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Wednesday 1 April 2020

Modi Middling The Ball Finally

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Whatever the prime minister did, the middle class consoled itself by saying it was ‘good for the country’ even when the benefits did not reach it; Modi has decided to cater to this selfless section of voters now, but isn’t it too little, too late?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is back in his 2014 avatar, not only meeting international business heads in Davos but also urging Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to cater to the middle class. Finally! There are two things the captain of the ship called India should have noted long ago. One, the middle class is arguably the only selfless class in society, with every other class concerned primarily about the special packages the government offers to their kind alone — from farmers to traders, from minority religious communities to traditionally underprivileged castes. Two, unlike in Gujarat, the middle class does not refer to small-time shopkeepers and wannabe entrepreneurs; the term refers to salaried people by and large across the country. Given Modi’s motto of “India First”, middle is the class he should have addressed throughout his tenure rather than reaching out to it after having catered to all other constituencies. However, it is impractical to play to a disparate gallery. Nobody would know that better than politician Modi. The middle class may convince itself about the goodness of Modi on a host of factors like aspiring business talents launching enterprises out of Mudra, rate cut in provident fund easing the burden on the exchequer, reduced international crude prices not reducing domestic petroleum prices because of the excise to build highways, etc. No other class of people consoles itself with the ‘good for the country’ logic. Yet, as the salaried class does not form a national union, does not go on strikes — while employees of a given office on a given day might — and does not vote en bloc for any political party forming the longest queue before polling booths, it features as the last entry in a government’s list of priorities despite its massive population. While it is true that an industry-unfriendly government would affect not industrialists alone but millions of jobs, and so the industrialist must be protected, it is unfortunate that policy makers do not realise that it is the consumers who keep the market thriving. To enable them to do so, income tax should have been abolished in accordance with the hopes raised three years ago — the poor don’t pay I-T and the rich underreport their income — and lives walking precariously on the thin ice called equated monthly instalments should have been supported with easier loan terms.

Part of it will be taken care of in the last full-fledged budget, suggest previews. But given the cautious lawyer Jaitley is — rather than an economist, let alone a radical one at that — do not expect more than an increase of Rs 50,000 per annum in the minimum taxable income slab and a return of the standard deduction. As for the EMIs, both former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and his successor Urjit Patel have been constipated about repo rate cuts and cash reserve ratios, followed by equally reluctant banks that did not pass on much of the little benefits to its customers. It was all about controlling inflation, and once again the middle class consoled itself with the ‘good for the country’ lolly.

Then, a host of Cabinet decisions on macro-economic issues on 10 January managed no more than tweaks — for example, the UPA-era 100% foreign direct investment in single-brand retail and construction now allowed to land automatically rather than through case-by-case approvals. Air India will continue to fleece the treasury in the foreseeable future, as the NDA considers it, socialistically, as much of a “national carrier” as the UPA did. In short, the middle class can neither feel the relief in I-T and EMIs nor can greater economic goods trickle down to this class of people by as early as April 2019.

But if politics, albeit of a kind different than Sonia Gandhi’s, dictated ‘Modinomics’, he must beware of another time-tested political theory. While the poor are the largest section of the electorate, it is always the middle-class youth that gives them a direction in elections. From demagogues to event managers, they all come from the middle class. A large section of free-market advocates from this class has given up hope in a phase where, Gujarat has shown, Modi’s charisma lets the BJP barely manage a victory. The poor kept giving Modi, shunning their long-held anti-incumbent temperament, State after State as his charm refused to die until Gujarat happened, which indicated that the Dalits may not jump into the bandwagon of the poor while the middle class is part disillusioned. In any case, the time for big-bang reforms is the first year — at best, the second, too — of a new government; slogging like a tail-ender during the terminal overs does not help score much. The period 2014-19 is a brilliant economic opportunity lost, even if Modi gets a second term, which he well might, given the break-India agenda the opposition is working on, putting the people off. Considering issues like a steady growth of infrastructure in all fields and no big-ticket corruption, it is to be seen whether the middle class clings on to the ‘good for the country’ credo in 2019 or turns indifferent to politics as it had done in the summer of 2004.

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