Deciphering Prime Minister’s address to the nation: ₹20 lakh crore package a red herring

Not the package but what the Prime Minister left unsaid could hold the clue to his 33-minute address to the nation last night. As for figures, they have never been the Prime Minister’s strong point

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
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Uttam Sengupta

Had we been in the year 2021, the special stimulus package announced by the Prime Minister last night would have been 21 lakh Crore and not 20. That is because a pleased Prime Minister emphasised in his address to the nation last night that in the year 2020, he was announcing a package of 20 lakh Crore. It actually rhymes well in Hindi, Bees me bees, leaving some of us to wonder whether the figure was suggested by the PMO, the finance ministry or the PM’s numerologist, astrologer or the speech writer. Ekkis me Ekkis?

The redoubtable Suhel Seth, PR and advertising guru, however publicly exclaimed his admiration. Who would have thought of it, he exclaimed approvingly last night on social media. Economist Surjit Bhalla, whose column thankfully no longer appears in The Indian Express on Sunday because of his current assignment abroad, agreed. Bhalla added the adjective ‘brilliant’ to Seth’s exclamation.

But figures are not the Prime Minister’s strong point, suggest sceptics. Remember the Rs 1.25 lakh Crore package he had announced for Bihar? Or, the Rs 15 lakh that he had pledged to pay every Indian with the caveat that it would depend on all the Black Money stashed abroad by Indians abroad being brought back. Well, black money hasn’t come back in six years. So, don’t complain that you are yet to receive the amount. In any case it was a ‘jumla’, Home Minister Amit Shah had explained. See?

What is more troubling, however, is that the Government of India has just borrowed billions of Dollars from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It has dipped into the reserves of the Reserve Bank of India. It has defaulted on paying states their share of the Goods and Service Tax collected by the Centre. And the Government didn’t have enough money last month or this month to arrange for the return of the stranded migrant workers in different parts of the country or feed them.

And indeed, the Prime Minister had to float a new Trust, PM CARES, and appeal for generous donations. Employees and corporate bodies were arm twisted to donate. And public sector units defaulting on wage payments and private sector industry engaging in wage cuts and retrenchment of employees, also donated generously. Even school teachers were forced to donate a day’s salary to the cause.

So, does this grand figure even mean anything? The PM, who likes spewing Sanskrit, would surely recall the saying, ‘Vachane ka daridrata’! Why be miserly with words? Announcements cost no money. For those who are interested, the complete Sanskrit saying is:

Priyawakyapradanena sarve tushyanti jantava

Tasmat Tadeva Waktavyam, Vachane ka daridrata

All creatures get pleased with pleasant speech; one should speak accordingly since there can never be any dearth or poverty of such speech.

There are of course those who are disappointed that in his 33-minute address to the nation, the Prime Minister did not even spell out the details of the special package. The job was left to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, prompting critics to exclaim that if any good announcement was to be made, the PM would have made it himself and not left it to others. Learn to speak but say nothing from the Prime Minister, said others.

But was the 33-minute address really devoid of substance? The 20 lakh figure could be a red herring. One perhaps should read between the lines to decipher what he meant to say. One message that came out loud and clear is that the virus has wiped out all the good work done by this government. So, don’t expect any Acche Din, haan ? It is like the earthquake in Kutch which had flattened the landscape, leaving only ruins.

But he held out hope of building on the ruins. Devastation on a global scale, the PM declared, had created opportunities for India and we need to grab them. The 21st century can still be the Indian century and a self-reliant India could still provide a healing touch to the world, the PM added. It is just unfortunate that people were reminded of RELIANCE and the JIO advertisement for which the PM had modelled.

It is known by now that the Prime Minister likes to behave and speak like a statesman, leaving the tough talking and the dirty work to be done by others. That is why the otherwise eloquent speech peppered with nice words and nicer sentiment left one a tad uncomfortable. Did he have to speak of democracy as our strength and LAW as a pillar?

It at least left this writer with a foreboding. Nothing good will come of it was the feeling. Well, this writer is praying hard to be proved utterly wrong.

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