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India Journal: Modi’s ‘Decisive Break’

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In several installments  posted to the Trickle Up blog last week and this week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 6 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

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After an exhilarating two days meeting Trickle Up participants in Odisha, we are now on a 7-hour train ride from the city of Jharsuguda (population 75,000) to Bhubeneswar (population 650,000), which is the capital of the state of Odisha and the site of the airport where we will then fly two hours to Delhi.  Amid our very busy schedule this week, this is a welcome opportunity to read the sheaf of Indian newspapers that I’ve been saving this week.

The big news this week, aside from Hudhud, were elections in two important Indian states and whether Prime Minister Narenda Modi deepens his support in the Indian legislative bodies and with the number of state Chief Ministers (equivalent to US governors) who are members of his BJP party.

modi-election-marchFor those who might not have been paying attention, the briefest of background: Mr. Modi was elected Prime Minister in May in a landslide victory.  India is the largest democracy in the world, with 554 million people voting (66% voter turnout) -- compared to about 130 million people (57% turnout) voting in the 2012 US presidential election.  Mr. Modi's rise to national leadership came from his 13 years as Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. His leadership there was notable for strong economic growth, modernization of some antiquated laws, and pro-investment incentives.  He is a Hindu nationalist who has been criticized by many for not taking steps in 2002 to stop three days of anti-Muslim violence that resulted in between 800 and 2,000 Muslim deaths, depending on whose count you believe.

I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Modi at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York a few weeks ago during his first US tour.  He proved to be, as I'd read, quite charismatic and stirring. He is an outstanding, energetic speaker and presents a very bold agenda for change in India.  He is a marked contrast to his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who was somewhat bland and viewed by many as the last gasp of the political dominance of the Gandhi family and the Congress party.modi-council-on-foreign-relations

A person of humble origin, the son of a tea seller, Mr. Modi is passionate and eloquent when talking about poverty.  In August, in the annual Independence Day speech, he opened by promising to  “take a solemn pledge of working for the welfare of mother India, and also for the welfare of the poor, oppressed, dalits, the exploited and the backward people of our country.” (“Dalit” is equivalent to “untouchable” and “backward people” is a common Indian expression.) He then went on to talk specifically about several issues related to poverty alleviation: violence against women, the “poison” of the caste system and other forms of discrimination, feticide (India has a ratio of 940 girl birth for every 1,000 boys), exploitation of farmers and others by moneylenders, ending open defecation and other unsanitary practices, and the need for bank accounts for all of India’s 1.2 billion citizens.  Plus issues pertinent to every Indian: more efficient and trustworthy government, greater economic growth, national service, education and more.

The Prime Minister’s agenda is enormously ambitious. While I was in India, he chose an Indian economist from Washington as his chief economic advisor.  Arvind Subrammanian, who was born and raised in India, made an interesting observation about Mr. Modi in a speech last May at the Rotary Club of Madras, India, as quoted in the Business Standard newspaper:

"Modi represents a decisive break from dynasty rule like Deng Xiaoping broke with the madness of the Mao Zedong ideology.  Other things that make me think on this are Modi's decisiveness, pragmatic approach and the obsession to get things done, like the Chinese reformist leader.  Also, what strikes me as a parallel between the two is the kind of long-term horizon for their countries.  Of the course, the other parallel is that both of them have baggage."

modi-fabulous-hatI am an absolute novice at understanding Indian politics but, following the Indian news closely during the election and on this trip, I am impressed by the scope of his ambitions.  It seems that hardly a day goes by without the media-savvy Prime Minister announcing another bold initiative, tweeting directly to hundreds of thousands of people sweeping the street to launch a "clean India" campaign (which is definitely needed).  Predictably, pundits and opposing politicians are now    looking for substantive accomplishments and meaningful change -- especially in taming India's relatively high inflation (6.5% over the past year but as high as 9.13% in 2013 and 11.17% in 2012).

"Mr. Modi, where is the change?" was the headline of a column in the Business Standard.  "At some point, the prime minister is going to have to stop talking and start doing," wrote columnist Mihir S. Sharma.  Modi "has demonstrated an appreciation of the things that have gone wrong with the Indian economy...But no action his government has taken, or seems to be planning to take, is anywhere as near as epic in scope as the problems he eloquently outlines."

Time will tell, of course, and India is not an easy place to govern.  But I do hope he can make real progress on his anti-poverty agenda.

Next in the series: WHAT PARTNERSHIP MEANS
"Our partners are the linchpin in our work.  All are local organizations, deeply familiar with the people and context of the villages where we work.  Partner field staff organize Trickle Up savings groups, deliver training to women, provide continuous coaching and “handholding” through frequent visits, and monitor the progress of women and savings groups."