New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi rarely speaks on economic issues. His commitment to economic reforms and development is unwavering; but his Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, mostly addresses these matters in public. This is part of his ministerial responsibilities. The Reserve Bank Governor, Raghuram Rajan, also frequently makes his pitch apropos the economy. But given his quasi independent status, his views are also anticipated for their independent tenor.

Prime Minister Modi, however, broke his silence on matters related to the economy today, and this is to the good. He said validly that “By all economic indicators, India is doing better now than when we took office 17 months ago.” He briefly adumbrated that GDP growth rate was up, inflation controlled, fiscal deficit lowered, and the rupee stable. “Obviously, this did not happen by accident,” the Prime Minister observed to his critics. “This success is a result of a series of well-thought policies.”

What stood out though in his speech at the Delhi Economics Conclave was his description of the economic reforms’ process as a “marathon, not a sprint”. This clarification is necessary to check enthusiasts of “big bang” reforms who have been railing against Modi’s alleged slow pace of work.

India is not China and much less Singapore. Transforming the economy of a democracy is lots harder than turning around a totalitarian state. Stakeholders in a democracy are more numerous and exercise varying degrees of veto. If you should like the creamy-layer principle established by the Supreme Court to be vigorously enforced, it will be opposed by vested interests. Getting land for industry, to quote another example, is always a tricky process.

The consent of public opinion is critical to the success of reforms. Stakeholders have to be convinced with incremental steps that reforms will repay handsome bonuses. The policy of universal banking that the Modi government has set in motion is a major step in that direction. When the poor realize that their money in the bank remains theirs even though they may not be in immediate physical possession of it, their trust in the institution of banking takes a giant leap forward. The next step is trust in the state.

The state has to establish trust before it can propel the reforms’ process. Under CPI-M rule, West Bengal became the scarred example of how not to acquire land for industry. Using authoritarian Chinese methods, the former CPI-M government simply appropriated fertile lands for industry, and used its cadres to silence protests, sometimes violently. When these practices led to the defeat of the CPI-M in elections, the reforms’ process in West Bengal collapsed. Opposing industrialization, Mamata Bannerjee was the net gainer, but now finds herself at a crossroads.

There can be no shortcuts to reforms. At every step, stakeholders have to be taken into confidence and convinced. Competitive politics harms the process, as the Congress’s dirty politics on the Land Bill shows. But there is no escape from this, unless prior consensus on reforms is obtained. When Prime Minister Modi speaks of the reforms’ process as a “marathon, not a sprint”, he speaks to a recognition that the transformation must ceaselessly have to continue after him to succeed. Only a non-partisan approach to reforms would yield results.

What about the view that Prime Minister Modi must rush reforms through in his present term and not space it as if assured of a second? The view is not entirely without merit, but from the Prime Minister’s Office, the scenario might not be very appealing. For one, it ties reforms to the person of Prime Minister Modi, which is inescapable to an extent, but it cannot, all the same, be made into a central feature. Secondly, the whole speeding up can stir such ferment that the reforms’ process can grievously suffer from withdrawal. What if populism wins over reforms?

Prime Minister Modi is arguing for small and irreversible steps to take reforms forward. Slowly but surely, the country will develop an appetite for bigger reforms like the Land Bill. When reforms become second nature and a necessity like clean air, India will have arrived.

Editor’s Note: 1. It is cruel, shocking and condemnable that, in this age, a Dalit cook of Kolar, Karnataka, Radhamma, is being ostracized for her association with the midday meal scheme for schoolchildren. The state government must immediately act to restore Radhamma’s dignity and suitably penalize her casteist detractors.

2. It is never too late for the Union government to petition the Supreme Court to establish an SIT for investigating the 1984 riots, to which no closure has been brought.