Dear Narendra Modi,
The coming Bihar state election has made you lose your once-clear sense of direction and conviction. You seem terrified of doing anything that may antagonize vote banks, or draw charges of corruption or pro-business sympathies. You seem indecisive and defensive, not tough and decisive as in your successful 2014 campaign.
Cynics already call your regime “UPA-3 minus big corruption”. In February, AAP thrashed you in the Delhi election. So, your partymen view the Bihar election as a make-or-break event that will ruin your moral authority and charisma if you lose. Fear of losing Bihar is converting you into a flip-flopper.
Here’s some unsolicited advice. Please start taking all national decisions on the assumption that you will lose in Bihar. Stop viewing it as a make-or-break event. Expunge fear of that loss, and focus on the bigger issue of running India well till 2019, winning a second term as Prime Minister.
You will not definitely lose in Bihar. You may win. If so, treat that as a bonus, not a strategic achievement. Follow Kipling’s exhortation, “if you can meet with success and defeat, and treat those two imposters just the same.” There will be life after Bihar, whatever the outcome.
Don’t let Bihar distract you from ruling India effectively. If you constantly sacrifice that long-term aim to populist pressures arising from one state election after another, you will be following in the footsteps of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
Your most glaring loss of direction is on land acquisition, but that’s not an isolated example. Your Maggi noodles approach suggests a weak government terrified of being called pro-multinational. Some lab tests suggested high levels of lead (and maybe MSG) in Maggi noodles, but tests in other labs did not. Nor did tests in Singapore and the US. This raised as many questions about the reliability and standards of Indian labs as of Nestle’s noodles.
Now, Nestle must be punished for any wrongdoing. But the evidence was always so inconclusive that it called for caution before acting. Instead, Maggi noodles were quickly banned in state after state (including those ruled by the BJP). The Bombay high court has now quashed the bans as arbitrary and violative of the principles of natural justice. It says many labs that did the testing were not even authorized labs under the Food Safety Act. It has ordered the re-testing of Maggi noodles before reaching a conclusion.
Mr Modi, you should have adopted this measured approach. Instead, you have launched a class action suit against Nestle. If the lab tests vindicate Nestle, you will look truly foolish, and Nestle can sue you for immense damage to its brand value. Such suits have succeeded in other countries where governments brought false charges that could not be sustained.
Why visit foreign countries asking multinationals to “Make in India”, and then subject them to the sort of treatment meted out to Nestle? You are gaining a reputation for talking big about “minimum government, maximum governance” and then doing the opposite. You refuse to rein in over-hasty, arbitrary food inspectors and tax officials, apparently for fear of being called pro-multinational.
Foreign companies now want to buy insurance against arbitrary penalties for which your tax authorities are becoming famous. But Bloomberg reports that all top global insurance companies that offer such insurance in other countries have refused to do so in India, saying Indian tax behavior is too erratic and unpredictable.
Your new spectrum sharing and trading policy is replete with red tape. Why? Are you terrified that a liberal policy will be portrayed by opponents as another 2G scam? Have you no self-confidence or conviction?
Let’s return to election trends. Yes, winning Bihar would be lovely. Yet hard data suggest you will lose. Compare the NDA’s vote shares in the general election and in recent state elections. In every case, the NDA’s vote share was higher in the all-India poll than in state polls. More voters want you in Delhi than want your party in the states.
The NDA’s vote share in Maharashtra fell from 50.2% in the general election to 47.1% in the state election; from 34.7% to 33.2% in Haryana; from 21.5% to 18% in Odisha; from 40.1% to 35.0% in Jharkhand; from 34.4% to 23.0% in Kashmir; and from 46.4% to 32.2% in Delhi (2015).
In Bihar, you won just 38.8% of votes in the general election. That was a multi-cornered contest. You can hope for more votes in the coming straight fight, but can you be confident of 51%? Hardly.
So, hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Don’t obsess about Bihar. Instead, focus on purposive governance to establish you as a strong leader worthy of re-election in 2019.