As India stares at triple crises, the Modi government needs to disengage from divisive politics

Shekhar Gupta
Tuesday, 15 September 2020

COVID-19, China and economy are intense, intertwined crises and needs political space and confidence. It is up to Modi and his govt to create them.  

It is a nasty truism that the finest political humour is found in dictatorships. It festers nicely in whispers and the thrill of danger. Travels in the generals' Pakistan and the unravelling Eastern Bloc taught me this. 

The current situation in India brings back to me a familiar story in the Soviet Union's last years. It seems that Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev are travelling in a luxury saloon on a train across Siberia. At some point in the middle of the vast emptiness, the train stops. There is no track further ahead. So, what to do now? 

Lenin said let's collect some villagers from nearby and sing 'The Internationale' and the workers will happily lay the rest of the track. Stalin said, this is stupid. Do get those people, but shoot a few and the rest will do the job, happily or not. Gorbachev suggested he find a phone to reach his friend Ronald Reagan for advice. Brezhnev, silent so far, looked up and said, Lulz! There is so much vodka in the saloon. Keep sipping and presume the train is moving. 

Now, look at the situation in our country today. With coronavirus numbers and deaths going up and up, all economic indicators crashing down and down and the Chinese being the Chinese, we have the Prime Minister and his government producing one new slogan after another, hoping to ride a 'hawa' of grand distraction. 

It goes from the rediscovery of Atmanirbhar Bharat wrapped in Make-in-India, pisciculture revolution, hiring of a consultant for a US $1 trillion-Uttar Pradesh economy, ban on Chinese apps, claims of lowest per million cases and deaths from COVID and, of course, an endless celebration of a booming economy when the reality is the opposite. 

How is it any different from Brezhnev asking his top comrades to presume the train is moving even when there is no track ahead? Just that there is no vodka here. At least not free, sarkari vodka. 

Since this column appears simultaneously in some of India's finest publications, I am diffident talking economic data. Especially because TN Ninan's 'Weekend Ruminations', published simultaneously is so rich with it. But, we are looking at a 23.9 per cent contraction in the first quarter of this year. Economist Arvind Panagariya, who I respect immensely, argues with many merits that the steep decline is mostly COVID-linked. But, two questions follow. 

What was the GDP growth trend in the two years before the Novel Coronavirus being identified? India had already had four successive quarters of growth decline. It is as if a train rolling down without power or brakes now suddenly hit the end of the track (read pandemic). Before we think the 'day after' the virus, we need to remember where we were headed the day before. The virus didn't reverse our direction. It accelerated our decline. 

The pandemic has been described as an 'Act of God' and, whether or not it is a justification to deny the states their anticipated share of the GST, it is a fact. It is also true that the Modi government, unlike Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Jair Bolsonaro, can't be accused of taking it too lightly. 

If anything, you might say it over-reacted. That the lockdown was too early and too total and the call of 'jaan hai, toh jahaan hai' contributed to the panic that saw millions of migrant workers walk back home and take the virus to the interiors. But, all of that is now, with the benefit of hindsight. 

There are other issues with its handling of the crisis. Too much centralisation has probably led to many failures, lack of trust in states, remote-control by the Centre. That power and responsibility should have devolved to the states much earlier. 

Even now, there is no real justification for the Disaster Management Act to continue. So heady can such unfamiliar powers be that even a usually staid and understated scientific institution like the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) deludes itself into writing firmans with a few weeks' deadlines for a vaccine. The primary diagnosis here has to be when medical scientists catch bureaucratitis. 

Again, you have to be fair to say that it wasn't the Modi government that invited or provoked China. The Chinese decided to move in because they saw India in COVID crisis and with a declining economy at a time when the world, especially the US, is distracted. I have argued in this column earlier that it may be Xi's response to India's changes in Kashmir on August 5, 2019, and the reassertion of the claim on Aksai Chin. It is definitely a possibility, and you might argue that it wasn't a risk worth taking. But that's your view. 

Its handling of the Chinese threat, however, has been realistic. The military has been given reasonable tactical freedom, official and political rhetoric is controlled and an unwise response like Nehru's in 1962, under pressure or in anger, has been avoided. So, what are we complaining about? 

If this triple crisis is strangling India, we have to remember what it started from. Which takes us back to the economy and that 'the day before' question. India's economic growth was looking brilliant until 2017. The recovery post-2011 had been quite significant. What went wrong, then?  

Who shot through the wheels of the economy? Or, who removed the rails in the middle of nowhere while the train was gathering pace nicely? 

This is what will take you to the most crucial man-made element of this complicated situation. Whatever COVID may have done last March onwards, we cannot blame God or the Chinese for the stalling of our own economic growth. It was a series of unthinking, and poorly war-gamed decisions, from demonetisation to instability in the Reserve Bank to indecision on PSU banks and more that already had our growth down to levels we thought we had left behind in the 1980s. Then self-defeating return to protectionism. Even Panagariya, no critic of this government said to me in our conversation that this protectionism would shave up to two percentage points from our growth. 

Suppose there is one thing a nation and its government need in times of such intense, multiple and intertwined crises. In that case, it is political space and confidence. It requires a reality check internally on whether it has created the best possible environment for itself to deal with these issues. Or, is it so deluded by Modi's cast-in-titanium image that it couldn't care less? 

In this column, I have argued repeatedly over a decade now how India is now at its most secure, internally and externally. To a child of the crisis-ridden 1960s, this has been a wonderful feeling. Does it still feel so? 

There are important reversals. Externally, India faces an active two-front situation with some of the other neighbours too getting impatient over one thing or the other. Of course, the Chinese are up to their games there, but why wouldn't they? 

Now, there might be limitations to what any government may be able to do with a hostile neighbourhood and international environment. But, must the constant combat of domestic politics also rage at the same time? India has had a stellar record of closing ranks when faced with an external challenge, except now. This responsibility does not lie with the opposition. 

When you face a threat at the borders, a much stronger army carrying live ammunition, the first thing you do is suspend hostilities at home. In the old days, we would call the National Integration Council. We know there are Bihar and West Bengal elections and MP by-elections coming up. But, in a time of crisis like this, a government needs its people and politics united. A nation of India's size and diversity can't fight a stronger rival with fraying social cohesion. I know it is virtue signalling, but can we forget our divisive politics for a few months and focus on these crises. The onus is entirely for the prime minister and his government. 

(Shekhar Gupta is a senior Indian journalist and author. He is the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Print.)

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