Indian politics in 2014 vs 2020: How fast we were growing vs Who we are

Modi rode to power promising faster growth and as someone who believed in liberalization and was against crony capitalism.He was rebel with a cause. Now rebels and dissenters are deemed to be traitors

Farmers shout slogans at Singhu border during their ‘Delhi Chalo’ protest march against the Centre’s new farm laws, at Singhu border on December 2, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Farmers shout slogans at Singhu border during their ‘Delhi Chalo’ protest march against the Centre’s new farm laws, at Singhu border on December 2, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Sonali Ranade

In a recent column of his, senior journalist, author and commentator Vir Sanghvi frowned on Indian liberals welcoming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s concern at the Indian Government’s handling of the farmers’ protest. Unwittingly, he also drew attention to Indians who raise questions, believe their ‘government has failed so completely that the rest of the world must intervene’.

But ‘frustration’ of the dissenters or critics has a wider context that Sanghvi misses. Politics after all is a conversation among like-minded people in a particular geography, who have decided to live together. All three pre-conditions are essential for the social contract. If these conditions are not met, people cannot live together in peace.  These are bare essentials - for a body of people to live peacefully together.  Absence of any of these results in civil strife.

Once these conditions have been met, it is possible for people to settle their differences within the rules and without resorting to violence.  Politics then proceeds to focus on three basic questions.

  1. Who are we?
  2. Where do we want to go?
  3. How to get there?

Before 2014, politics centred around the third question.  Given that we are all Indians looking for a better life for all, how do we go about getting there?  And the consensus was about freeing up every citizen from economic and political restrictions, liberating their enterprise and creating conditions that would foster faster economic growth.

By the second term of UPA II, the consensus on growth was such that the Government was pilloried for failing to keep up the pace at 8%, even though the global financial crisis of 2008 meant that growth had to slow down for a while, as Govt. and corporate balance sheets were stretched not just in India, but globally.

Narendra Modi rode to power promising faster growth, not less.  And as someone who believed in liberalisation, and not rolling it up in favour of crony capitalism.  Sure, there were the odds and ends of Hindutva lurking in his agenda like the ban on cow slaughter, Ram Temple, abrogation of article 370, UCC, etc.  But these were already issues around which a consensus was evolving and were peripheral to the development agenda.

Politics, when Modi took over in 2014, was at level 3 about how to promote faster development and growth. Six years of Modi later, where is our conversation?  What are we talking about?  At what level is our politics?

Nobody of a sane mind will argue that politics today is about how to get there or level three.  Vikas went missing from Modi’s political idiom after he tanked the economy with his disastrous demonetisation.  Ever since, his politics has basically been at level one, who are we?

It is the tragedy of our times that 70 years after independence, and 3500 years after coexisting as a plural, multiethnic, multi religious society that has already evolved a common identity, Modi has made politics about who we are.

Regardless of what RSS believes, casting India’s billions into the straight jacket of a Hindu is impossible.  Individual identities are not negotiable.  The issue of who we are can only be settled on the basis of a composite identity that includes all.  It cannot be settled on the basis of a majority.  If we insist on that, we risk fracturing the polity which will take politics into the first set of pre-requisites that cannot be settled by normal politics.

Having reduced politics to a bitter conversation about who we are, Modi has opened another front without any debate or discussion with any segment of the society, not even his own party or his mothership RSS.  Out of the blue the economic consensus around liberalisation is out of the window and we are now set on “atmanirbharta,” after many false starts about Make in India, Skill India and many such alphabet soups.

But what the new strategy boils down to is promoting mercantile capitalism at home, created by sheltered domestic markets with tariff walls, and promoting local industrialisation through import substitution.  The goal of a globally competitive economy goes out of the window; export markets have been forgotten.  The problem with this approach is that we tried something similar in the 70s and all it did was build a high cost economy, where local tycoons had a field day, which in turn led to much jealousy that was sought to be mollified by high nominal taxes.  Indians ended the decade of such economic policies some 8% poorer in per capita terms over 10 years.

There is simply no reason to believe that Modi’s repetition of the experiment, launched sans discussion, will fare any better.  Forgotten also is very basic economic equation of growth; which is that your long-term growth cannot exceed the sum of your growth in population which is 1.2% pa, plus your annual growth in productivity, which is between 1 and 3%.

Given the best growth in productivity - we are in the digital age - the domestic component of our GDP growth cannot exceed 4.2%.  If we want a GDP growth at 8%, the balance 3.8% must come from exports to global markets.  Here growth in exports under Modi’s six years has been zero.  And will tank further as his atmanirbharta bites.

Atmanirbharta doesn’t come alone.  There is an element of compulsory and unavoidable licence-permit raj built into it.  It starts with tariff walls, then differentiated tariff walls, then export subsidies, followed by foreign exchange restriction and finally full fledged exchange controls as capital flees the country.  No economy in the world, going down the path Modi has chosen, has ever escaped this downward spiral.  We know the logic of this spiral from our own experience.

However, any discussion around reforms, Modi’s chosen path, or the farm reform bills, is not met with a rational argument from Government any longer.  Instead the strategy is to promptly derail any such discussion by imputing treachery on the part of those raising questions, and taking down politics back to square one about who we are.

So, if you are not a farmer you may not talk about farm bills; if you are not a Muslim you may not talk about TTT, or if you are not a Hindu you may not talk about CAA.  At every point, the instant effort is to delegitimise rational discussion through identity politics.

This trope of delegitimising rational questions about where we are going, and how to get there, by reducing them to questions about who we are, has now become standard operating procedure over the last six years.  Dedicated troll farms are activated to swamp the digital media with propaganda to derail rational questions and sidetrack them to contentious gladiatorial pit of who we are. The dissenter become the public enemy in a trice.

That’s why Vir Sanghavi’s intervention, though welcome, is also disingenuous.  Trudeau’s intervention on India’s domestic politics is not the issue.  The real elephant in the room is how systematically a whole ecosystem has been developed to derail and delegitimise debate and discussion in politics by disenfranchising those who raise questions.

I wish Vir Sanghi had raised the larger issue in a wider context.  The issue is not about Trudeau, who was just trying to score a few electoral brownie points with a tiny section of his voters at home.  It is about delegitimising rational debate in the polity; about defeating what Kant called the reasoned will of the people in a democracy.

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