During the second half of UPA 2, the press, with some justification, created a frenzy of anxiety over India’s future, especially its economic future. After two and a half years of the Narendra Modi government, if the same standards of concern about India’s future were brought to bear on the present government, what would the heightened expression of concern look like? Why have the dramatic headlines that focus on worries of substance disappeared?
The first headline would be: Spectre of Stagnation. Despite the headline GDP growth number, private investment has barely moved. In any other context, such tepid growth in private investment would have had us screaming from the rooftops. At the end of the day, this number tells you more about how the economy is doing and is likely to do than almost any other number. Second, we used to joke that India can grow despite the state. But the fact of the matter is that for the first time in a decade, the share of public investment in projects under implementation exceeds private investment. And this is likely to continue for some time.
In short, we are becoming an economy that is not growing despite the state; it is becoming even more reliant on the state. The risks are that such an economy will need constant pump priming by the government, creating all sorts of fiscal and institutional distortions.
Admittedly, the government inherited a slew of problems. But even accounting for that, in any other context, such tepid private investment, combined with weak IIP numbers and job growth would have led to a great expression of economic anxiety.
The second headline would have been: Botched Execution. The Modi government’s self-proclaimed fabled execution capabilities have been severely dented by demonetisation. But even apart from this, its execution capabilities are coming under serious question. One of the better performing ministers in the government, who seems candid and clears bottlenecks, Nitin Gadkari, had the decency to admit that road building targets are way short of his ambitious targets; in fact, they are at an embarrassing six kilometres per day for the year. The mobilisation of private investment for infrastructure is stuck. There are modest successes in energy, on the renewables, but it would be hard to argue that total capacity augmentation exceeds that of the UPA. Four flagship programmes of the government are floundering: Swachh Bharat devolved into a gamed construction project with little appreciable effect on the problem it was designed to tackle; Clean Ganga is probably irrelevant, since you cannot declare the prime minister to be like the Ganga and acknowledge that the river is not clean.
Smart Cities is probably doing less for the health of cities than the distribution of buses under JNNURM alone did for public transport. City government reform is not even on the agenda. Make in India is not much more than a slogan. Admittedly, these are all long-term projects, and the government made unrealistic claims. But that bombast was not, contrary to what we thought, a sign of ambition; it was a sign of lack of thought about execution. Yes, a couple of programmes like Jan Dhan and Aadhar have acquired great momentum, but it would be hard to argue that aggregate execution capacities have increased, if you went ministry by ministry. And execution is important, not just for growth. Because when execution fails, the prospect of the state turning executioner in a literal sense also rises.
The third headline would have been: Hyper Arbitrary State. Let us be very clear. India needs the rule of law. It needs sensible law, respect for law. The core institutions of intelligent law enforcement are police, investigating agencies, prosecution and judiciary. Ask yourself: Have the institutional capacities of any of these increased for the better? In fact, this government’s enforcement imagination is not about the rule of law; it is a very Seventies’ style view that societies can be disciplined by arbitrary injections of fear every now and then. The judiciary and the government are in a serious standoff; the investigating agencies inspire no more confidence than before, and government is being empowered in unprecedented ways to regulate and control the lives of individuals.
Questions of surveillance, privacy, the appropriateness of data-sharing, choice, are all by the wayside; independent institutions that were our protection are being gutted. The advocates of minimum government who excoriated the UPA for statism have left that largest intrusion of the state, across a number of sectors, into our lives unremarked. Is it all because we climbed a measly few places in that ridiculous index of ease of doing business, while almost every other aspect of our lives has become more statist? We have moved from arbitrariness to hyper arbitrariness. The spectre of statism no longer elicits howls of protest; it produces docility.
Even this government’s core muscular claims on defence need critical scrutiny. I would have imagined during the UPA, we would have run the following headlines: India besieged on both ends (that is how Kashmir and Manipur would have been described). As Sushant Singh pointed out in this paper, the number of army casualties on the LoC has doubled this year. So much for the effects of surgical strikes.
During the UPA, there was perhaps a little exaggerated fear of embracing America; in this regime, an almost whole-scale alignment towards American interests is not even provoking a discussion.
Conditions that would have led the press to take out its critical swords, scream Armageddon under the UPA, now barely evoke a whisper.
This may be for three reasons. First, 2004-2009 really spoilt us; we had gotten used to a high and so, when the slowdown came, we were angrier. Now we have settled into an adjustment with the usual muddling. Second, in the UPA, the government did not speak, so we dug up our own assessments of different ministries. Now the government constantly speaks, and we take their briefs. Third, this government’s modus operandi is constant distraction: It will continually provide you with headlines, or a circus that will make sure your attention is diverted from the fundamental questions of institutional health or economic governance.
Our deeper sin is not that we have caved in, but we have fallen for the circus. Governance by distraction and hubris is a recipe for long-term economic Armageddon. But it is a strange alchemy when we no longer fear that prospect.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Government as circus’)