Report card: How Modi has fared as leader of govt and political leader

In less than two months, Narendra Modi’s first term as prime minister would have ended. How well or badly has he done?


Any evaluation of any prime minister of India must comprise two separate categories. One is to see how he performed as a leader of government. The other is to see how he performed as a political leader. The two are quite different.


Also, any evaluation of the governmental role must keep in mind a mitigating factor: In case they manage to serve the full term, all prime ministers should be allowed to make at least two big mistakes.


I define a mistake as being big if its effects last a long time and are very difficult to reverse. Thus, Nehru’s big governmental mistakes were the emphasis on heavy industry and the war with China.


Indira Gandhi’s big governmental mistakes were the nationalisation of banks and the privatisation of the Congress party. Rajiv Gandhi’s big mistake was the huge fiscal deficit he ran up and the decision to go into Sri Lanka with the IPKF. The latter cost him his life.


P V Narasimha Rao made only one big governmental mistake: Doing nothing when the Babri Masjid was being demolished. Atal Bihari’s Vajpayee also made only one big mistake, which was to trust Pakistan. Manmohan Singh’s big one was MNREGS. Its effects are almost impossible to reverse.


Modi’s mistakes


Viewed from this perspective, Narendra Modi’s one big governmental mistake is his approach to education, which will have lasting effects. The rest, like demonetisation, are reversible.


When a proper accounting is done of his role as the leader of government, it will be seen that like the rest of the prime ministers – barring Indira Gandhi – he has performed as well can be expected because the system doesn’t allow very much wiggle room.


So the best we can expect from prime ministers is that they don’t make more than two big, irreversible mistakes. Genuine errors of judgement – as can be seen from the tenures of Nehru, Rajiv, Rao, Vajpayee and Singh – go with the office.


On the whole, as the leader of the government Modi has performed remarkably well. It could have been much worse.


Modi, Modi, Modi!


What about Modi’s performance as a political leader? This is where most prime ministers get into trouble. Nehru didn’t for 15 years because the Congress was so strong then and Vajpayee didn’t because of his avuncular approach to politics. All the rest – and more so Modi – do quite badly on this count.


However, the difference between Modi and the rest is that unlike them he has never stopped being in campaign mode. While they didn’t get into campaign mode till the last 18 months of their terms, Modi from the day he told Parliament in May 2014 that he wanted 10 years as prime minister has had both eyes on the 2019 general election.


His basic approach has been to pre-empt political challenge. When he was seeking to become the BJP’s candidate, which was from 2008 onwards, he slowly succeeded in projecting himself as the only possible choice.


This is exactly what he has done now as well. The 2019 election is not BJP vs the Rest but Modi vs the Rest. This is a high-risk strategy because if the BJP does badly – say by losing 100 or more seats – his party colleagues will put the blame on him entirely.


And this could happen for a very paradoxical reason. All his achievements as a good governmental leader will be negated by the failure of his political strategy because while charisma is one thing the TINA (there is no alternative) factor quite another.


Thus the BJP stands no chance at all in at least 175 constituencies out of the 543, if not more. There is no TINA there.


It is in the remaining 350-odd constituencies that Modi can really compete. Can he win 272 there?

Finally, if you pause and think about it, Modi’s approach is the exact opposite of what Manmohan Singh had done: In his case all the political blame has gone to the party while all the credit for governmental performance has gone to him.


I leave you to judge who is the cleverer of the two.

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