Life in our dear Bharat Mata can sometimes seem more surreal than real. Last week we saw surrealism totally subsume reality. It began with the official release of a video of the Prime Minister, in Rishi mode, strolling solemnly in his garden as peacocks frolicked and danced and ate birdseed from the hands of our leader. Who would have thought watching the Prime Minister in his garden that hours later would come the horrible news that the economy has shrunk by 23.9 per cent India has done worse than any other G20 country. This is attributed to that brutal first lockdown being imposed without warning.
The surreal element of this awful news is that the Prime Minister then addressed the US-India Strategic Partnership and said all was well. He urged investors to bring their money to India because of the boundless opportunities for investment that exist. He said, “You have a government that believes in delivering results. A government for which ease of living is as important as ease of doing business.” The truth is that neither is living easy nor doing business. Modi seems oblivious to what his Finance Minister has publicly admitted. Things were bad, she said, but what had happened was ‘an act of God’.
Wrong, Madame, quite wrong. The economy was showing such serious signs of contraction before Covid arrived, that economists evoked memories of those dark decades when the Indian economy was mocked for growing at ‘the Hindu rate of growth’. The economy was doing badly because since his second term began Narendra Modi has concentrated on political matters such as abrogating Article 370 and ramming through that discriminatory amendment to our citizenship law. Both decisions have failed in their separate ways. The Kashmiri people are more alienated than ever before from India, and jihadi violence continues despite the Valley having been under curfew for more than a year. As for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), it has made most Indian Muslims feel as if they are lesser citizens than their Hindu brethren. No amount of soothing words from Modi will erase the memory of the Home Minister describing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as ‘termites’.
Having said this, it also needs to be said that Modi showed the courage to take unpopular and controversial political decisions. This makes it hard to understand why he is so timid about taking unpopular economic decisions. Has the disastrous demonetisation made him lose confidence? Does he not know that it is as hard to do business in India as it ever was? Does he not know that petty officials have more power to interfere in business activities than ever before? Does he not know that his government has not taken the smallest step to cut spending on itself?
If the Central Vista project goes ahead, the opposite will be true. Not only do we not need the Prime Minister’s residence to be built on this Vista, we most certainly do not need the ministries to shift there. We do not need more ‘bhawans’ in Delhi, we need less. The truth is we do not need the vast, unwieldy ministerial and bureaucratic infrastructure that we currently have. The man who writes the column next door to mine once told me, when he was Finance Minister, that you could lop off the last ten items on the agenda of every ministry of the Government of India and save enormous sums of money that could be spent on the welfare of the needy. The Prime Minister must use this economic crisis to cut down the size of his government. We do not need so many ministries or departments.
If the Prime Minister steps out of his lovely garden and meets Indian and foreign investors he will discover quickly how hard it is to do business. That first lockdown was only the final blow of the sledgehammer on the private sector that has been hurting for a long, long while. There have been melodramatic announcements of how the Government of India plans to spend more than Rs 100 lakh crore on building infrastructure, but who is going to come forward to build those roads, dams, ports and airports if the government refuses to pay its bills? There are rumours that the government of India is broke and cannot pay. So, all the more reason for it to cut spending on itself.
To return to the surreal quality of the week gone by, may I say that the media played its own part in this. With the terrible economic news and the bad news from Ladakh you would think that there would be an end to the obsession with Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The highest investigative agencies are now examining whether he committed suicide or was murdered, so there is no need for senior TV anchors to behave like bloodhounds waiting for the kill. Alas, the hunt goes on and seems to turn uglier and uglier. On the morning that I write this I switched from channel to channel in English and Hindi and the main story was this venomous hunt.
There could be war with China, the economy could totally collapse, young, jobless Indians could soon take to the streets out of desperation but the only thing that seems to bother our ‘investigative’ TV reporters is the tragic death of a Bollywood star. They have turned the heartbreaking death of a talented young star into a tawdry circus. Indian journalism has never stooped this low.
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