The economy is much in debate. Depends on when you ask. It was doing pretty badly on Wednesday and has recovered by Thursday. That’s the latest verdict, going by statistics thrown up during the political slugfest. The opposite diagnosis may be a tad worrisome for a patient, but one side insists the economy is not in ICU. It needs no surgery, only supplementary drips, which are being prepared and will be injected soon. The self-appointed consulting surgeon, meanwhile, has been summarily banished as a disgruntled old soul.
Since the cusp of the nineties—a decade that witnessed political-economic surgical strikes as never before—newsprint has perhaps not been consumed with such enormous appetite by any other subject (barring Hindu-Muslim questions). Of course, the consensus is as elusive as it was in 1989-91. But those who have watched that phase and are still watching the unfolding show will tell you, there’s one thing common—and that’s Yashwant Sinha. He was the insider, the trigger point then. He wanted to play that role again, from outside this time, but has been summarily dismissed through the good offices of his son Jayant Sinha. Political dynasties have their uses, provided they are used creatively.
There’s no denying the economy is misbehaving a bit, to put it mildly, reacting to all manner of extraneous things. The Sensex, for instance, crashed Wednesday. The proximate cause was said to be some ‘surgical strikes’ on the faraway Indo-Myanmar border on Naga rebels! Did it have any business to be so hyperreactive on Mahashtami, spoiling the festive mood? Particularly, when two czars of Indian Inc.—Sunil Mittal and Mukesh Ambani—were reaching out to each other to team up for the greater good of the nation (and the telecom sector)? And, as Minister Jayant Sinha has pointed out, the glitches in the rollout of GST are just temporary.
Once it’s up and running and every trader gets used to filling multiple forms twice or thrice a month, everything would be kosher. The government would have so much more disposable income to build roads, ports, electrify every home, provide a roof over a billion heads, repair rail lines, appoint better schoolteachers, build more schools, toilets, AIIMS-like medical centres, a clean environment, all that. A few jobs lost? Rising unemployment? It’s temporary. People are being funded to get self-employed.
It’s another matter that all this cannot possibly be delivered by 2019—winning another five years is a must. But if the Opposition is salivating, it better think twice. Social media memes are all fine, but there’s the small matter of elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh coming up around November-December. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi may be bothered about jobs, GST and the post-DeMo agrarian crisis, but perhaps he should be spending more in the country and not in US universities. Answering the queries of NRI students is a noble thing, but students back home are in a perpetual protest mode over various things—and they may have a few queries too: on the viability of the Congress, to begin with, and its economic masterplan.
Take Gujarat: what Bengal was for the Left, Gujarat is for the BJP, the only difference is that the comrades of A K G Bhawan did not let Jyoti Basu become PM, while BJP grassroot workers propelled Narendra Modi right up to the throne. And now, bereft of Modi’s micro-managing skills for five years, analysts are claiming it may not be a cakewalk for the BJP. Party chief Amit Shah and his workforce have to work harder.
But who’s posing trouble for the BJP? There’s a rampaging campaign on social media, #VikasGandoThayoChe (Development Has Gone Crazy), which runs almost entirely on popular disaffection, with ordinary Gujaratis uploading satirical videos and memes by the dozen. Beyond that, there are three youth leaders. Where, pray, is the ‘main opposition’ (Congress)? It has split yet again, thanks to Shankersinh Vaghela, and the only time it was cock-a-hoop was when it retained Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha seat.
Will the economic downturn play a role in the Gujarat polls? (It’s admittedly part of a worldwide churning, and has left its mark on the recent German elections and is expected to in Britain too.) Yes, the unrest is directly linked to a shrinking of choices for the youth—unemployment, and the way economic factors have combined to squeeze blocs like the Patels, who have a socially-backward tinge in the rural areas, despite being politically powerful, just like the Jats.
Compounding this is the pain being felt by small and medium traders owing to GST, which could be a long-term phenomenon. Can the Congress harness this? Will Gujarat, where Modi’s popularity has mostly been unchallenged, actually vote against the BJP when their icon is the PM? If social media is an early indicator, the people may be very critical, even angry, but not quite looking beyond Modi, at least not yet. Rahul Gandhi first needs to demonstrate his viability, show some results.
In Himachal, Virbhadra Singh, the defending champion, is fighting battles both internal and external. Before he can take on the BJP, already hyped to post a win, he has to take on the PCC chief with the high command’s permission. He has threatened to float his own party if he’s not allowed his way in ticket distribution. It doesn’t matter that the BJP too is plotting how to win and yet deny an upper hand to the Dhumal family. If they manage Gujarat and Himachal, the political narrative may have again changed before the next round of big polls in mid-2018—Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan. And the economy may start looking different in the intervening period, pumped up by the new package that’s coming.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express