A Report Card of 730 Days
While the Narendra Modi government has unleashed a publicity blitzkrieg around its so-called achievements, a closer analysis reveals that not all is hunky-dory
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
A Facebook post which recently went viral recounts the experience of a bureaucrat who was brought out from retirement in 2014 to serve Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The contents of the post briefly stated: he had never seen a PM work so hard. Sometimes Modi would work for 36 hours without sleeping.
There is yet another post which is being shared widely on social media. It talks about how Modi— who has visited 40 countries since he took office— was going to visit five countries in five days. Such accomplishments would surely sit pretty in the Guinness Book of World Records. There is little doubt that after the PM has completed this term, there will be plenty of reasons for him to find space in the pages of this encyclopedia of remarkable exploits. Surely, such achievements would give unalloyed joy to his vast legion of supporters, who voted him to power in 2014. Modi had a muscular and charismatic presence which endeared him to his supporters. This was in stark comparison to the withdrawn and circumspect vibes of the professorial Manmohan Singh, who had pushed the country into a policy paralysis abyss.
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There is more evidence to be found of his remarkable energy levels: Modi delivers a speech approximately every 46 hours -- no interviews, though. Besides his public ‘performances’, he also speaks to the nation through ‘Mann ki baat’ -- telling the young and old how to be better citizens, students, and so on. And in between, he is tweeting and putting stuff on Facebook too! With the kind of herculean effort that Modi is putting in, indeed, there should be a perceptible change in the life of the ordinary Indian.
Therefore, it is surprising to see that the results of the PM’s long hours in office have got mired in controversy. After all, economic growth should be indubitable, as it can be quantified accurately. Similarly, foreign policy, in which the PM has invested so much time, should have delivered the necessary dividends by now. That is, if an eye had been kept on how the country’s interests could be maximised by being mindful of its history and geostrategic presence. Despite the haze that has been created by the `1,000 crore PR campaign about the marvelous job the government is doing, the unvarnished truth is that the PM’s hard work has not yielded the desired results.
Economy: A few days after the government completed two years in office, a report was released in which the Indian economy was shown as an excellent performer with 7.9 per cent growth in the last quarter. If the report was to be believed, the economy grew a robust 7.6 per cent in 2015-16, riding on some sterling performances in the agriculture and mining sectors. Expectedly, there was much applause over the long-awaited turnaround in our economy. The euphoric bubble was burst by a report in a pink paper(Mint) which claimed that the bounce in the economy was due to the large proportion that had been attributed to ‘discrepancies’ in accounting. In the 2015-2016 period, these discrepancies in the GDP data were `2.15 lakh crore, which is roughly 1.9 per cent of the GDP. To lend a context, it was a negative `35,284 crore in the last fiscal. The chief statistician, TCA Anant, waved off the rise in discrepancies as unimportant. All he managed to do was reinforce the impression that the government was souping up the numbers.
Just after the government had come to power, a similar statistical manipulation had occurred with the new GDP series. The Indian economy, that had shown no improvement of late, was suddenly portrayed as buoyant after the new GDP figures were released. From 5 per cent, the national economy had magically grown to 7.2 per cent and was presented as one of the fastest growing in the world. That image has been cemented after the release of the latest numbers.
Indeed, is anyone convinced of our status as the fastest growing nation in the world?
Not those who have left their villages due to the extreme drought conditions or those whose job offers have been rescinded by digital retail companies like Flipkart. There are scores of companies that have begun to cut costs and are reneging on their commitment to recruit from IIM and IIT campuses. And we are not talking about the hundreds of middle-level management institutes from where thousands of management graduates pass out. We are talking about top-tier institutions where the nation’s crème de la crème studies. Digital was supposed to be the new sector that was to create jobs, but so far it has failed in its promise. So has the great promise of ‘Digital India’.
From this standpoint, it is feasible to believe the sceptical economists who claim that the growth of different sectors just does not add up to the 7.9 per cent growth that the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) is claiming. What is lowering the credibility of the CSO and many other economic institutions, who are claiming an imminent turnaround, is the day-to-day experience of ordinary people. Besides growing unemployment, and huge joblessness, there is a fall in manufacturing and a spectacular collapse of India’s real estate sector in many parts of the country. Ghost cities, like the one that has come up on the Delhi-Jaipur Expressway, are becoming routine. Malls that had come up with much fanfare have begun to die slowly. Most of the people who flock to these malls do so for the air-conditioning. Shops in these malls do not get any footfalls, let alone sales. Similarly, in regular markets like Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, business is collapsing. This is not just because of digital disruption, but due to low purchasing power as well. A shopkeeper told this reporter that he would have to let go of a faithful employee who had been with him for 30 years, as there was no work. “I do not get even two customers a day,” he said.
