Onward to Modi's Ajeya Bharat

“Ajeya Bharat, Atal Bhajapa (Invincible India, steadfast BJP).” That was the battle cry Narendra Modi gave on Sunday at the conclusion of what was effectively a war council meeting of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) preparing for the campaign for mandate in 2019.  The generals and foot-soldiers roared their approval as was expected.  He unveiled a grand vision of India free of communalism, casteism and terrorism, with housing for everyone by 2022, also the target date for doubling farm incomes.  Since the BJP manifesto of 2014 had already promised the end of corruption, vigorous infrastructure spurring an eight per cent annual economic growth, controlled prices and good governance, the earlier Shreshtha Bharat would become invulnerable to threats to emerge as the magnificent Ajeya Bharat in 2022.  

In this brave new world, current problems such as rural distress, rising fuel prices, falling exchange rate, ballooning balance of payments deficit, vigilantes roaming the countryside and pesky opposition holding the government to ransom would be mere rumble strips in the path of the party’s juggernaut rolling to its manifest destiny. This upgraded version of the ancient nation would be hyphenated to the name of the party that dared to bring it about (and by implication, its leadership as well).

The opposition sees the BJP’s waving aside the possible hurdles in what it considers its inexorable course as its smugness and arrogance.  But the BJP may be justified in nursing a view that the so-called obstacles are either non-existent or trivial. It faced no adverse consequences at the hustings for its most disruptive and expensive decision of demonetisation. The Reserve Bank of India report on the measure may have filled newspaper columns or studio discussions, but for the public at large, the distress following demonetisation is a distant and fading memory.  

Take the current issues of rupee depreciation and mounting oil prices.  A near-identical situation existed almost exactly five years ago. By June 2013, the rupee had lost 10 per cent against the dollar in the quarter, the administered price of petrol had been raised by 4 per cent in a month, worried foreign portfolio investors had pulled out $ 3 billion in three weeks and the current account deficit had risen to 5 per cent of the GDP. That led to a mounting outcry against the economic policies of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government contributing in no small measure to its defeat the next year. The response of economists and the public at large to the current state of affairs, including yesterday’s protest bandh, is far more muted and unthreatening.

The recent release of the back-series national income data has caused a spirited debate among politicians and economists regarding the capacity of managing the economy of the present government and its predecessor.  That is unlikely to be ever satisfactorily resolved.  But it does not seem to have enthused the public beyond the chatterati of the media.  Regardless of whether the Modi government has managed the economy well, it has certainly been able to make economic management not such a hot-button issue.  Its skilful extension of LPG to all classes of consumers, its vigorous espousal of direct benefit transfers, its usurpation of the national rural employment guarantee scheme have all blunted the reactions of the most vulnerable sections who matter most in electoral politics.  Mr Modi’s popularity remains as high as ever even in states such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where the BJP state governments and their chief ministers daily face voters’ ire.  James Carville the Democratic strategist advised the candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid!”  That universally accepted wisdom is no longer applicable to India, it seems.

 

The opposition, led by the suddenly loquacious Rahul Gandhi, has mounted a vociferous attack on the government and Mr Modi personally.  Mr Gandhi has managed to draw crowds, albeit much smaller than those thronging to Mr Modi’s increasingly frequent rallies.  Greatly valid as the concern for institutions and individual liberties and tolerance is, it has little traction among the vast majority of those who vote.  Comparisons of the present with Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975-77 appear overdrawn, especially since there are few major tales of official power excesses reported by the ever-alert media.  By contrast, the campaign against supposed enemies of the people evokes an immediate, almost visceral, positive response.  

Apart from criticism of every action of the government and the prime minister, there is no alternative narrative presented by Mr Gandhi or any opposition leader. They do not seem to remember that even as Mr Modi lost no opportunity to tear into the UPA and the Congress in 2013 and 2014, he had always managed to weave an alluring picture of what things could be like under his stewardship, the so-called ‘achchhe din,’ which is what won him the election.  Any vituperation the opposition can dish out, the well-organised BJP propaganda machine can more than match.  And not to forget, the BJP writ runs today in two-thirds of the country.

That is what will make for an increasingly ugly, shrill and ultimately exhausting campaign for the next six months.  And we will trudge to the polling booths, wearily this time.
/> The writer is an economist



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