How do you assess the five years of Narendra Modi as prime minister? It is not easy, given that the period under review has been a surreal experience in several ways. Surreal because the wall between the actual and fictional stayed blurred all through, as facts confronted counterfacts, truth collided with alternative truth and frenzied noise elbowed out reasoned debate to the margins. Confusion rather than clarity dominated the mindspace.
Also, because the country remained a war zone without being in an actual war. Ideology clashed with ideology in a gladiatorial combat, parties fought bitterly with parties, private beliefs sought to ride roughshod over other private beliefs and expression of anger and hatred in public got normalised. In an environment saturated with war cries and sub-surface tension, it is hard to make an unprejudiced or accurate assessment of all that unfolded.
Perhaps the best way to make sense of the blur around is is to take a critical look at the milestone events and dominant issues. These stand out amid the clutter of other issues and have in many ways become reference points for the ruling party’s achievements or failure.
The grand move, which many would now equate to a surgical strike on India’s economy, sucked 86 per cent of currency notes out of the system in a supposed strike against black money. It was based on the assumption that all good money would be back in the banks and that which does not return would be counted as spurious money. The end result sprang a surprise. Over 99 per cent, 99.33 per cent to be exact, of the money in circulation earlier found its way to the banks.
There are two ways to read it: one, there was no black money in the country in the first place; and two, there were too many gaps in the implementation, which allowed dirty money to crawl back. Whatever the case, the economy took a pounding. The net implication for the country was a massive two per cent hit to the GDP. The rural economy suffered a great disruption and there were job losses, as difficulty in money transaction led to the collapse or slowing down of small businesses.
What was touted as a masterstroke in the beginning was a disaster in reality. Of course, the government would still defend it, claiming it led to creation of bank accounts and realisation of more taxes from income that would otherwise have stayed under the radar. Well, that could be like saying, “So what if the house was reduced to ashes in the fire we lit? Can’t you see the troublesome rats are dead too?”
Thank God for small mercies. No one in the government is talking about black money these days.
Pakistan had to be taught a lesson, made to understand the language of the muscle. Talks and peace can be no option when the rogue neighbour bleeds us by a thousand cuts. Drive fear into it through an eye-for-an-eye response and everything will fall into place. This roughly sums up the government’s approach to Pakistan. So far so good. Who in the country would complain if Pakistan is shown its place?
But the only problem is: Pakistan remains exactly the way it was before 2014. The surgical strike after the militant attack in Uri was the kind of response the ruling dispensation was always fascinated with. It was expected to send two messages: one to Pakistan and the second to the domestic audience.
To Pakistan the message was meant to be like this: India is no longer willing to tolerate attacks you facilitate through proxies. From now on, the cost of such misadventure would be heavy on you. Also, acknowledge our military prowess. You are no match to us, nukes or no nukes.
By all indication, the rogue neighbour is not impressed. The escalation of militancy in Kashmir, the spike in the number of cease-fire violations and the attacks on our security personnel suggest that Pakistan is not exactly trembling with fear at the mention of India, the primary intention of India. After the surgical strikes post Uri, we had daring attacks at Nagrota, Sanjuwan, and Pulwama. The number of fatalities involving our soldiers is marginally up though more militants have died during the period.
However, the more important message, from the ruling establishment to the domestic audience, was political. It was played up to highlight the muscular approach of the current leadership, a surefire way to enhance image among the public and to deflate the opposition. The latter is still in a bind on how to respond to the situation. It was in calibration with the anti-Pakistan frenzy orchestrated by the media.
Clearly, electoral goals were in mind and the post-Pulwama airstrike was the perfect opportunity to exploit it politically. However, it is yet to be seen whether it reaps electoral dividend. Former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee enjoyed similar high public approval after Kargil. And the elections went his way.
WHERE ARE THE JOBS?
Elections 2014 were about jobs and aspiration of the youth. The then UPA government was castigated for not creating enough jobs for the youth. Five years on, the situation is no better. It is perhaps worse. Data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) is depressing indeed. It says 9.1 million jobs were lost in rural India and 1.8 million in urban India in 2018. Rural India accounts for 84 per cent of job losses, according to its report. The unemployment rate stood at 7.4 per cent at the end of 2018, the losers being mostly women.
Investment, according to the report, has dipped across the board, with all major sectors showing signs of a slowdown. This means the scope for creation of new jobs has shrunk. Demonetisation and poor implementation of GST continues to affect businesses, at least at the lower end. How does this square with an aspirational India? Well, it does not. Is the war rhetoric going around an attempt to distract public attention from the issue of jobs? The jury is out.
The current noise about war and Hindutva also drowns out real issues that involve farmers and ordinary people at the bottom of the economic and social pyramid. Is it deliberate? Quite possible. Success has been difficult to come by for the government on several fronts. The gap between promise and delivery remains wide.
Perhaps the results of the 2019 general election will finally clear the confusion all around and separate real from the surreal. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.