Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday said India faces imminent danger from the trinity of social disharmony, economic slowdown and a global health epidemic. In an opinion article published by The Hindu, the former prime minister said the combination of risks may not only rupture the “soul of India” but also diminish its global standing as an economic and democratic power.
He said that Narendra Modi should “reassure the nation that he can help us tide over this as smoothly as we can”, “not merely through words but by deeds”.
As the toll in the communal violence that erupted in North East Delhi last week rose to 53 on Thursday, Singh blamed certain “unruly sections of our society, including political class” for stoking communal tensions and “fanning flames for religious intolerance”.
“University campuses, public places and private homes are bearing the brunt of communal outbursts of violence, reminiscent of the dark periods in India’s history,” he added. “ Institutions of law and order have abandoned their dharma to protect citizens. Institutions of justice and the fourth pillar of democracy, the media, have also failed us.”
The Congress leader forewarned that such social unrest at a time when the economy is floundering will only exacerbate the slowdown. The Indian economy has been sliding over the past two years. India’s Gross Domestic Product growth rate slipped to 4.5% in the second quarter of 2019-’20, the lowest in six years. The fall in the growth rate is primarily due to a decline in consumer demand. Meanwhile, retail inflation rose to a near-six-year high of 7.59% in January this year.
“Investors, industrialists and entrepreneurs are unwilling to undertake new projects and have lost their risk appetite,” Singh said. “Social disruptions and communal tensions only compound their fears and risk aversion. Social harmony, the bedrock of economic development, is now under peril.”
Invoking the spirit of nonviolence espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, Singh said it is both futile and puerile to point to past instances of such violence in India’s history to justify the present violence in the country. “Every act of sectarian violence is a blemish on Mahatma Gandhi’s India,” he added. “ Just in a matter of few years, India has slid rapidly from being a global showcase of a model of economic development through liberal democratic methods to a strife ridden majoritarian state in economic despair.”
He said the onus of extinguishing the fire of social tensions is on the same people that lit it.
Talking about the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Singh said India too must act swiftly and “announce a mission critical team that will be tasked with addressing the issue”. “There could be some best practices we can adopt from other nations,” he added.
He explained that in an integrated global economy, an external health shock like the COVID-19 crisis can further slow India’s already tepid GDP growth by half percentage to one point, other things being constant.
Singh concluded by suggesting three broad reforms that are necessary to mitigate the impending crisis: “First, it should focus all energies and efforts on containing the COVID-19 threat and prepare adequately. Two, it should withdraw or amend the Citizenship Act, end the toxic social climate and foster national unity,” and three, “it should put together a detailed and meticulous fiscal stimulus plan to boost consumption demand and revive the economy”.
“The truth is that the current situation is very grim and morose. The India that we know and cherish is slipping away fast,” he added. “ It is time to confront the harsh reality of the grave risks we face as a nation and address them squarely and sufficiently.”