As India heads into its 17th general election, I’m hoping Narendra Modi will be elected prime minister for a second term. I believe Modi should win because his first term was marked by few successes and many dreadful mistakes.
Those are usually very bad reasons to re-elect politicians, but there is a reason why, at this specific time, it could be in India’s medium-term interest to keep the prime minister in power. Before I explain why, let me first provide a laundry list of the failures I mentioned. I will not delve into the ruling party’s divisive social policy, which is at the root of the abhorrence many Indians, myself included, feel for the man and his regime, but restrict myself to the nation’s economy.
Modi has overseen a government that came to power promising crores of jobs but has presided over the biggest jobs crisis since Manmohan Singh’s 1991 budget, which put India on a trajectory of gradual economic liberalisation and high gross domestic product growth.
The ruling party repeatedly pats itself on the back for India being the fastest growing large economy in the world, a position it achieved not through economic acceleration but because growth in China has slowed. The comparison with China’s growth today fails to factor in India’s higher population growth rate, and China’s far larger economy. When China had India’s current per capita GDP, it logged year after year of double-digit growth, despite having a lower rate of population and workforce growth.
Granting that the fastest economy label is just hype, it still seems mysterious how a failure to create jobs for the 10 million Indians entering the workforce annually has gone alongside the respectable GDP numbers India has reported in the past five years. One answer to this conundrum is that Modi’s most abysmal policy, demonetisation, hit the informal sector hardest, and shifts in the informal economy are inadequately captured by official data. That data itself has grown increasingly unreliable, as a number of eminent economists have complained, the latest being the former Reserve Bank chairman Raghuram Rajan.
When compared to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s performance is sub-par on most parameters. This despite over half the UPA’s decade-long stint being spent in the shadow of the greatest global economic crisis in 70 years. Modi, on the other hand, took over as captain when all elements favoured growth, from improved prospects in the European Union and Japan, to the continued steady recovery of the United States, to a massive drop in oil prices that saved India tens of billions of dollars. Instead of using that fuel to guide India into a higher growth orbit, Modi’s incompetence slowed down the economy.
Now, the outlook is much bleaker. With the stimulus of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts having faded, US growth is falling. Japan barely escaped recession this quarter, the European Union is anaemic, the omnishambles that is Brexit threatens the United Kingdom’s health, and Turkey’s voters have just punished President Erdogan for the economic pain they’ve been feeling. The news last week produced a few positive nuggets, like the increased likelihood of a trade agreement between the US and China, but ever more economists believe the US could face a recession as early as the end of this year.
Heavy weather ahead
Why would I want an inept ship master steering us into rough weather when he made a hash of guiding us in calm waters with a congenial wind at our back? Before I answer that, it is imperative to understand just how bad the weather could get. If the global economy is cyclical, so is India’s polity.
We have faced crises regularly, but the most pronounced have appeared in a nine-year cycle: the war of 1965 and the last recession India faced in 1966; the chaos of 1974 and the emergency of 1975; the Khalistan crisis peaking in 1983 and 1984, with Indira Gandhi’s assassination and anti-Sikh massacres; the Babri demolition and riots of 1992-1993; the attack on Parliament and the Gujarat carnage of 2001-2002; and the corruption scandals and Anna Hazare movement of 2010-2011.
The perfect storm of 2020 would involve a global economic downturn exacerbated in India by violence driven by disaffected youth. To add a new wrinkle to the situation, India now has 25 million more males than females in the 16 to 25 age group.
Lumpen and lumpenproletariat were terms used frequently in the 1970s, the last era when unemployment was among the most fundamental issues facing India. In Marxist terminology, the lumpenproletariat are unemployed members of the working class who back reactionary ideas and parties. This has proven true thus far in Modi’s term: he has successfully channelled into sectarian activism the anger of the lumpen at their lumpenisation. If the jobs crisis continues, however, his hold on the young will loosen. It is loosening already, but probably not fast enough to hand him a defeat in 2019, thanks to the nationalistic passion created around the Pulwama terrorist attack and Balakot air strike.
Finally, the reason
The reason why, despite the many failing grades in his report card, I’m hoping Modi wins, is that no political party has an answer to the looming crises, whether in employment or agriculture. All agree agricultural productivity needs to be raised, but cannot see that the only realistic way to achieve this is to shift tens of millions of Indians from farms to gainful employment in other sectors.
Solving the employment and agrarian crises requires radical reforms not envisaged in any party manifesto, nor would any prospective prime minister have the power to push them through. Modi’s opponents might have steered the ship better than he did in the helpful conditions of the past five years, but I can’t see them guiding us around the approaching storm.
Consider a coalition of non-BJP parties managing to cobble together a majority and then, a year or so into their term, facing the disaster I have sketched. Being at the helm during a badly-managed crisis can cause lasting damage. It happened with the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and the Democrats in the United States in the 1970s. It could easily hand the BJP the reins of power for a long time to come.
If you, like me, believe Modi’s policies and lack of vision have been detrimental to India’s future, and if you, like me, believe we haven’t yet seen the worst consequences of those policies, you should want him to be in power when the serious downturn hits, so he and his party bear the full political consequences of their calamitous choices.
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