Sunday, Jul 22, 2018 | Last Update : 12:29 PM IST

2018: Interesting times ahead

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Jan 1, 2018, 3:26 am IST
Updated : Jan 1, 2018, 3:29 am IST

The number of terrorists killed in 2017 (till December 1) is now over 200 and the highest in seven years.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (Photo: PTI)
 Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (Photo: PTI)

The year that has gone by is best forgotten. It was a year gone wrong by manmade injuries, mostly made by one man. It’s true demonetisation was ordered in 2016, but the backbreaking consequences were debited to 2017. Then we had the double whammy of the ineptly and mangled GST rubbing salt into the nations open wounds. The loss of GDP is estimated, by most serious and unbiased economists, to be around 2 per cent of the GDP (2016-17) of Rs 152.51 lakh crores, which translates into a huge Rs 3.05 lakh crores or about $70 billion. In terms of PPP GDP, we are looking at a humungous amount of 2 per cent of $8721 trillion or a deemed loss of over Rs 12 lakh crores. These are mind-boggling numbers and there is no question of ever recovering this loss. Even recovering the pre-November 8 GDP growth trajectory will take a number of years.

The economy has been on the skids since 2012, which was the one big reason the UPA, whose decade-long tenure scaled giddying heights of GDP growth to average 7.8 per cent, was shown out and the growth revival promising Narendra Modi’s NDA was ushered in. For a bit it was looking as if we were getting back to the dizzy heights of January 2010 when it was over 11 per cent. In January 2016 we were back at 9.2 per cent. But in January 2017 we were at 6.2 per cent and now we are at 5.7 per cent. And don’t forget the NDA-2 GDP growth should be read as being on a trajectory flying at 2.2 per cent less, because the current regime tweaked the figures to look better. We can thus say relative GDP growth in October 2017 was actually 3.5 per cent. From here one can say things will only get better. I will hence make a prediction, without sticking my head too much, that GDP growth should be up by about 1.5-2 per cent in 2018. In the Modi accounting system that would be around 7 per cent. Unless of course, if Mr Modi in his irrational exuberance, once again decides to take a chop at the economy in its other foot too.

The job creation figures for the organised sector have just come out. We have had 4.16 lakh new jobs in the past year. The IT sector pink slipped around 50,000 high-spending techies in these past few months and more are expected to beached this year. The job situation overall is going to get bleaker. A sharp increase in public investment as capital expenditure, to smartly lead the economy out of the doldrums may be too much to expect considering that the Government of India has just entered the market to borrow another Rs 50,000 crores to make ends meet.

However, it was a good tax collection year and congratulations are due to the tax collectors who apparently took a little more from what they usually let go. According to the finance ministry, the tax collection of Rs 17.10 lakh crores is a growth of around 18 per cent compared to last year. While direct tax mop up during the April-March period grew 14.2 per cent at Rs 8.47 lakh crores, indirect tax kitty swelled by 22 per cent over last year to Rs 8.63 lakh crores. Our Tax/GDP ratio is at about 11.2 per cent. I feel hopeful that we will do even better this year as the frantic linking of PAN, Aadhaar and bank accounts will improve tax compliance.

But India spends a whopping Rs 10.18 lakh crores on salaries of its Central and state government employees, including the amount spent on implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission’s recommendations. This is a staggering 8.15 per cent of the country’s GDP. But as Arun Jaitley famously said when announcing the consequences of the Seventh Pay Commission, it will spur consumption demand and so we can expect a good year for cars, white goods and upper class consumables.

The external situation has been a bit bleak also. Till December 15, 2017, there were 310 infiltrations from across the LoC, a four-year high and up from 270 the previous year. The number ceasefire violations reported by the home ministry this year was 820,598 more than the previous year and up 667 since 2014. This clearly suggests that things with Pakistan are getting worse, and things in Jammu and Kashmir too are getting worse. After all more terrorists are coming from across because they feel there is much unfinished business here and the fire needs to be turned up.

The number of terrorists killed in 2017 (till December 1) is now over 200 and the highest in seven years. The number of civilians killed in crossfires was 54, up from 14 in 2016. We lost 47 officers and jawans till December 24, 2017, of which 12 were in suicide attacks. Security forces lost 60 killed the previous year of which 36 were in suicide attacks the previous year. Clearly the other side is struggling with getting suicidal jihadis. It would thus be safe to infer that Pakistan did not have a particularly good year last year. Now read this with the increased numbers of infiltrations reported and we can expect 2018 to be a busier year for security forces inside the state and on the border.

I think the number of actions will keep increasing to reach a high towards the end of 2018, as security forces will also be pushed to become more proactive in anticipation of 2019. In the voter perception, a cross-border raid has a far higher valence than knocking off terrorists inside our territory. There are also no signs that the Pakistani Army outsourcing to terrorist gangs is going to diminish. On the contrary with President Donald Trump breathing down its back, the Pakistan Army might ease off pressure in Afghanistan and open the valves on the Indian side. So it looks like 2018 will be much more interesting.

There is an old Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times”. There is a typically Chinese subtlety in this curse. While sounding like a good wish or even a benediction, the allusion to “interesting times” is clearly suggestive on less tranquil times ahead, because tranquility is a highly desirable state of mind. The Chinese will almost certainly make life more interesting for us. The intensity and duration of crises provoked incidents at Depsang, Chumar and Doklam now suggest a new tactic to ratchet up public agitation, both in India and in China. In China the regime seeks to increasingly pander to rising jingoism, just as it is the same in India. With both sides quite apparently keen to use external tensions to rally domestic support, we can expect the India-China border to become a more interesting place.

With economic prospects still suffering from the self-hamstringing, the external situation will play right into the Modi playbook. The Army did well in handling the Doklam and Chumar incidents. Such incidents unleash our animal spirits and such nationalism releases patriotism combined with religiosity.

Which makes me believe that this will be the year when the Ram Mandir building will start. This will also be the year when the legislation of Uniform Civil Code will be attempted — for often the attempting is better than the doing. Mr Modi can be trusted to make it an interesting year. And I think that it will be a good year too for him, politically. When you can’t give people jobs, you can always give them a good show. It usually works. But unlike Ghalib, I will not be able to say: “Zulm ki raat bahut jaldi dhalegi/ Abto aag chulho mein har ek roz jalegi/ Abto bhukh ke maare koi bachcha nahi royega/ Chain ki neend har ik shaksh yahan soyega/ Aandhi nafrat ki chalegi na kahin/ Ab ke baras pyaar ki fasl ugaayegi zamin ab ke baras.”

Tags: demonetisation, gst, gdp growth, uniform civil code