On 26 May, BJP president Amit Shah addressed a press conference, reading out a list of ‘achievements’ of the Narendra Modi government, most programmes in which were INC-led UPA government’s initiatives — albeit with better outcomes. Given the history of the second 2 of the 3 years that the NDA government has been around, the content of Shah’s speech was predictable. Through action after action and speech after speech, Prime Minister Modi has addressed the poor man. Be it the opening of accounts of the un-banked, providing huts with LPG connections or making housing affordable, the focus has been on the lowest stratum of the economy. This was important socially, economically as well as the politically. A large section of the population cannot stay dejected and envious of the privileged few. While the middle class has been expanding since the 1990s, the size needs a quantum jump to breathe life into a morose international market and energise the domestic circuit. Politically, neither PV Narasimha Rao nor Atal Bihari Vajpayee could save their government for a second term. Those getting impatient with the near total absence of big bang reforms forget that Modi suffers from an additional image problem, thanks to the opposition’s Ambani-Adani propaganda. Arun Shourie’s style of disinvestment had created a Pramod Mahajan whose alleged hobnobbing with corporate houses dragged down the popularity ratings of Vajpayee government. Modi is too seasoned to repeat the hara-kiri. Besides, unlike in the late 90s and early 2000s, there is not much left to be privatised, if one kept aside eyesores like Air India and ITDC hotels. “Government has no business to be in business” was either just rhetoric by Modi during the Lok Sabha campaign or the result of Bihar election in 2015 rendered a severe jolt to his faith in the market. Therefore, as of now, the economists may forget divestment of PSUs.
For one, the BJP drew a wrong lesson from Bihar. His reliance on market economics could not be blamed for the electoral fiasco. His message to Biharis was out-and-out socialistic — a ‘package’ from the Centre, for example — the coalition’s arithmetic was formidable, and the statements of RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat and Union minister Gen VK Singh drove the last nail into the coffin of BJP’s prospects in the State. Hope rose again when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley affirmed that reforms would continue, unaffected by the poll debacle. Those ‘reforms’, the nation noticed, were incremental in nature. Environmental clearance for industries is a case in point. At the dinner hosted for journalists on the 28th, the BJP boasted of reducing the waiting period from about 2 years under the UPA regime to 180 days under the NDA; 6 months is still a terribly long time for an enterprise to halt its launch. This despite the fact that when Prakash Javadekar was the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Environment & Forests, he had delegated a majority of clearance jobs to the respective environment ministries of all States! It is this piecemeal nature of improvements that makes people wonder what has changed in their lives in the past 3 years — more so due to a severe job scarcity staring at the youth. If the claim that MUDRA and Start-Up India have been successful is true, the few crore of loan seekers can at best generate jobs 2 to 3 times of their own number — that too in small towns in the unskilled and semi-skilled labour sectors. Hundreds and thousands of skilled jobs per business establishment warrant a massive boost to medium and large-scale industries. That is beyond the wherewithal of start-ups. Let alone the large ones that have yet to be released from the tightening noose of banks from which they had borrowed recklessly under the UPA, the medium-scale industry is heckled by the bureaucracy on a regular basis. For small and micro businesses, the treatment is worse, as officers of anachronistic municipal corporations take over the charge.
Modi’s mistake is not that he has been wasting a huge mandate. Empowerment of the lowest rung is necessary before throwing the market open which, in all probability, he will do in the second term that is quite certainly coming his way in 2019. His error in judging his own potential is Hanuman-like. A modern avatar of Jambavan must tell him how long and high he can jump. The marvellous communicator has not realised yet that his mass connect can be utilised to convey to the poor that the market is a faster way than the government to climb the economic ladder; using the market’s mechanism to rise would also enhance the self-esteem of yesterday’s poor lot. If Modi cannot, using his speeches and other modes of communication, convince the downtrodden that Air India, a flight of the rich, is funded by the money of the poor who cannot fly and, hence, the airline must be sold, what concept will be easier for him to sell? It is supremely ironical that the Modi who used to ridicule the Sonia Gandhi-led government during its final days for showing “schemes” to the public — when they wanted results — today counts one yojana after another when asked to enumerate its achievements.
The government is but likely to continue to bear the socialistic overheads because the opposition is in a pathetic shape. Egged on by an influential but misleading section of the media, they believe that the vanishing of beef from the plates of some foodies can be an electoral plank. Since 2015, the issue of persecution of religious minorities or members of the Scheduled Castes hasn’t stuck. Apart from Dadri, where the perpetrator was an office bearer of the BJP from the lower ranks, no incident could be linked to the ruling party. A Congress hand was suspected in Una while Mayawati’s brother is allegedly funding the Dalit unrest in Saharanpur. The Centre’s notification prohibiting the sale of cattle for slaughter in livestock markets, while pandering to the cow vigilantes whom Modi had condemned before the Uttar Pradesh election, cannot turn votes in favour of the scattered opposition. The edict can at best be questioned on the merit of hitting citizens’ individual liberty and harming the industries that do business with husbandry products.
It will do a depleting INC and geographically restricted TMC, JD(U), RJD, SP, BSP, DMK and Left Front a world of good if they harp on the lack of jobs, making it their one-point campaign against the government for the remaining 2 years of its tenure. This concern that is primarily middle class can affect the populous underprivileged classes, too, as it is the former that sets the mood of the latter. This pressure from the opposition and media alone can force the BJP government’s course correction. Otherwise, regardless of the socialism-versus-capitalism dilemma of Modi, observed also in his predecessor Manmohan Singh towards the end of UPA II, 2019 is a foregone conclusion in favour of him.