Since he began his second term as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has talked of many things. Nationalism, Kashmir, citizenship, Pakistan, patriotism, treacherous Congress leaders. The one thing he seems to avoid talking about is the economy. Is this because he knows that the economy is in worse shape now than when he first became Prime Minister? Is this because as an astute politician he has noticed that much of the unrest we have seen on campuses across India is because India’s young people are beginning to feel a sense of hopelessness? A terrifying realisation that no matter how hard they work at their studies they could remain jobless for years?
Wherever I go these days I meet educated young Indians, many of whom voted for Modi, who admit that the thought of the future frightens them. They wear jeans, carry mobile phones and cut their hair in the latest fashion and almost the first thing they say to me is that they would be grateful if I could help them find a job. Not a government job. Just one that does not involve menial work. Even a street child I have helped with her education wants to be a fashion designer.
If for no other reason than that India faces an unemployment crisis, we should have welcomed Jeff Bezos with open arms last week. He tried his best to assure Modi and his ministers that he came bearing the gift of creating a million new jobs by 2025. Wearing an Indian waistcoat and radiating hope and goodwill, the world’s richest man declared that he was sure that the 21st century would be India’s century. But, instead of being welcomed, he was insulted publicly by Modi’s Minister of Commerce who told him that he did India no “favours” by offering to invest a billion dollars. “They (Amazon) may have put in a billion dollars, but then, if they make a loss of a billion dollars every year, then they jolly well have to finance that billion dollars,” said Piyush Goyal. If this was not rude enough, there was more to come. A senior BJP official intervened to tweet that Bezos order his newspaper, The Washington Post, to start writing nice things about the Modi government if he wanted to do business here.
The Prime Minister himself is so sensitive about the sullying of his image abroad by ‘liberal’ newspapers that he found no time to grant Bezos an audience. An odd decision if you consider that he travels to distant lands regularly to urge investors to come ‘Make in India’. Amazon is already, in its fashion, making in India. In rural India, Amazon has become almost a synonym for online shopping. Many of the unemployed youths I run into on my travels regularly go to it to buy everything from small household goods to books. Since in my own case I restrict my online shopping to books, I am constantly startled by the range of goods that young Indians are buying on Amazon. Insulting Bezos was in my view a mistake on the part of the Modi government.
Another mistake that the Prime Minister needs to pay much more attention to is his neglect of the economy in pursuit of political goals like abrogating Article 370 and passing that amendment to the citizenship law that has caused so much misgiving and mistrust. Both the Prime Minister and his Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, have repeatedly urged Indian businessmen to invest without fear, but if this has not begun to happen, it is on account of misgiving and mistrust. The mission to ‘eradicate’ black money that began with demonetisation has given so much power to petty officials that they have all started to behave with the same obnoxious officiousness they displayed in bad old socialist times when the Licence Raj was alive and dominant. I live in Mumbai and can report that in recent months I have not met a single businessman, big or small, who has said that business was good.
What should worry the Prime Minister more is that most people blame him for what has gone wrong, whether it is businessmen, shopkeepers or jobless youth. In one voice they say that they voted for Modi not once but twice in the hope that he would concentrate on reviving the economy. When I ask if they are not pleased that such big political reforms as the abrogation of Article 370 have happened, they admit that they are not displeased. But that what they want more is for the economy to start showing signs of real recovery. It is in Modi’s hands to control the uncertainty that is caused by the endless new rules and regulations that his officials have come up with. But it is in the hands of men like Bezos to create the millions of jobs that young Indians desperately need.
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