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Big story: Hindsight

“India begins 2020 in turmoil.”

That’s how we started the first Political Fix of this year, offering forecasts from Scroll.in’s reporting team and one from me on what readers could expect in 2020 and, indeed, the forthcoming decade in India.

Spoiler alert: The words “global pandemic” do not turn up in those articles.

This week, as we pass the halfway mark of the year, the mostly unforeseen coronavirus crisis is all-encompassing, dominating every other development.

Five months after it was officially declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the Covid-19 pandemic and its fallout remain wildly unpredictable, with no clarity on how long it will disrupt what we considered normal life.

But even while the full impact of the Covid crisis – on politics, on policy, on the economy and on all of our lives – cannot yet be ascertained, we can still put down some notes on how the first half of 2020 went.

Key to what follows is the truism that crises like these do not upend the preexisting order, they only accelerate trends – like Modi’s continued popularity, India’s economic struggles, a lacklustre Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s divisive politics. There is, however, one major exception to that too.

Here is what we make of how 2020 has played out so far:

Modi on top

It has been year full of the sort of missteps that might have sunk another government: the economy was dramatically slowing because of economic mismanagement before Covid-19 hit; February saw the worst riots in Delhi in more than 35 years; the government’s failure to plan for migrant workers as it went into lockdown resulted in a massive humanitarian disaster and China has managed to change the status quo on the disputed border, leading to the first deaths of Indian soldiers at the Line of Actual Control in more than four decades.

Despite all this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reigns supreme.

Illustration: Nithya Subramanian

It helps that he was re-elected with a massive mandate in 2019, meaning the coronavirus crisis is not an immediate electoral threat. But even if it were, Modi would have been the front-runner. Polls, though rarely reliable, show that the prime minister remains extremely popular, albeit with some ebbing of support from younger Indians. Some of the sustained popularity may be the rally-around-the-flag effect, which sees citizens supporting leaders in a time of crisis. Still, despite the year he has had, few believe Modi’s political preeminence faces any kind of threat.

Known Covid-19 unknowns

In spite of the failure of India’s Covid-19 lockdown to break the transmission of the virus, as was the initial aim, and even though the country this week overtook Russia to record the third-highest number of global cases, there is still a sense that Modi has done better than expected. This is possibly because, unlike the leadership of the two countries above India on the list, Brazil and the United States, Modi never denied the dangers of the virus.

Yet India’s graph still points resolutely upwards, and the pandemic is shifting in intensity towards the east, where health infrastructure is minimal. Horror stories keep turning up from big cities and small towns, and there is no clarity on when India will peak and whether the country has done enough to beef up its systems for that eventuality.

As a consequence, as we enter the second half of the year, we simply do not have good visibility into how this crisis will play out, either from a public health perspective or a political one.

Economy in tatters

Even before the global pandemic hit, the Indian economy was gasping for air. Estimates for GDP growth in Financial Year 2019-2020 fell from 7% to 5% and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in February triggered an escape clause allowing the government to borrow more than it was otherwise legally permitted. Most worryingly, the government did not seem to have a clear sense of why the numbers were so bad. Even as most commentators pointed to structural problems, Modi supporters insisting it was a cycle that wold turn.

Now India will certainly see a major contraction, by at least 4.5%, in Financial Year 2020-21. Even a quick bounce-back next year will not be enough to put it back on its earlier trajectory, never mind fulfilling the aim of becoming a $5 trillion economy.

The Covid-19 package announced by Modi relied almost entirely on liquidity measures with very little stimulus spending, which is not expected to address the widespread distress, especially as New Delhi has since embarked on an anti-Chinese protectionist effort.

There is talk now of higher fiscal spending later in the year, but the government continues to struggle restart economic activity and to pull in revenue. There is now even less trust that those in charge of the economy have a good handle on what needs to be done to turn the ship around.

