For all practical purposes India has had a Presidential Government since 2014. The government headed by Narendra Modi is now so synonymous with the Prime Minister that it is known as ‘Modi Government’ and it appears just a matter of time before people begin to call him President Modi.
The feeling of being ‘ruled’ again by a single man in 2020 may not be comforting to vast sections of Indians. But it is equally true that vast number of Indians are reconciled to the PM being the arbiter of their destiny. Six years after being anointed, chinks are showing though.
Words have a habit of returning to haunt people. And in the last six years far too many of his words have returned to haunt the PM.
In the run up to the 2014 General Election, the then Gujarat chief minister had said, “The Congress’s hand is seen only during elections and vanishes till the next election. Its leaders are very smart as they first show the hand, then fold hands (to greet you), shake hands (with you) and finally wave you goodbye.”
Six years later, the words appear equally applicable, if not more, to the Bharatiya Janata Party with its singular and singleminded obsession of winning elections and gaining power.
The common man had suffered from pricerise, joblessness and corruption during the previous six and a half decades, Modi had then said. His Government would reverse the trend, he promised.
Six years later, prices of everything, from petrol, diesel, cooking gas to platform tickets and train fares have increased. More Indians are selling vegetables, frying pakodas and doing menial jobs for a living. But the once vocal Modi now rarely speaks on such issues. He is no doubt heard on radio, on TV and in video conferences---and remains his usual pompous self, pontificating on subjects as diverse as farming to examinations. But despite having a captive audience, he increasingly makes less sense.
He had no time for the millions of migrant workers who were thrown out of jobs and their shanties following the lockdown that he had imposed on short notice to cope with the pandemic. Even as a sea of humanity hit the highway on foot, for two months he did not spare a single word for them. Nor did the Union Govt did anything to help, putting the responsibility on states.
But his government has started making amends in June by doing what it does best, releasing advertisements, putting up billboards and posters. Headlines, perceptions, narratives, WhatsApp forwards and plain propaganda have been the pillars of this Government.
“Dear Migrant Labourers and Daily Wage earners, the country stands with you” read an advertisement in prominent newspapers on June 2. It went on to inform that daily wages under MGNREGA had been increased by twenty Rupees (Rs 20) to help them recover from the tough times.
Some saw it as a cruel joke. The Government, which had done little or nothing to help the millions, was rubbing salt to the wound by offering Rs 20 extra per family per day. But the Government clearly felt it was doing its job and standing by the workers. The next day’s advertisements were addressed to ‘Entrepreneur Brothers and Sisters’.
Some Indians, however, are undoubtedly better off in 2020 than in 2014.
The number of ‘dollar billionaires’ has gone up sharply and HNI (High Net Worth) Indians have bought more property and parked more money abroad, compared to 2014.
Foodgrain production has increased from 264 MT to 291 million tonnes. Foreign exchange reserves are at an all-time high and till recently the stock exchange wouldn’t let go of its honeymoon with the Government. Revenue collection by the central government increased manifold, part of it at the cost of the states, and the size of the Union budget, aided substantially by lower cost of importing fuel, grew. And of-course BJP is much more cashrich today than in 2014.
But are Indians happy and is India better off ? With GDP growth rate at a 11-year low, unemployment at a 45-year old high, private investment slowing to a trickle, rating agencies downgrading India, inflation creeping up and interest rates going down affecting savings and senior citizens, the answer is obvious.
Bloomington reported this week, “In the first year of Modi’s 2nd term, India has erased more shareholder wealth than any other country on the planet, except Brexit-swayed Britain” And Moody’s Investors Service downgraded India’s credit rating to the lowest investment grade, citing a prolonged slowdown and rising debt.
Poverty has increased. More people are going hungry. Job opportunities have shrunk. Services have taken a hit. Budget allocations have been cut and barring the Government, everybody is now expected to tighten their belts and make sacrifices for the nation.
People and the economy are advised to survive and sustain on debts. Get loans and be happy. If only Indians start buying again and consuming more, all will be well and growth will come back, believes the Government. But one doesn’t see too many happy Indians around unless they are working for the Government. So, have the last six years been truly spectacular (Che saal-Bemisaal) as the Government would like us to believe?
As with all governments, this Government too took some right decisions, several wrong decisions and committed some serious blunders. If the Bankruptcy Code, formation of the NCLT and GST were steps in the right direction, the Government shot itself in the foot by going for a disastrous Demonetisation and a flawed GST. The hurriedly imposed lockdown at short notice in March crippled the remaining chances of recovery
In hindsight, the BJP Government made three key mistakes. Its vision of a strong Centre and weak states led to concentration of power, which has proved to be disastrous. Decentralised administration and delivery would have worked better. The second mistake it made was in trying to do too many things at the same time. An efficient Government is lucky if it manages to execute one or two good decisions every year. But rather than taking one step at a time, the Government frittered its energy, time and resources in changing everything in a rush, leading to confusion and chaos.
The third mistake was its hurry to implement its political agenda. The Ram temple, criminalising Triple Talaq, Article 370 and a totally unnecessary National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) took precedence over banking, police and administrative reforms. A fourth ‘fatal flaw’ has been spending hard-earned public money in useless pursuits. Showering flowers on hospitals from fighter jets, re-designing the central vista in Delhi at a cost of Rs 20,000 Crore, building statues, allocating money to promote cow urine, diverting funds to find out if ancient India knew about stem cells are the kind of expenses which the country could have done without.
The list of damages wrought in these six years is long. The country will pay a heavy price for social disharmony and the Government compromising on the integrity of data and institutions. Systematically dismantling the public sector and allowing political ideology to drive policies on public health and education have also set the country back.
On a surreal afternoon in May six years ago, Narendra Modi had made a triumphant entry into the national capital. Half his body hung out of the SUV, one arm waving back to the crowd lining up to watch his motorcade leave the airport and sweep into Delhi.
He had single handedly carved a historic victory in the election to catapult BJP into power. There was a glint in his eyes that cameras did not miss. He was the conqueror, the man of the moment, a rock star, the outsider who had made his own fortune. He soaked in the moment as the frenzied crowd waved wildly back at him. He boasted how he had transformed Gujarat. Gujarat was in the 21st century while the rest of the country was still in the 19th. He was building a city in Gujarat, Dholera, which would be ‘twice the size of Delhi and six times the size of Shanghai’. He had taken water to the desert and brought electricity to the cities and villages. He would transform India into Gujarat.
He would give Pakistan a bloody nose and put China in its place. Indians would find their place in the Sun, black money siphoned and stashed abroad would be brought back. Good times, Acche Din, were just round the corner. Six years later, many Indians still see him as ‘godlike’, as an ‘avatar’ or as a ‘fakir’. Others sneer at him and say he is a fraud. Some make fun of his penchant for acronyms. As if the three ‘D’s (Democracy, Demographic Dividend and Domestic Demand), three ‘S’s (speed, skill and scale) and five T’s (talent, tradition, tourism, trade and technology) were not enough, the PM unleashed the five ‘I’s (Intent, Inclusion, Investment, Infrastructure and Innovation) while launching a technology platform for MSME’s. He christened it CHAMPIONS (Creation & Harmonious Application of Modern Processes for Increasing the Output and National Strength).
It provoked Gujarati satirist Urvish Kothari to quip that MODI could be the acronym for ‘Malfunction of Democracy in India’. If Modi resembled a Knight or a Musketeer in 2014, six years later he looks very close to being a Don Quixote.