making a difference by delivering results, and does not get distracted by playing the blame game.

But will he meet India’s high expectations? Only time will tell, but we suggest a few critical areas where early signals have reassured us that he means business.

What Modi should do

We should expect Mr. Modi to make the Central Cabinet machinery more focused by streamlining power and authority, particularly in the areas of national security, foreign trade, investment, manufacturing, energy and infrastructure, and placing these sectors under competent leaders. And we should expect him to continue to appoint to key posts efficient and honest officers who deliver results, not favours. We can also expect him to make the bureaucracy work hard for the benefit of all the people, as he stressed that all public officials, particularly Indian Administrative Service officers, are the servants of the people and not their rulers. They are “karam yogis not karamcharis,” he said in Gujarat. If India’s giant administrative apparatus can be energised at all levels, and if corruption can be kept in check, this can make an enormous difference to the lives of all Indians.

The priorities for development are vast. This development would require long-term and sustained action. We hope that Mr. Modi will make a credible start, if elected, through decisive action in the most critical areas, which will show early results.

First, there is an urgent need to control inflation, inherited from the Congress government, caused by massive fiscal deficit. We all know that deficits are even higher than stated in the official figures when we take into account quasi-fiscal deficits and deficits by States. Unaffordable and inefficient subsidies are at the heart of the problem. We should expect the next Prime Minister to replace wasteful subsidies by targeting direct cash transfers to the needy. This includes the misguided ‘atta-daal’ scheme and the massive fertilizer subsidy. If Mr. Modi comes to power, his opponents will no doubt raise a hue and cry over the poor being neglected, but he can tell people the truth: these subsidies are wasteful, do not reach many poor people, and are a major source of corruption.

Second, we should expect him to deliver his promise of a dramatic upgrade in the sorry state of infrastructure. The most critical priorities are to end the perpetual power shortages and provide connectivity to every village in India. We should also expect him to implement a firm timeline for the completion of the golden triangle roads to at least six-lane divided highways and introduce fast trains, like the ones in Japan or Europe, between large Indian cities.

Third, having governed a large State, Mr. Modi undoubtedly understands well that development in a vast country like India cannot be managed from the Centre. We should expect him to move towards a truly federal system that our founding fathers had envisaged, defining more strategically the role of the Centre, and leaving most development functions to the States and institutions closer to the people. The States should, in turn, be expected to mobilise most of their own resources for development and hold themselves accountable to their citizens. Most central schemes could be devolved to the States and through them, to local institutions. Central funds can be used for incentives to improve performance and deliver better development outcomes.

The role of cities

Fourth, Mr. Modi has made it clear that cities need to play a much bigger role in development in the 21st Century. Indian cities enjoy little autonomy in revenue mobilisation and expenditure management. State politicians are reluctant to give up control over municipal governments. A major initiative would be to announce the 50 largest cities as candidates for the status of “special cites” (as is done in China), offer large funds to those that are given full autonomy and mobilise greater resources.

As the old saying goes: “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” Mr. Modi has demonstrated during his campaign that he is an accomplished poet. Based on his solid record in Gujarat, we are hopeful that he will convert his agenda to even better prose.

(J. Shivakumar and Inder Sud are international consultants who served as Directors in the World Bank.)

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