India awaits its Budget not with a spring in its step and hope in its heart but with a weary limp and an irregular heartbeat. This isn’t only because its Finance Minister is better able to navigate the swamps of Delhi’s cricket politics than the roadmap of economic principle. It’s because India has lost the thrill and optimism of May 2014, when it believed it had elected a PM who — for all his flaws of character and, shall we say, a not unblemished history — would change the country for the better.
Well, he hasn’t.
This isn’t to say that the mess in India today is the same sort of mess that the country lived with for a decade of Congress-led stagnation. It isn’t. But what we see around us is just as ugly, unappealing, depressing — call it what you will. If anything, it is worse, because it comes with the painful sting of being let down, of being taken for a ride.
India was expecting a rapid undoing of Nehruvianism from this government. And it has got that. The problem is that Modi & Co. are taking an axe to the wrong side of Nehru’s legacy. The part that India needed to lose most was the statist economy, the government’s intrusion into the making and selling of things; the bureaucratic stifling of the labour market; the pseudo-nationalist opposition to foreign investment, where the legal strings attached serve as nooses around the neck of any investor; the damagingly amateur attitude to the taxation of transnational entities; and the pernicious attraction to subsidies and handouts.
No one would say that Modi loves these approaches to economic management, but he has offered us very little evidence so far that he hates them. He has only tinkered with India’s structural problems, preferring to substitute slogans and verbiage for concrete action. He’s like a barber who refuses to do any more than trim the sideburns of a man with a head full of lice — when that man is crying out for a total tonsure.
It doesn’t help Modi that his economic “deputy barber” — Arun Jaitley — has other ministerial jobs to do, adding an inability to pay full attention to what needs to be done urgently to his inherent lack of economic expertise. (Question for Modi: Dear sir, why is your Finance Minister also the Minister of Corporate Affairs, and of Information & Broadcasting? Is this in the country’s best interests? Obviously not: so he holds three jobs, including the most important one in India after yours, for all the wrong reasons.)
The part of Nehru’s legacy that has been under siege by the present government is the one that India needed to lose the least: that of secularism, and of a nationalism that transcends crude religious dogma and obsessions. India is not a Hindu Rashtra. It never has been and — by the grace of my ancestral deity — it never will be. Its ideals are those of tolerance, co-existence and (to use a word that English-speaking Hindutva-types hate) syncretism. That means that India’s whole is greater than the sum (and scum) of its parts; and that the religious and cultural ingredients of India are naturally inclined to combination, not separation. India is greater than its component religions: every single one of them.
I end with the plea that Modi reorient his anti-Nehru radar, driving against those parts of India’s political legacy that keep the country poor, backward, un-modern and uncompetitive. He mustn’t dismantle those few precious parts that keep India sane.