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New India & Modi's Squandered Mandates || Midweek Matters 39

13-12-2021published_dt 2021-12-13T09:07:36.027Z13-12-2021 14:37:36 IST
2021-12-13T09:07:36.027Z13-12-2021 2021-12-13T09:07:36.027Z - - 18-01-2022

Hello and Welcome

To Midweek Matters.

I don’t know about you, but I need to pause once in a while and recapture things that happen around me to fully process their impact on our collective lives. If I don’t do that, each event appears fresh, separate, discrete, and unconnected. I miss the underlying common theme that gives the breathless succession of events a pattern and a context. I miss the wood for the trees. The big picture eludes me. I also tend to become insensitive to the cumulative implication of the events for our polity, economy, social fabric and for our pluralistic and democratic Republic as a whole. The latest overwhelms and the earlier fades from view. If I don’t once in a while pause, critically examine and connect the events, my mind ceases to retain their gravity. It becomes inured to the accumulating weight. Today is that once-in-a-while day. I want to quietly meditate on the import of the rapidly parading events in our New India, and share my reflections about them with you.

Let’s look at New India's journey from its beginning, in 2014. The overture was mesmerising. The charm offensive, seductive. The promise was enormous, the rhetoric captivating, publicity blitz dazzling. Ache Din, Good Days. Resolute government. Innovative policies. Fencing the borders that would double up as a massive row of solar power plants. Employment for our young. Bringing back ill-gotten money stashed in Swiss Banks. Each bank account of our citizens to have about fifteen lakh rupees from that. Bringing down prices. Doubling of farmers' incomes. Cooperative federalism. Prime Minister and all the Chief Ministers to be Team India. And the Prime Minister to be Pradhan Sevak. Communal harmony. Hindus and Muslims not to fight against each other, but together they are to fight poverty. That was the call. There came programmes with evocative names like Start Up India, Stand Up India, Skill India, Make In India, Digital India, Swach Bharat, 100 Smart Cities, Mudra Scheme, Ayushman Bharat, Prasad, JAM Trinity with Jan Dhan in the lead, One Nation One Tax that is GST, setting up of NITI Aayog to give a new direction and transform the country and, not to ignore the the goal of making India a five trillion dollar economy. Its Sab Ka Sath-Sab Ka Vikas, Sab Ka Vishwas, with the latest addition, Sab Ka Prayas as the grand theme of this regime.

It was euphoric. The publicised agenda was developmental, federal, inclusive, harmonious, and forward looking. The government was, we were told, on a mission to redefine India. Make it a self reliant nation, what it now calls, an Atmanirbhar Bharat. A self confident nation highly visible on the global stage, claiming its rightful place in the comity of nations. Our Prime Minister travelled to countries near and far, criss crossed continents. Rubbed shoulders with world leaders and hugged quite a few of them, and called them by their first names. He even publicly endorsed the reelection bid of one of them. His very first entry into our Parliament was with a sense of utmost humility. He bowed to its masonry structure, touched the threshold of the temple of our democracy with his forehead to display his deep sense of reverence to the democratic spirit.

The grand and artfully choreographed events that launched the various programmes, their impactful optics, their stirring names stayed in the public mind. But the cold printed numbers in the successive annual reports of the Ministries that are in charge of programmes like Skill India, Stand Up India, Make In India, Swach Bharat, Smart Cities, Mudra, could not hide their lacklustre performance. Not surprisingly, the government leaders no longer take pride in announcing the outcomes of these programmes. Take for example the pitiable situation with regard to Mudra loans. The State Bank of India's review of it shows how poor the outcomes are. Seven long years after its setting up, the NITI Aayog is yet to produce any set ideas that are of transformative value to the nation.

 

Its papers are of indifferent quality, with hardly anything to offer by way of substantive policy guidance to the union and state governments. The Aayog looks undecided about its role: whether to act as a think tank or a monitoring agency, or be both at the same time.

The promise to bring back monies stashed abroad seems to have disappeared from the agenda. Instead, a number of bank defaulters found safe passage out of the country under the present government's watch and are cooling their heels abroad. The sleuths of our various investigating agencies, extremely skilled and resourceful when it comes to arresting and slapping sedition charges on young climate activists, students, farmers, journalists, are out of their depth when it comes to acting against people like Mallya, Mehulbhai, Nirav Modi and others. The promise of 15 lakh rupees for every citizen's account, we are told, was after all a jumla. So, no need to have any expectation on that. The GST regime continues to be dogged by very obvious rate irrationalities. Avoidable glitches in its administration have become a source of harassment to the businesses, especially small businesses. No other country which implemented a similar uniform national tax regime took this long to address the hiccups. That our government is simply not able to wrap its head around it only shows its astonishing level of incomprehension.

Fuel prices are at an all time high. For some days, they rose almost everyday. Cooking gas has become unaffordable to lower middle class families. Government leaders smugly telling us that inflation is under control make us wonder if anyone of them has gone to a provision store or a vegetable market in the recent past. The economy is yet to return to the pre pandemic level. Mind you, that itself was a slowdown trajectory with low levels of consumption and declining credit off take with both rural and urban sectors poorly absorbing the labour force. The pandemic has only worsened what was already a battered economy. Battered by a mindless demonetisation. Thankfully, the government and the ruling party have stopped singing praises of that master stroke. But that’s no solace to those who suffered by the pointless move that broke the back of our large unorganised sector.

