The odds before the INDIA alliance
The coalition needs to outline a credible economic vision and a plan to empower India’s youth
By the time you read this, the third meeting in as many months of the INDIA bloc would have got over in Mumbai. Beyond the public statements, the deliberations would have, in all likelihood, focused on how to challenge the three electoral planks of Narendra Modi, namely nationalism, Hindutva and welfare measures.
In any battle, political or otherwise, the adversaries need to know the strengths and the weaknesses of the other before they can act. It is therefore important for the Indian Nationalist Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) to correctly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the NDA government headed by Narendra Modi during the past nine years.
In the next eight months preceding the Lok Sabha elections, expected in April/May 2024 (though some observers believe the exercise can be brought forward or postponed by several months), the government will no doubt claim major successes on the economic front.
With both management of optics and oratory being the strong points of the prime minister, one can reasonably expect headline-grabbing hype in the next few months.
Attempts to hide this government’s colossal mismanagement of the economy and its failure to deal with price rise, especially food inflation, and acute joblessness will undoubtedly be made.
A beginning has already been made by reducing the cost to the consumer for LPG cylinders, a sore point with a large section of the population. More such relaxations can be expected to be made before the election. The voters from the poor and the lower middle classes are the ones who have been hit the hardest by inflation and joblessness.
Paradoxically, they are the ones who voted for the BJP and Narendra Modi in large numbers in both 2014 and in 2019. The INDIA parties will be hoping that disillusionment has set in among them and they can be persuaded to vote for the Opposition alliance.
Since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the ordinary Indian has borne the brunt of food inflation and price rise. With the rise in the prices of essential commodities and the headline consumer price index escalating to 7.4 per cent in July, as compared to 4 per cent in June, the poor have been feeling the heat despite the free grains.
All other costs including for transportation, agriculture inputs, energy and fuel etc. having gone up, and real wages having come down, it has been an unusually tough time. The cuts made in the MNREGA made it worse.
Noted economist Jean Drèze in a recent study has shown that real wages of male agricultural workers, non-agricultural labourers and construction workers grew at less than 1 per cent between 2014–15 and 2021–22, the first eight years of Narendra Modi’s rule.
The decline was accentuated in 2022–23 when the growth rate of real wages for the first group was just 0.2 per cent and the other two sectors recorded a decline. The Indian economy is witnessing a decline in real income even as household expenditure is rising.
The dichotomy of the present functioning of the economy under BJP rule is that corporate profits have gone up substantially even in the pandemic years and the upper and the upper middle class segments have continued to prosper.
The brunt of the economic crisis is being borne by the underprivileged sections only. In the past nine years, the inequality between the rich and the poor has clearly widened exponentially.
The latest CMIE report says that the unemployment level stood at 8.16 per cent in the quarter that ended in June 2023; and that the biggest challenge now is to provide jobs to the educated youth. For graduates and post graduates and those who are passing out of institutes of higher learning, the crisis is even more acute compared to the less educated youth.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had grandiosely talked of generating 2 crore jobs in the country every year in his election pledge in 2014. Now he does not mention that in his campaign addresses; instead, he is busy creating a hype over the government-organised rozgar melas where appointment letters are being given to a few thousand people and that is being publicised by the media.
The BJP government is deliberately hiding the disastrous effects of its jobless growth policy framework in the last nine years.
While highlighting the failure of the government to generate jobs and control inflation, the INDIA bloc should not shift its gaze from micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which are the backbone of India’s growth story and are the major employment generator.
Despite all its tall claims, the Modi government has done precious little for this sector. The bailout schemes announced after 2020 did little to help 80 per cent of the MSMEs. The INDIA parties must draw up an innovative strategy for reviving and rejuvenating the MSMEs nationally.
It is estimated that there are 633.9 lakh MSMEs in the country and the micro sector alone includes 630.5 lakh units. As of 2 August, the MSMEs employed 12.36 crore persons. This sector can therefore act as a real engine of growth, provided proper programmes are adopted. And this is the sector that can play a key role in generating lakhs of jobs.
Jobs are going to be hard to come by because both private and the public sector companies are opting for high-tech upgrades in production that will displace workers. Artificial intelligence will be increasingly used, reducing job prospects further.
The INDIA bloc will have to ensure a flexible hybrid model which can take care of both tech upgradation and new job opportunities in the organised sector.
Politically also, it is expedient to target the MSME sector because lakhs of entrepreneurs have been the victims of crony capitalism promoted by the Modi government. These MSME owners and employees are the potential support base of INDIA, even in terms of raising funds.
Finally, the INDIA alliance needs to shed the image of old and outdated leadership. In the third decade of the 21st century, Indian youth from the hills of Arunachal Pradesh to Kutch, from Jammu & Kashmir to Kanyakumari are yearning for a leadership that understands their needs and aspirations and that can ensure enabling factors for them to compete globally.
Understanding this changing mindset and the priorities of Indian youth requires modern minds and flexible thinking. The old, jaded and stereotyped interpretations and slogans will cut no ice with them.
The BJP under Narendra Modi can hardly be underestimated. It has financial power that the INDIA parties can never match. The BJP has got dedicated RSS workers in every village of the country as well as highly skilled advisors with global experience.
The deadly combination of Hindutva and crony capitalism is a potent weapon. Above all, the BJP is in power and has the ability to use or misuse central agencies. It also controls the media.
The BJP will also be fighting hard to retain power and will spare no effort and miss no trick. Can the INDIA bloc then depend entirely on public disenchantment to take on the BJP in the 2024 general elections? It will need a narrative, a communication strategy, an electoral plan and a vision for the country at the very least. The Mumbai conclave hopefully would have taken these odds into account. (IPA Service)