Recently, the people of this country were subjected to a bizarre comment made by law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who argued that as three Bollywood movies had done financially well on their opening day, all was well with the Indian economy. As Mr Prasad got trolled on the social media over such an insensitive remark, he beat a hasty retreat and withdrew the comment.
The ministers in this government seem to be in fierce competition among themselves for making outlandish comments in order to hide the failures of the Narendra Modi government, especially on the economic front. The response of the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on the crisis in the automobile sector, that has seen a double-digit fall in sales for both four-wheelers and two-wheelers as well as commercial vehicles, which resulted in the loss of lakhs of jobs, was another peculiar explanation. She related it to the changing mindset of “millennials”, who according to her now prefer to use Ola or Uber cabs, instead of buying cars and paying EMIs for them. This explanation leaves out the vast area outside the metropolitan cities and big towns where services like Ola and Uber are not available, but still consists a large market for private vehicles. This also does not account for the decline in bus and truck sales.
Similarly, while making a statement on the GDP calculations at a meeting, commerce minster Piyush Goyal made a double faux pass when he said that Albert Einstein discovered gravity (confusing between Issac Newton and Einstein), and that maths did not help Einstein discover gravity! So Mr Goyal advised his listeners not to get into the maths about GDP calculations, and by implication, not to worry about the falling GDP that was the lowest — just five per cent — in the first quarter of FY20, the slowest growth in the past six years. These ministers might be applauded for their valiant but unsuccessful efforts to defend the failures of their government to the point of absurdity; but if these statements reflect the understanding of economics of these ministers, especially when the two of them happen to be the finance minister and commerce minister of the country, it is indeed a matter of great concern for all Indians.
While one must refrain from predicting doomsday, the fact is that almost every day there is some indication that India is facing an economic slowdown. In its latest South Asia Economic Focus report, the World Bank has slashed India’s GDP growth forecast from 7.5 per cent to six per cent. Just a couple of days before this report came out, Moody’s Investors Service lowered its 2019-20 growth forecast for India from 6.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent, stating that the economy was facing a pronounced slowdown. The growth in eight core industries declined to 2.1 per cent this July compared to 7.3 per cent during the same period last year. Unemployment remains the government’s biggest challenge, remaining at a 45-year high. In this context, unless followed by concrete steps backed with solid economic vision to address the crisis, all the attempts by senior ministers to convince people with skewed explanations that “everything is all right” will remain a mere exercise in futility.
In order to address a problem and find a solution, it is absolutely necessary to first acknowledge that the problem exists. The biggest problem with the Narendra Modi government is its utter refusal to acknowledge that a problem exists. In its quest for the illusive “achche din”, it seems to have started believing in its own rhetoric. Instead of recognising the legitimate concerns of citizens and the Opposition leaders, the government and the ruling party are totally dismissive about these concerns. The ostrich mentality of the government, refusing to acknowledge these problems, is coupled with its distrust of experts who refuse to always toe the line, deviating from the code of “yes, minister”! The resignation of Arvind Panagariya, the economist handpicked by Prime Minister Modi to head Niti Aayog, the resignation of chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, the exit of Reserve Bank of India governors Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel, and the recent resignation of Viral Acharya, the RBI’s deputy governor, raise questions about this government’s ability to work with professionals who have a mind of their own. Raghuram Rajan’s views regarding the government’s economic policies are well-known. Urjit Patel’s exit fuelled speculation that the RBI’s autonomy was being eroded by the government. Arvind Subramanian had called demonetisation a “massive, draconian, monetary shock” in the book that he wrote after his resignation.
Coming to an entirely different issue, as home minister (and BJP president) Amit Shah and senior ruling party leaders keep on thundering about conducting an NRC exercise throughout India, the central question in the entire Assam NRC remains unanswered. What will happen to those people who are finally left out after all the existing legal procedures are exhausted, including appeals to the higher courts. Bangladesh has always denied illegal immigration from its soil. In a statement, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar categorically said that the NRC was an internal matter of India. In the eventuality of a few lakhs of people being rendered stateless, what roadmap does the government have to deal with these people? Bangladesh is not going to accept them. Can the government detain lakhs of people, that may include children, indefinitely in detention camps? That will not merely be a major violation of human rights, but truly inhuman. Through this process, if a body of stateless people without any rights is created, its impact in terms of both a potential security risk as well as humanitarian values might prove to be costly for India in the long run. But the government does not seem to have an answer to these questions.
The Modi government’s approach towards policymaking seems to be geared towards receiving instant applause rather than thoroughly thinking things through. “Act first, think later” appears to be the government’s motto. Without clarity, vision and answers to probable negative impact of policy decisions, the Modi government may well convince itself about “achche din”, but the people of India will continue to suffer due to its reckless decisions.