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Why India’s triple crisis needs Modi to de-escalate & disengage from divisive politics at home

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Why India’s triple crisis needs Modi to de-escalate & disengage from divisive politics at home

Covid, China and economy are intense, intertwined crises that need political space and confidence. Responsibility to create them doesn’t lie with opposition.
Shekhar Gupta 12 September, 2020 8:16 am IST
Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint

Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint
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It is a nasty truism that the finest political humour is found in dictatorships. It festers nicely in whispers and the thrill of danger. Travels in the generals’ Pakistan and the unravelling Eastern Bloc taught me this.
The current situation in India brings back to me a familiar joke in the Soviet Union’s last years. Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and Gorbachev were travelling in a luxury saloon on a train across Siberia. At some point in the middle of the vast emptiness, the train stopped. There was no track further ahead. So, what to do now?
Lenin said let’s collect some villagers from nearby and sing ‘The Internationale’ and the workers will happily lay the rest of the track. Stalin said, this is stupid. Do get those people, but shoot a few and the rest will do the job, happily or not. Gorbachev suggested he find a phone to reach his friend Ronald Reagan for advice. Brezhnev, silent so far, looked up and said, Lulz! There is so much vodka in the saloon. Keep sipping and presume the train is moving.
Now look at the situation in our country today. With coronavirus numbers and deaths going up and up, all economic indicators crashing down and down, and the Chinese being the Chinese, we have the Prime Minister and his government producing one new slogan after another. Hoping to ride a ‘hawa’ of grand distraction.
It goes from the rediscovery of Atmanirbhar Bharat wrapped in Make in India, pisciculture revolution, hiring of a consultant for a $1 trillion Uttar Pradesh economy, ban on Chinese apps, claims of lowest per million cases and deaths from Covid and, of course, an endless celebration of a booming economy when the reality is the opposite.
How is it any different from Brezhnev asking his top comrades to presume the train is moving even when there is no track ahead? Just that there is no vodka here. At least not free, sarkari vodka.


