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Modi government a month on: Challenges mount after fresh beginning
Wednesday June 25, 2014 10:19 PM, Prashant Sood and Anjali Ojha, IANS

It has been an energetic start to the new government but challenges are already beginning to show. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the efforts to streamline governance by pitching for speedy decision-making in his first month in office and taken the first of "tough" measures as his government tries to revive a sluggish economy and nudge some Congress appointees to quit gubernatorial offices.

Modi, 63, has sought to live up to his avowed goal of "minimum government, maximum governance" by seeking to change the official work culture and style of governance. The first month saw decisions that marked a departure from the past - the PMO becoming the nerve-centre of governance, the "group of ministers" mechanism of the previous UPA government disbanded, and Modi keeping "all important policy issues" in his remit.

But the moves that earned Modi positive media coverage were shadowed by challenges including the kidnapping of Indians in Iraq, rise in inflation and predictions of a deficient monsoon. The government, in its first month, also effected an unpopular decision of hiking rail passenger fares by a steep 14 percent even as it prepared to present its first fiscal budget July 10.

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader said the rail fare hike was the first of the tough steps and more would follow. "Some more measures will be taken which may not be so popular but will be in national interest," BJP vice president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told IANS.

"The UPA left the economy in shambles, so there will be some decisions which will not be very popular," he said.

The government's apparent intention to replace Congress appointees in gubernatorial and other institutional posts raised the political temperature. While the Congress protested, there were murmurs that this was one of Modi's methods to ensure lesser friction in decision-making and implementation.

The BJP denied there was any message to governors and heads of organisations like the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the National Commission for Women (NCW) and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to quit.

"Our government did not ask anyone to quit. It is for these people to ponder whether it is morally right to continue in their posts," Naqvi said pointedly.

While members of the NDMA have resigned, sources in the NCW and NCPCR confirmed their heads had been sent feelers to quit.

Modi, who took oath May 26 at the head of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, sought to inject a new working spirit in a sluggish bureaucracy by meeting the secretaries, the topmost bureaucrat in the ministry, and telling them that they should not hesitate in taking hard decisions and he would stand by them.

The Modi government, in its first cabinet meeting, decided to form a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to unearth the billions in unaccounted money stashed outside the country. This has been one of the BJP's poll promises. On its success will hinge a lot of the government's credibility, though analysts say it is easier said than done.

Modi also faces the immediate challenge of ensuring safe release of Indians held hostage by suspected militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). It is the first foreign policy test of the government, and Modi himself has been chairing high-level meetings on the issue and monitoring the situation closely.

Among Modi's early initiatives was to ask his ministers to prepare their "timetable" for the first 100 days. Every ministry has been told to give an action plan and a deliverable report which would be monitored by the Prime Minister's Office, which has become an all-powerful nodal institution in the new dispensation.

Modi, who scripted history by leading the BJP to victory in the general elections and whose rise from humble origins has spawned a series of books, initiated a new foreign policy outreach by inviting leaders from SAARC countries for his swearing-in. He chose Bhutan, a neighbour with which India shares age-old ties, as his first foreign destination. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi flew to Delhi to meete Modi.

The eventful first month also saw Modi giving his first speech in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, making his first outstation visit to Goa, a state that has proved crucial in his political career. Modi also made his first visit to a defence facility and addressed navy personnel aboard the carrier INS Vikramaditya, India's largest warship.

Former home secretary G.K. Pillai said it was too early to comment but prima facie it appeared that the Modi-led government was moving at a faster pace than the previous dispensation.

He said the government was in the process of finalising the budget which will spell out its thinking in areas such as growth, investment climate and foreign direct investment. "The budget will be a critical document," Pillai told IANS.

A senior railway official who did not want to be identified said Modi's becoming prime minister had ushered in speed in governance. "Both availability and visibility of ministers have increased in offices."

Vinay Sahasrabudhe, convenor of the BJP's good governance cell, said big things cannot be done in a month but the new government has generated hope that "ache din aaye hain" (good days have come).

"The earlier government had lost confidence of the people. (People feel) the (new) government has honest objectives, they will do justice," Sahasrabudhe told IANS.

However, Congress spokesperson Shobha Oza said there was no single area where the Modi government had made a difference.

"Whether it is inflation or women's security, the government has not stuck to its promises. Inflation has risen. The government is supporting a minister facing allegations of involvement in a rape case. Railway fares have been hiked. Modi is centralising power," Oza said.

(Prashant Sood can be contacted at prashant.s@ians.in and Anjali Ojha on anjali.o@ians.in)



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