Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the architect of India's big pro-business push.
Did Modi meet sky-high expectations in first year?
02:10 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Ravi Agrawal is CNN’s New Delhi Bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter: @RaviAgrawalCNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Ravi Agrawal: Indian Prime Minister made progress in certain areas but hasn't yet met the ambitious goals he set

He says many of the expectations will take many years to realize

CNN  — 

In politics and life, expectation is everything.

The India I have observed for the past three decades has generally had low expectations. This shouldn’t be surprising: the average Indian makes less than 1/20th what the average Singaporean or American takes home. And Indians have by and large tried to make do – with their own incomes and with the deficiencies of the state.

Businessmen would conjure up loopholes because they were defeated by the system; Indians talked of “frugal innovation” – there’s a single word for it in Hindi, “jugaad” – in part because major Western-style R&D projects were a pipe dream. Dreams were dreamt, but they were modest dreams of a sober Indian middle class life.

Ravi Agrawal

Gradually, though, through the 1990s and 2000s, as India began to open up and liberalize, Indians began to get more and expect more. They began to hope – cautiously, of course – that India could be something bigger.

Then came Narendra Modi.

Great expectations

No Indian politician has ever talked so big and so well.

I remember the electrifying 2014 campaign trail. Half of India’s population doesn’t have access to toilets? No problem: we’ll fix that in five years. Communications are difficult? Here’s “Digital India.” Not enough jobs? Here’s the “Make in India” campaign. Think India is dirty? Try the “Clean India” initiative. Global investors scared to put money in India? We’ll make India business-friendly. There was an answer to every problem, a dream for every Indian.

It was a winning formula. Here was a fresh national leader, a bold outsider, saying all the things people yearned to hear. And as a result, Modi won big last May: he was the first Indian Prime Minister in three decades to control a complete majority in the country’s lower house of parliament.

The mood was euphoric. Big business was confident it finally had its man and that this man had a mandate. Middle class India was proud that one of their own had made it. Global investors couldn’t believe their luck: India was finally going to fulfill its potential. By and large, few stopped to ask how; it was difficult not to get swept up by the mood of hope.

Across India, and even around the world, Modi marketed India Inc. He sold the dream.

But with great expectations comes the danger of a great fall.

When marketing backfires

If clothes make the man, they can also break the man. During U.S. President Barack Obama’s high-profile visit in January, Modi made a bold sartorial choice, going with a dark pinstriped suit. It wasn’t just any suit: each pinstripe contained his full name “Narendra Damodardas Modi” in microprint, inscribed hundreds of times across his jacket and trousers.

India wasn’t impressed. The suit cost $16,000, some eight times as much as the average annual salary in India. (In the face of criticism, Modi later had the suit auctioned for nearly $700,000, with the proceeds going toward a project to clean up the River Ganges.)

Later, in May, at a speech delivered to Shanghai’s Indian community, Modi said this to his audience: “Earlier, you felt ashamed of being born Indian, now you feel proud to represent the country.”

The remark was Modi’s way of marketing his year in power, but it drew an instant backlash on Indian TV. Many Indians said Modi was mistaken in assuming they had ever been ashamed. #ModiInsultsIndia began to trend on Twitter.

Modi’s relentless marketing worked when he was a candidate, but it is tougher to pull off as an incumbent.

The aura of invincibility that Modi carried a year ago has been punctured. In February, despite hitting the campaign trail himself, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suffered an embarrassing defeat in Delhi state elections, picking up just 3 out of 70 seats available.

Meanwhile, the stock markets are beginning to sour. Reality is setting in: India was always going to be a chaotic, messy democracy.

But opinions can seesaw. It’s worth taking a step back to look at Modi’s first year in office: How well has he really done?

It’s the economy, stupid

The most important indicator by which to judge Modi is the economy. And the Indian economy is growing well.

There is no doubt that Modi has been lucky.

When he assumed office a year back, global crude prices were running at about $100 a barrel. By the start of the year, they had plummeted to $50 a barrel. For India, which imports about 80% of its crude, the fall in global prices was an immense windfall. For a start, the deficit has stayed under control.

Second, inflation has been kept in check.

Third – and Modi deserves a lot of credit for this – the government has taken the opportunity to cut long-running subsidies on diesel while pushing up fuel taxes. This might cause trouble on the streets when oil prices