China on the borders

Can India afford to deal with China as an adversary? The last few issues of our newsletter have considered this question, following the first fatal conflict between the armies of India and China in more than 40 years. It is one we will undoubtedly return to.

Stronger anti-China sentiment in Delhi may bring with it a closer alliance with the United States, but it will also likely bring hardship to many Indian business owners who had grown used to cheap Chinese goods.

Even as Modi will have to figure out how to deal with the situation on the Line of Actual Control, with or without dramatic visits to Leh, weaning India off of Chinese manufacturing, investment or indeed, entertainment apps may prove to be equally as hard.

State leaders on the mat

Political scientist Suhas Palshikar told us in early May that Modi will get to play saviour while letting the difficult decisions (and the brickbats) go to the states. And indeed, from a political angle it looks likely that a number of chief ministers will face more direct accountability than citizens appear to expect from the prime minister.

Will Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray be seen as the one who was overwhelmed or the one who manage to wrest back control? What does Amit Shah’s takeover of Delhi’s Covid-19 battle mean for Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal? Will Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa still be seen as a saviour now that cases in his state are steadily rising? Has crisis control revived the fortunes of Assam’s health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma?

Listless Opposition

The 2015 Bihar election was a massive political event, and would eventually prove that an anti-Modi alliance could win if conditions were favourable. Bihar polls are due again this year, yet despite potentially bigger questions to put to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, the elections are already being declared a washout.

The Congress has tried to press Modi, on the Covid-19 crisis, on the migrant worker policy mess, on fuel prices and on China, but seems to have found few takers. Other parties have struggled to maintain a coherent line, not least because of Modi’s massive dominance of the national security question. Besides, many states will need Central support to just pay their basic commitments, never mind additional expenditure.

As as a result, even if there are enough issues on the table for another party with which to challenge the BJP, the chances of a genuine, national contender continue to remain minimal.

Divisive moves

We started this year amidst a national protest movement against the government’s Citizenship Act amendments that many see as religiously discriminatory. This was in fact the issue we thought might dominate the first half of the year. For the moment, however, the CAA and its promised follow-up, the National Register of Citizens, have been put on hold.

This, however, hasn’t stopped the Centre and the BJP from continuing its efforts to vilify Muslims and divide Indian society on religious lines in pursuit of a pan-Hindu votebank. Early on, the discovery of an Islamic group had flouted guidelines and spread the virus led to a wave of Islamophobic messages amplified by the party and its social media army.

And under the cover of lockdown, the authorities have continued to file cases and jail many of those who have criticised this government. Even if the citizenship initiative takes some time to return to national prominence, there is no doubt that the Centre is continuing to pursue its polarising agenda.

Migrant return

Where Covid-19 may have accelerated pre-existing trends in many cases, the migrant crisis is the exception. It is hard to imagine a scenario that causes millions of Indians to move en masse from urban areas where they migrate seasonally for work to rural areas that they call home.

This huge reverse migration is expected to slowly unwind, as workers return to the parts of the country that have more industrial activity. But the patchy nature of India’s post-lockdown re-opening, efforts by states to employ at least some of the workers at home and a continued awareness that Covid-19 remains a threat at large, mean that not everyone will head back to the cities right away.

The effects of this are potentially far-reaching, from labour shortages and an upending of Modinomics because of a reliance on the rural economy (which we wrote about last week) to a spurt in property disputes and fears of many falling back into poverty.

If India began 2020 in turmoil, it marks the halfway point with despair – at a virus that continues to spread, an economy that has fallen off a cliff, a conflict with China that threatens to get worse and a migrant crisis with impacts that cannot be predicted.

Will these be the issues we are discussing at the end of the year? Will some of those that came up at the start of the year return to prominence? Or does 2020 have even more surprises in store?

Tell us what you think. Write to rohan@scroll.in with what has been your takeaway from the first half of 2020 or if you have a suggestion for who we should featuring on our Friday Q&As. Thanks for reading.