PM Modi’s remarkable interview to The Economic Times and his alternate universe

If we pretend China hasn’t occupied our lands, then they haven’t crossed LAC. If we compare ourselves to Brazil and Italy and not China and Pakistan, our COVID numbers look excellent<b></b>

PM Modi’s remarkable interview to The Economic Times and his alternate universe

Aakar Patel

The prime minister has given an extraordinary interview to the business newspaper the Economic Times. It is confident in outlook, breezy in tone and out of place with our reality.

He assumes he has done not only the right thing in managing COVID but done something other nations have not done. This, according to him, has saved lives. He says: "I am no health expert but my assessment is based on numbers. I think we should assess our coronavirus fight against the metric of how many lives we are able to save.”

He did not provide any numbers but he doesn’t need to because they are public. India has the second most infections in the world and currently the third highest number of fatalities. The one nation India is comparable with in terms of population, China, controlled the epidemic in one stroke. Its peak came on one day, 12 February, and then the spread was contained in some way.

Our sister nations around us, Bangladesh and Pakistan, culturally and geographically comparable, have fared more than twice as well as us both in terms of infections per lakh population and deaths. On what grounds can we assume that the Modi government has done comparatively well? He seems to think we should compare ourselves to Brazil, Italy and the United States. But why?

He makes the claim that India, the second most infected nation in the world "is a world model of public participation without any coercive enforcement.” India actually had the worst lockdown in the world, forced on it by the Union government which invoked the Disaster Management Act.

People were punished and jailed by the State for going back home without work, food or shelter. People were run over by trains because they walked on tracks to avoid the police on the highways. This is what coercive enforcement is. Perhaps the definition is different in Gujarat.
That unprepared, arbitrary lockdown did not save lives — there is no relation between the spread of infections and the weeks India spent in forced hibernation — but it did help skewer the economy.

The Prime Minister is confident that August and September data shows that the economy is "back on track". Back on track to where? India’s GDP growth was in sequential decline for two years before COVID hit. It has been falling every quarter for 10 quarters since January 2018. Growth was 3% before COVID. What are we getting back on track to?

Also, if he seems to think that we will be back to where we were in February soon, he has the wrong advisors. One quarter of the GDP fell off between April and June. The best we can hope for in the July-September quarter is that it doesn’t decline further but it will. Even if it doesn’t, to recover the lost quarter of GDP will take two years. Meaning that after two years, we may be back to where we were in February this year. That is not “back on track”.

He continues to speak of a $5 trillion economy. On one hand, this is a banal thing. India’s economy, at whatever pace, will reach there at some point (assuming no magical strokes like Demonetisation or lockdown are forthcoming to slow it down).

But to assume that it will happen in 2024, as Modi does, is to be unaware of what has happened in the last three years. He said in the interview: "Most people who are pessimistic remain in doubt. If you sit among them, you will hear only things of despair and despondency.” No, it is called being in touch with reality and being able to read numbers.

It is hard to tell whether the prime minister is unable to confront the reality or he is so supremely confident in his abilities that he can convince the rest of us that the reality is different from our perception of it.

If we pretend that China hasn’t occupied the lands our army was patrolling till February, then they haven’t crossed the Line of Actual Control. If we compare ourselves to Brazil and Italy and not China and Pakistan, our COVID numbers will look excellent. If we make up meaningless phrases like this one from the interview: "Aatmanirbhar Bharat is not just about competition but also about competence, it’s not about dominance but about dependability, it’s not about looking within but about looking out for the world” then that is a substitute for trying to right an economy that has been in the doldrums for 30 months.

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