Since this column appears simultaneously with ThePrint in India’s finest financial daily, Business Standard, as well, I am diffident talking economic data. Especially because T.N. Ninan’s ‘Weekend Ruminations’, published simultaneously, is so rich with it. But, we are looking at a 23.9 per cent contraction in the first quarter of this year. Economist Arvind Panagariya, who I respect immensely, argues with much merit that the steep decline is mostly Covid-linked. But, two questions follow.
What was the GDP growth trend in the two years prior to the novel coronavirus being identified? India had already had four successive quarters of growth decline. It is as if a train rolling down without power or brakes now suddenly hit the end of the track (read pandemic). Before we think the ‘day after’ the virus, we need to remember where we were headed the day before. The virus didn’t reverse our direction. It accelerated our decline.
Also read: Govt needs to be scared out of complacency & Q1 contraction could do that, Raghuram Rajan says
The pandemic has been described as an ‘act of God’ and, whether or not it is a justification to deny the states their anticipated share of the GST, it is a fact. It is also true that the Modi government, unlike Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Jair Bolsonaro, can’t be accused of taking it too lightly.
If anything, you might say it over-reacted. That the lockdown was too early and too total and the call of ‘jaan hai, toh jahaan hai’ contributed to the panic that saw millions of migrant workers walk back home and take the virus to the interiors. But, all of that is now, with the benefit of hindsight.
There are other issues with its handling of the crisis. Too much centralisation has probably led to many failures, lack of trust in states, remote-control by the Centre. That power and responsibility should have devolved to the states much earlier.
Even now, there is no real justification for the Disaster Management Act to continue. So heady can such unfamiliar powers be that even a usually staid and understated scientific institution like the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) deludes itself into writing firmans with a few weeks’ deadlines for a vaccine. The primary diagnosis here has to be, when the medical scientists catch bureaucratitis.
Again, you have to be fair to say that it wasn’t the Modi government that invited or provoked China. The Chinese decided to move in because they saw India in Covid crisis and with a declining economy at a time when the world, especially the US, is distracted. I have argued in this column earlier that it may be Xi’s response to India’s changes in Kashmir on 5 August 2019, and the reassertion of the claim on Aksai Chin. It is definitely a possibility and you might argue that it wasn’t a risk worth taking. But that’s your view.
Its handling of the Chinese threat, however, has been realistic. The military has been given reasonable tactical freedom, official and political rhetoric is controlled, and an unwise response like Nehru’s in 1962, under pressure or in anger, has been avoided. So, what are we complaining about?
If India is being strangled by this triple crisis, we have to remember what it started from. Which takes us back to the economy and that ‘the day before’ question. India’s economic growth was looking brilliant until 2017. The recovery post 2011 had been quite significant. What went wrong then? Who shot through the wheels of the economy? Or, who removed the rails in the middle of nowhere while the train was gathering pace nicely?
This is what will take you to the most important man-made element of this complex situation. Whatever Covid may have done March onwards, we cannot blame God or the Chinese for the stalling of our own economic growth. It was a series of unthinking, and poorly war-gamed decisions — from demonetisation to instability in the Reserve Bank to indecision on PSU banks and more — that already had our growth down to levels we thought we had left behind in the 1980s. Then, self-defeating return to protectionism. Even Panagariya, no critic of this government, said to me in our conversation on ThePrint’s Off The Cuff that this protectionism would shave up to two percentage points from our growth.
Also read: India is paying higher costs for its Covid crisis than we know yet
If there is one thing a nation and its government need in times of such intense, multiple and intertwined crises, it is political space and confidence. It needs a reality check internally on whether it has created the best possible environment for itself to deal with these issues. Or, is it so deluded by Modi’s cast-in-titanium image that it couldn’t care less?
In this column, I have argued repeatedly over a decade now how India is now at its most secure, internally and externally. To a child of the crisis-ridden 1960s, this has been a wonderful feeling. Does it still feel so?
There are important reversals. Externally, India faces an active two-front situation with some of the other neighbours too getting impatient over one thing or the other. Of course, the Chinese are up to their games there, but why wouldn’t they?
Now, there might be limitations to what any government may be able to do with a hostile neighbourhood and international environment. But, must the constant combat of domestic politics also rage at the same time? India has had a stellar record of closing ranks when faced with an external challenge, except now. This responsibility does not lie with the opposition.
When you face a threat at the borders, a much stronger army carrying live ammunition, the first thing you do is suspend hostilities at home. In the old days, we would call the National Integration Council. We know there are Bihar and West Bengal elections and MP by-elections coming up. But, in a time of crisis like this, a government needs its people and politics united. A nation of India’s size and diversity can’t fight a stronger rival with fraying social cohesion. I know it is virtue signalling, but can we forget our divisive politics for a few months and focus on these crises? The onus is entirely on the prime minister and his government.
Also read: Indian economy is heading for a K-shaped recovery and it won’t be a pretty sight
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rasgolla 13 September, 2020 at 12:58 am
Many Hindus pretend that they do not understand SG’s message about why Modi needs to de-escalate and disengage from divisive politics at home and attend to India’s triple crisis.
Certainly SG has not explained it directly, and BJP Hindus will hide their head in the sand like small brained ostriches when faced with a triple crisis. So let me explain bluntly what SG means.
SG is not talking about confrontation with Rahul Gandhi, Mamta etc. That is in the course of normal politics.
Modi and his RSS-BJP have had only one agendum : pumping Hindus up to fight Muslims within the country, to assert Hindu dominance and ownership of the country.
Modi’s rise was only due to a pogrom he organised in Gujarat 2002. You think he put Muslims in their place and that was a great achievement. In fact, it is only burning your own country, it is not an achievement, you should be ashamed of yourself. It means you do not have the capability of leadership.
After Modi became PM, all we saw was lynchings, rape, and destruction of the economy. In the second term, he embarked on CAA-NRC and a plan to build concentration camps in the Nazi style. Another pogrom was organised in Delhi. As he was engaged in these destructive and divisive activities, he did not plan to tackle Covid and China.
See how Covid panned out. In Feb., he had no plan, he was engaged in confrontation with students and planning the Delhi pogrom. When Covid broke out, the initial reaction was for BJP oriented channels like Republic and Zee to declare it was a Covid jihad by Muslims. They broadcast stories claiming Markaz delegates spat on people – later it was admitted it was a fabrication. Based on this, Hindus started tweeting messages against Muslims and Arabs. The Hindus living in UAE and Kuwait also got carried away and started tweeting hate posts. They were caught and deported. The Arabs got to know what is Hindutva. Due to Aarti Lalchandani, there is a question mark about recruitment of Hindu doctors. In the end, all this has harmed Hindus and India more than Muslims. India’s Covid curve has gone up, it has gone out control and the govt. has given up.
On top of that, Modi has created enemies with all neighbours – including Nepal. Threatening China with capture of Aksai Chin has induced China to give a beating and take more land. And they are going to harry India along the border. Now, India with its failing economy and Covid has to spend on defence. The army is now bogged down in Kashmir.
That is what SG means. Divisive politics brings the BJP dividends, but at India’s expense.
India has probably gone too far down the road of fascism to recover. Fascism has failed without exception and it will be the case in India also. Germany was destroyed, but because it was a mono cultural country, it could recover. Where fascism was tried in multi ethnic countries, it has led to break up of countries – like Yugoslavia. India is going Yugoslavia’s way.
SG’s message is too little too late, and many Hindus will not even understand it.
 
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