Substance over optics, Mr Modi

Good diplomatic and economic news for India is disguising the failure to address core issues

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves as he boards an aeroplane at the Kabul  International Airport on December 25, 2015.  Modi, on his visit to Kabul, inaugurated a swanky new parliament complex at an estimated 90 million dollars and gifted three Russian-made attack helicopters to the Afghan government.  AFP PHOTO / Wakil Kohsar
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How voters see the world has always been important to politicians, and that is particularly true for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Whether it is his recent impromptu visit to Pakistan to reset fraught relations or the way growth in India's economy is set to outpace China's this year, he knows the value of good news but also how to be seen associated with it.

However, as we reported this week, the full picture is neither as straightforward nor as rosy as Mr Modi's recent carefully cultivated optics might suggest. While India is doing better than most of its troubled Brics counterparts, its growth figures reflect in part a change this year in the methodology of how the country's GDP is calculated, resulting in much higher figures. As a significant importer of oil, India is also benefiting disproportionately from the exceptionally low crude oil prices globally.

With the BJP having had an absolute parliamentary majority since it swept to power in May last year, precious little has been done to address the pervasive issues that have stymied India meeting its considerable potential and providing real opportunities to its people. These problems include high levels of subsidies and regulation, impediments to foreign investment, the prevalence of corruption at all levels and the failure to bring in recommended economic measures such as a consumption tax.

Some of these changes – particularly to do with subsidies and taxes – will be unpopular with the electorate in the short term, which is why governments traditionally take such measures soon after being elected in the hope the longer-term benefits will have manifested themselves by the time the voters return to the polls. The failure of the BJP to use its commanding electoral mandate in the first 20 months of its term hints at a lack of political will.

Indians abandoned the Congress party and voted overwhelmingly for the BJP to change how things are done so their prospects in life more closely reflected their skills and energy rather than their connections. The real optic on which voters will judge Mr Modi at the next election is whether he can achieve just that.