Extrapolating the future of a government from the results of one state election is silly, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced a united opposition and two very strong leaders in Bihar; this is unlikely to happen everywhere. But Bihar has put the spotlight on many issues that can hobble this government; issues that businessmen and investors have tended to ignore so far. There are many earnest suggestions on what Mr Modi should do now. Some like Akash Prakash (writing in this newspaper) are optimistically looking forward to many changes in the three years before Mr Modi hits the general election trail again.
But, unfortunately, no one has a clear idea about how this government wants to transform India. We can only judge from its actions, which include the following: One, a strategy of impressing global leaders and the Indian diaspora, possibly to attract more investment. Two, ambitious new schemes like Swachh Bharat, Digital India, etc. Three, reshaping the previous government's many social schemes with different branding and marketing such as Jan Dhan Yojana. If Jan Dhan and the insurance schemes were indeed as successful and life-changing as claimed by the government, it is worth pondering why they were not a big talking point during the Bihar elections.
Meanwhile, public sector companies continue to guzzle money. Bad loans are rising in banks but no one seems to be accountable as yet. There are clear indications that Mr Modi also wants to continue to run a "tax-and-spend" government. "Taxtortion" continues as before, although there is talk about better grievance redress. The red tape that hobbles businessmen from expanding and creating jobs has barely loosened.
On the positive side, Mr Modi has ensured that there are no major scams. It is quite another matter that this government has also not gone after the perpetrators of scams under the previous regime, despite its fiery pre-election rhetoric.
So what we have so far is the launch of many schemes, no scams and status quo on most fronts, barring the work of a couple of hard working ministers. Into this situation come the Bihar results, triggering fresh challenges for Mr Modi. Here are a few issues that may hobble the government over its remaining term.
- The BJP faces a series of elections in states where it is no force at all - Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Will it win in Assam where it has imported the controversial politician Himanta Biswa Sarma from Congress? It may win in Uttar Pradesh, though, if it faces a multi-cornered fight and not a combined opposition.
- There are issues brewing in the important state of Maharashtra. Sources tell me that the Shiv Sena, which has been smarting since the Assembly elections of last year and constantly sniping at Mr Modi, is demanding a larger pound of flesh. It is asking for three key portfolios - home, irrigation and housing development.
In 2017-19, four BJP-controlled states go to polls. Is there a reason to assume that these are certain to go the BJP way, including absolute majorities in Gujarat and Rajasthan? If not, what would be the implications? What if the opposition actually cobbles together a grand alliance against Mr Modi in the run up to 2019?
- One may preach to the opposition to work together in the national interest, but they have neither the obligation nor the incentive to do so. Most likely, the entire opposition and some in the BJP are deeply jealous of Mr Modi's rise to the top. Their moves are as much personal as political. I will be really surprised if anything much gets done in the winter session of Parliament and in its future sessions unless something unforeseen and dramatic happens.
- Government finances are not in great shape. The fiscal deficit has been kept in check by a huge fall in oil prices over the past year and quiet tax hikes, not by cutting down unproductive government expenditure. Foreign institutional investors have turned lukewarm about India and the rupee has turned weaker.
If Mr Modi does not deliver on his promises by 2019, his dramatic 2014 demand of "hisaab do" made to the Congress Party may come back to mock him. Many may argue that Mr Modi, like all other politicians, should not be held to his many pre-election promises. He probably has his compulsions and his priorities, and deep structural changes take time in a democracy. But he does not have the compulsions of a weak coalition government.
Changing the system so as to give more freedom to people, allow meritocracy to flourish at all levels and enforce the rule of law without discrimination is a very long drawn process. Unfortunately, we are yet to embark on this tough journey; what is worse, there seems no sense of urgency to do so. This is the reality. We need to accept this reality and take decisions accordingly, keeping an open mind about the future. It may be prudent to assume that nothing extraordinary is likely to happen in the next three years. Businessmen and investors are a naturally optimistic bunch. Optimism is essential to risk-taking. Optimism about the country is a noble sentiment. But misplaced optimism will lead to misjudgment and disappointment.
The writer is the editor of www.moneylife.in