Failure to address the demand side and the stimulus package that was little more than a budgetary sleight of hand made matters worse. The green shoots that the government sees as signs of recovery are limited to big corporates and yet to be found in the small and medium scale sectors. Shift of displaced labour force from industry and urban sectors to agriculture and rural sectors has only increased the distress in the countryside. Labour force participation figures are yet to give us cheer. Government leaders, however, are still unwilling to acknowledge the problems. Targeted policy measures to address these problems that bedevil our economy are conspicuous by their absence, despite whatever economic wisdom that is available to the government in the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council and the Finance Ministry itself. The best talent available in the government is deployed to formulate dysfunctional schemes to indiscriminately sell highly valuable public assets cheaply. And the best articulation skills in the ruling party are summoned to sell those ill conceived plans to the public in the name economic reforms.

 

The incompetence with which the second wave of Covid-19 was handled by the government is matched only by the vaccine mess its unpreparedness has created. A premature vaccine Maitri, a quick about turn to ban even the export of pre ordered vaccines from a manufacturer in the country, failure to pay advances in time to Indian manufacturers and make risk investment, accord approvals for foreign vaccine manufacturers to supply Indian market, the differential pricing for union and state governments, leaving the states to find for themselves… the list is long as it is sordid. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and those deaths were avoidable. Visuals of mass cremations, bodies of Covid dead strewn on the pavements of our cities, dead bodies floating in the holy Ganga were disturbing.

The other day the government told the Lok Sabha, without batting an eyelid, that it had no information about the United States blacklisting NSO, the Israeli company that manufactures military grade spyware and sells to governments. It also said that it has no intention of banning the company. Earlier, the government stubbornly refused to tell the Supreme Court whether it had indeed bought the spyware or not. The apex court had to constitute an independent committee to inquire into the allegations of its use in the country, to establish who used it, and to probe who authorised its use. The government told Parliament that it had no data on the death of farmers who sat in protest against the now repealed farm laws. That it had no data on the death of police personnel, doctors and other frontline health works during the pandemic. That it had no data on the deaths of sanitation workers. Data on unemployment by the National Statistical Organisation is suppressed. We are yet to hear from the Reserve Bank of India on the final tally of the old currency that returned to the banks after demonetisation. Over a hundred academics from across the world signed a memorandum expressing concern over declining credibility of India's data.

The government seems to miss a vital point. Suppressing, obfuscating and massaging of data cannot really make the people form opinions one way or the other in the long run. That works in the short run for headline management. Because ultimately they form opinions on the basis of their lived experience.

Our parliament is no more a forum for discussing legislation and for calling government's attention to troubling public issues to make it accountable. Bills are rushed and approved at the speed of light. Those that are consigned to standing committees, like the Data Protection Bill, do not come out of them for years. The government is reluctant to listen to Parliament. The latest turn is disallowing the media to cover our Parliament's proceedings. A high profile adviser to the government recently went to the extent to enunciating a doctrine that the civil society could be the enemy of a nation. He was probably unaware that he was only regurgitating a discredited creed of many military dictatorships in Latin America, Africa and Asia in the 1960s and 70s.

I started making this list. And now the government's overall theme is unmistakable. Let me stop the list here. It makes me feel sad and anxious. I feel anxious because we have strayed far away from what we had signed up for in 2014. We signed up for a New India with complete trust, hope, great expectations. Anxious because those expectations, that trust and hope are belied. To stay in office, to get a renewed mandate, to win state elections, to cover up failures, the leader minted as the nation's deliverer in 2014, and his party had to resort to gaslighting the voter, bad mouthing the first Prime Minister of the country, manipulating the narrative, and resorting to manoeuvres that unleash the base animal spirits in our polity that swim below the surface of our society with deep fault lines. Anxious because a person holding the exalted position of Prime Minister of India had to descend to cat calls in his election rallies in order to pick up a few assembly seats.

 

Sad because a leader who obtained two decisive mandates in a row today relies on optics, headline management, display of muscular nationalism, and communal polarisation for political sustenance. Sad because to cover up the past vaccine mess and to erase the devastating Covid tragedy from public memory, the government had to mark the PM's birthday by administering two crore jabs on a single day and manufacture a milestone. It had to dress up the much delayed administration of hundred crore jabs as an achievement. Sad also because the PM's political fortunes today are predicated on the electoral victory of a state leader with retrograde medieval mindset. Anxious because the PM has to showcase construction of temples and renovation of holy places, developing of religious circuits, rely on activities of vigilante groups, othering of minorities and stoking the memories of partition horrors to stay politically relevant. Sad because an influential section of the media has turned into the clapper boys of this dark agenda. And should this prove insufficient, in desperation the leader may even be egged on to contemplate a suicidal gamble beyond the country's borders. That’s deeply worrying.

 

That’s all for this week.

Will be back again next week, Wednesday afternoon, lunch time,

At 1:00 o’clock.

Stay safe, and do take good care of yourselves and all your loved ones.

Until then, Bye.

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