Has the purchasing power vanished due to the government’s stringent anti-black money policies or is it due to the unpredictable nature of the tax regime and the nastiness that is built into the conduct of those who have the responsibility of implementing these policies? A London-based businessman says he has “lost faith in the government”. “Most of the businessmen I know have taken up residence abroad. They do not want to do business in India,” he adds. This businessman is a predatory capitalist, on the lookout for a good bargain by buying out businesses that are cash-strapped or cannot sustain themselves.
One of the statistics that is proffered to portray India as an attractive investment destination is the rise in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) which is estimated to have ballooned to $43 billion this fiscal. FDI is supposed to be good quality funding, as it usually leads to investment in capital expenditure and job creation. A closer analysis shows that much of these foreign funds are coming in to buy out Indian companies -- cheaply. So, in some sense of the word, India is changing, but many Indians will lose control of their companies.
Most of the foreign travel that the PM has undertaken was premised on the hope that it would attract investment from China, Japan, the US, UAE and, more recently, Saudi Arabia. What has come of all the promises?
The answer to a question asked in Parliament suggested that after the first year of high flying, the country had received some $19.78 billion as FDI. More recently, the UAE was planning to invest some $75 billion in India, but when their minister came to India he began to demand proof of policy initiatives that he claimed had been promised to him. He was disabused of the lofty promises made to him and he left in a huff. Similarly, the Saudis have promised to invest heavily in India, but it’s unclear how Riyadh perceives Modi’s overtures to its archenemy, Iran.
Returning to the issue of black money, the government has taken tough steps to bring the guilty to book. The latest figures show that black money, which accounts for 20 percent of the GDP, is on a steady decline for the past 10 years. Does that mean that big deals are being struck without the intervention of the ubiquitous broker? The truth is that new fixers have replaced the old ones and no one is complaining.
The beef ban in many states of the country, besides compounding the misery of cattle owners, has also severely hurt local economies. The ban on beef has spawned vigilante groups all over the country that stop cattle-carrying trucks and beat up/lynch their caretakers. Livelihoods have been impacted as unproductive cows that were normally butchered are being kept alive. Farmers are being pushed to the brink of ruin. The net result is that undue strain has been created on grazing grounds and cattle owners. Drought-hit Maharashtra is particularly hurt by these hordes of unused cattle, even while Hindutva vigilante groups backed by the police make life miserable for farmers and cattle traders.
There are scores of other issues that have contributed to the stasis that has fastened its grip on society, but what is not being emphasised enough is that the economy is not in the good shape it is being proclaimed to be in. If the monsoon delivers, the country’s fortunes could look up in the short run, otherwise, India is in for a grim summer which could sink the economy.
Foreign Policy: The PM has invested heavily in the realm of foreign policy. He has logged more miles than Manmohan Singh or any of his predecessors. To reiterate -- he has even travelled to five countries in five days. Over the past couple of years, he has engaged with the Indian diaspora in western countries and helped raise the profile of yoga by getting the UN to declare June 21 as the International Yoga Day. He has so far made three trips to the US and has simultaneously displayed a lot of energy by attending many bilateral and multilateral meetings. He is again going to the US in the days to come.
The pertinent question is: What tangible results have his foreign trips achieved?
The answer is: not much.
Take, for instance, the PM’s grand gesture to engage with the Pakistani establishment when he was being sworn in. So much hope was generated by that move that it seemed India and Pakistan would be able to make the much needed headway after all these years. What followed was a display of poor tactics rather than carefully crafted foreign policy. Ever since those heady days, India-Pakistan ties have been yo-yoing from one extreme to the other.
Modi’s much hyped diplomatic engagement with China also held a lot of promise, but that too became an embarrassing casualty of misplaced hope and an inadequate understanding of the Chinese mindset. In short, there was not just lack of preparation, but also too much reliance on the US and its dubious think-tanks to craft our foreign policy response towards our own neighbour, China. The recent trip of President Pranab Mukherjee to Beijing was to reassure the Chinese of our good intentions, but there is no clarity on whether the Chinese have warmed to us. They have made it amply clear that they will oppose our membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and also that they do not like India meddling in the South China Sea. The mandarins in Beijing are also wary of how we are trying to surround China with the help of the US, Japan and Australia in a quadrilateral exercise of sorts.
However, the most serious foreign policy botch-up has taken place right next door, in Nepal. The unsavoury spectacle of an ‘India-imposed blockade’ transpired after all the offerings that were made by Modi at the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. The Nepalis are upset with India over many things, but as new highways open up with China they will become even more argumentative with India. Nepal represents the biggest foreign policy setback in Modi’s two years in power. There is little clarity on how India will restore its friendly ties with the Himalayan nation, but what is clear is that you just cannot strong-arm a neighbor, even if it is entirely dependent on you.
Certainly, these two years contain crucial lessons not just for Narendra Modi, but for ourcountrymen as well.