Political skulduggery cannot bury failures forever

In February 2015, early on in his term as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi claimed that he brought good fortune to the Indian economy in the form of favourable oil prices. Just over a year later, he had changed his mind. In March 2016, the Prime Minister claimed that it was not good fortune, but good policies that had sustained India’s run as one of the fastest growing large economy in the world. Since November 2016, no such claims have been made. By the middle of 2017, the central government had neutralised the windfall from (still) favourable oil prices with some spectacularly disastrous policy interventions.

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If demonetisation turned out to be an exercise purely in political skulduggery, the shoddy roll-out of the Goods and Services Tax in June 2017 stands out as a symbol of this government’s ineptitude. All along, the rhetoric has been one of a ‘crusade against corruption’ and attacking black money. However, we have all been witness to the systematic dismantling of ‘integrity institutions’ in the country. Right to Information and the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) are routinely subverted, or ignored. The state of the economy continues to be worrisome, with abysmal levels of job creation, and those in the informal sectors of the economy who are still struggling to recover from demonetisation are being now counselled that selling pakodas is akin to stable employment. The economy may yet recover over the next eighteen months, but what that cannot hide is the enormous growth potential that was wasted by this government.

The BJP and their supporters still insist that we take note of their unstoppable election machine that has won state after state. Through an intricate mix of polarisation, appeasement of the majority community, clever alliances, or taking advantage of a fragmented opposition, state election victories have been notched up at a furious pace. But winning elections seem to have come at the cost of delivering effective governance, and nowhere is it more visible than with the economy.

Expectations belied

In the run up to 2014, several rational analysts had pegged their hopes on how a Narendra Modi government would transform the Indian economy and fight corruption. Many wondered – was Modi more like Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan? Or was he a South Asian Lee Kuan Yew? In their minds, India was being held back because we lacked a leader with the single-minded determination to bring about change. They told themselves that the norms of the Prime Minister’s office, and the inherent strengths of our constitutional bodies would restrain Narendra Modi from unleashing a communal agenda.

In the last four years, several among them have been disillusioned – because while the political and socio-cultural agenda has largely started shaping a New India, economic reforms have stalled. In fact, economic reforms seem to have taken a backseat – the government is unwilling to undertake tough reforms in spite of a majority in the Parliament, and commanding power in a majority of the states. Instead, much legislative energy has been squandered on Aadhaar, and opportunistic social issues such as criminalising triple talaq. Bank scams have started tumbling out and aside from political blame-game, we have not seen meaningful reforms to insulate banks from political influence.

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Those who once argued that investment, jobs and growth targets will trump “soft” concerns regarding the quality of our secular democracy have gone silent. Those who expected Narendra Modi to fight corruption have seen how charades such as demonetisation have been passed off as anti-corruption measures, even as the government has had no credible defence against the allegations of nepotism and crony capitalism. Minimum government seems a far cry when public sector corporations are routinely being pressed into service to sponsor government expenditure on advertising government schemes. All along, governance failures have compounded, as the credibility of premier institutions of the country have steadily been eroded. On multiple fronts – and not the least on our geographical borders – one fears that in 2019, we will be far weaker as a nation than we have been in recent decades.

This then, is the track record that this government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take to 2019. Undaunted though, the government and the ruling party continue to indulge in hubristic rhetoric. Global oil prices continue to be favourable, although they are on an upward trajectory. It will not be smooth sailing for governments in the coming years. What we need though is a competent government, whether maximum or minimum.

A fragmented polity has allowed the BJP to deflect attention from their poor track record on the economy and corruption with political skulduggery. ‘Good fortune’ cannot last forever. As the recent farmer’ agitation in Maharashtra, and the results of the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by-polls showed, the BJP should not take voters for granted. Voters will continue to seek their ‘acche din’, with or without the BJP.

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This first appeared in The Wire

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