Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government can generally not be accused of consistency, at least not when it comes to economic policy. But it has managed to stick to one principle: Deny and distract. No matter what the actual numbers are saying about the economy, the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party have made efforts to insist that everything is working out perfectly.
It was this tendency that prompted us to ask, as part of our Hard Times series that takes a look at the Great Indian Slowdown: Does the Modi government even understand what is going on with the Indian economy?
Don’t believe us? Here is an incomplete list of excuses, half-baked explanations and downright distractions the government has sought to point to in an effort to avoid spelling out what appears to be clear: the Indian economy is in danger.
“Three movies were released on October 2,” said Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, on October 12. “Film critic Komal Nahta told me that the national holiday of October 2 saw an earning of over Rs 120 crore – War, Joker and Sye Raa [Narasimha Reddy]. It’s only because the economy is sound that movies can fetch a return of Rs 120 crore in a single day.”
Booming economy; hence, proved.
As far as Prasad was concerned, box-office returns were a more reliable indicator of India’s economy than indicators from multiple sectors and analysts across the board. Numbers now put out by his own government make it clear that growth is at its slowest in six years.
Trains, planes and weddings
“The state of the economy is very good,” said Union Minister Suresh Angadi in November. “Airports full hai, koi seat nahin milta, railway station mein ticket nahin milta, woh full hai…Kisi ka shaadi nahin rukta hai, kisi ka kaam nahin rukta hai (Airports are full, there is no seat available, tickets are not available at railway stations, they are full... no one’s wedding is called off, no one’s work is affected).”
According to the Indian Express, he went on to say, “the common people…they are more happy. Only few people are creating (the issue) to damage the name of (the) honourable PM, who is more popular in the world.”
This he said after the Business Standard had reported on consumer expenditure declining for the first time in India since the 1970s, according to a survey that the government refused to release.
As an extension of that argument, here’s Virendra Singh Mast, another BJP Member of Parliament:
For the record, the past July was the worst for the automobile sector in two decades.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman actually had an explanation for why things were looking so bad for the automobile sector: Millennials. After having been blamed for killing everything from dinner dates to diamonds, they have now been accused of attacking India’s automobile industry too.
“The automobile and components industry has been affected by BS-VI and the mindsets of millennial, who now prefer to have Ola and Uber rather than committing to buying an automobile,” Sitharaman said in September.
If this were actually true, it might have been a blessing in disguise: Sure the automobile sector would be hit in the short- and even medium-term, but in the long run, a cultural shift away from car ownership towards ridesharing would be a positive for urban planning and the environment. Sadly, it is not the case, at least not according to Maruti Suzuki, the country’s largest automobile manufacturer.
If it were, car ownership patterns would change and ride sharing would go up. The fact that neither of these has shown a major shift suggests that the more likely explanation for the auto sector’s woes is the one that is one display everywhere else: A collapse in demand.
“Don’t get into those calculations that you see on television,” said Union Minister Piyush Goyal in September. “Oh if you’re looking at a $5-trillion economy, the country will have to grow at 12%, today it’s growing at 6-7%... don’t get into those maths. Those maths never helped Einstein discover gravity. If we had only gone by structured formulae and what was past knowledge, I don’t think there would have been any innovation in this world.”
That’s right. A minister – indeed, the one overseeing the commerce ministry and the one who put together the interim Budget at the start of the year – said that growth-rate maths is not important. In his view, India can somehow leapfrog its way into being a $5 trillion economy even if the actual growth rate needed to get us there is not achieved.
How? By somehow channeling Einstein (who, it might bear repeating, did not discover gravity). Goyal, of course, later clarified his comments – by yet again insisting that Einstein’s open mind helped him discover gravity.
What GDP? Which GDP?
“GDP was introduced in India in 1934... we should not make it a gospel like the Bible or the Mahabharata,” said BJP Member of Parliament Nishikant Dubey in the Lok Sabha in December. “In the future, GDP will not be of much use as an economic indicator.”
Dubey is not the only one to make this argument. He quoted a former US President – and a former US Senator who he called President – to support his argument. Recently Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has made the same case, the GDP will go the way of other obsolete measures like the Pyramid inch and Arabic mile.
Yet it doesn’t help that Dubey’s argument came not long after official government numbers put the second quarter GDP growth at 4.5%, the worst in six years and a far cry from the double-digit growth that the BJP once promised.
It is one thing to argue about doing away with GDP or adding more complexity to it as an indicator when the numbers are good. But to only make the argument when the data turns against you seems not just expedient but also petty, like changing the rules after the match was lost.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman may have gotten some short shrift when her comment about not coming from a family that eats a lot of onions ended up trending. “Main itna lehsun, pyaaz nahi khati hoon ji. Main aise pariwar se aati hoon jaha onion, pyaaz se matlab nahi rakhte.” (I don’t eat much garlic, onions. I come from a family that doesn’t consume them.”)
The response was considered insensitive at a time when onion prices are skyrocketing. It doesn’t help that it tends to be upper castes in India that don’t eat onions, even as millions of others rely heavily on them, so much that onion prices are an extremely sensitive political subject. Sitharaman was responding to a question about whether she eats onions on the floor of the Parliament when she made the remark.
But this doesn’t explain follow-up remarks from Union Minister Ashwini Choubey who said, outside Parliament, that he can’t expected to know about onion prices and inflation because he has never tasted onions (which he explained by saying he is “a vegetarian”).
Might this explain why the Modi government treats the economy like somebody else’s problem? Its ministers don’t have to deal with unemployment or a lack of income growth and so they take it to mean that nobody else is suffering either?