Let me start by saying that I agree with all those who say that no government can be expected to do miracles in the first year of coming into power. Firstly, there is always too much to clean up or change, especially if the previous government was of a different political party and did things very differently. And, secondly, a country’s leader’s success is very much contingent on the team that he/she builds around him, which is a process that takes some time too.
That said, what is inexcusable is when things go from bad to worse. And, for a woman living in India, I believe that’s been the case this past year. Let’s unpack that a bit.
But, before that, let me say a few words to those who ask: why must we pay attention to fixing what’s broken for women over other pressing issues? First, if I could, I’d give you a hard slap across the face. Then, I’d sit you down on the hard cold floor and explain that it’s not just because women represent half or more of the population. It’s because women are, in this deeply-patriarchal society, the bedrock. Women are giving birth to and raising the leaders, innovators and change agents of tomorrow. Improve the lot of women and see how they make the biggest difference to society overall — more than any hashtag campaign or any group of hee-hawing babus and netas ever will. And, if you still don’t get it, then you need to just stop reading and leave. Now. Please.
Many will agree that the top five critical issues for an Indian woman today are as follows. Though these are valued by men and women alike, they take on, in my view, a particular importance for women in Indian society, given present and longstanding socio-cultural challenges.
1) Personal Safety — the ability to go out alone or after a certain hour
2) Personal Independence / Freedom — the ability to express oneself freely and to have a certain degree of financial independence
3) Equality and Respect in the Workplace — as more and more Indian women are taking jobs or trying to start small businesses
4) Ethical and Lawful Governance — women tend to fare worse in corrupt societies because they generally do not have access to the “you-scratch-my-backs-I’ll-scratch-yours” types of power networks or financial means
5) Cleanliness / Sanitation — women are the primary caregivers when there is sickness, disease, etc.
These are, indeed, foundational needs for an environment where women can grow, thrive and contribute meaningfully across all walks of life.
We don’t need to study hype-filled reports of how the present government has done in each of these areas. We simply have to open our doors, look out and talk to other Indian women we encounter on a day-to-day basis to know that the above have not only not improved but gotten worse. Turn on the news and there’s at least one major rape case reported every other day. Scan Indian social media to read how many women are being harassed and shut down. Look at the dirty streets, roads, buildings, workplaces (particularly those belonging to the government). Sadly, even the independent social activist organizations that are trying to lead the charge seem to be growing more vociferous in their claims about how they’re being stopped and / or muzzled.
Still Modi’s government has proudly presented a summation of a year well-played through this empty-sounding ‘One Year Letter from the PM‘. The position they’ve taken is that they’ve started a lot of things. Their hashtag is “#SaalEkShuruaatAnek”, meaning “One Year, Many Beginnings”.
If Modi was a corporate CEO in the West, his Board (if it was a decent one) would have told him that he had tried to do too much in his first year and not actually achieved much at all. When you take over a major organization — and, humor me by seeing India as such for the sake of this argument — you assess whether you’re in startup, turnaround, re-alignment, or sustaining mode. Admittedly, you’re going to find that different parts of an organization will be in different modes but you look at the overall picture.
Modi sold and won his entire election campaign on the turnaround promise. This is where one needs to take fast action: pick one unit or group or area that’s in trouble and work to get it back on track. Secure early wins rather than riding off in all directions. This latter is not easy because there are too many people, particularly in the several opposition parties at both the Central and State levels, who have different ideas, rightly or wrongly, regarding where efforts need to be focused and what needs to be fixed first. So, there needs to be ongoing negotiation about what success will entail and coalitions have to be built and sustained. Modi has focused on building international coalitions more than internal ones. He has tried to do too many things at the expense of not fixing any one of the basic problems above.
Now, in most organizations, a new leader would probably not be fired after one year of non-performance. But, he would be given rather strict orders to do better and deliver before the second year is out. And, if that does not happen, then, of course, there’s the bye-bye package. Modi will not be ousted in his second year unless there’s some truly egregious crime by his government or him. Even then, the Indian governance system is such that he may continue in power with impunity.
The questions then, simply, come down to whether Modi is a man of his word and whether he cares about leaving a meaningful and lasting legacy behind. Regardless of what his over-active PR Team’s hype-machine says, these two questions will only be answered when we are able to look back with enough time having passed. And, of course, by then, it will be too late for anyone to do anything but judge and record. Till then, we must bear the fruits of our, er, votes.
If I am allowed one message for the Modi government on this one-year anniversary, it would be this:
Congratulations on making it through your first year without being a total failure. However, till I can experience a tangible, noticeable improvement in one of the five above areas right here on my doorstep, I cannot accept that you have been a success either. Please stop with the hype across all forms of media. Make life for the Indian woman better and you will get all the support you need and more. Try, for example, #MakeWomenSafe instead of #MakeInIndia.