The obituary of Narendra Modi is being written in political columns across the land and with uncontained glee in the drawing rooms of Delhi. Everyone agrees that the chances of his becoming Prime Minister again in 2019 have diminished in recent days. So it is important to examine what we could get instead. This is why I paid closer attention than usual to the economic and political resolutions passed by the Congress party’s 84th Plenary Session; the first such plenary since Rahul Gandhi became president of the party of India’s freedom movement. Reading these two resolutions made me very gloomy about India’s future. Instead of learning from the mistakes that brought it to its lowest point, the Congress appears to believe that we must allow it one more chance to give us more of the same.
At the helm, naturally, will be a member of the Dynasty that turned our oldest political party into a family firm. And there will be no change at all, either in its political or economic ideas. Politically, what this means is that the Congress will form alliances with any party that is not the BJP and therefore automatically ‘secular’. Economically, there will be the same old mixed bag of tired platitudes and failed ideas. The economic resolution is a little scarier than the political, because the most important political problem in India is the economy and it was its stagnant growth in Sonia-Manmohan’s second term that made an aspirational, impatient electorate want ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’.
You would think then that the Congress party’s supposedly brilliant economic thinkers would have come up with some new ideas in the past four years. Right? Nothing of the sort. The economic resolution asserts clearly that the economy was managed excellently till 2014 and has been ruined only by ‘bad managers’ in the past four years. Seriously?
Sift through the dreary jargon of the ‘new’ Congress party that its new president promises to create, and you come up with not a single new idea. So the policies that caused millions of Indians to remain mired in poverty, illiteracy and misery will continue. Instead of investment in better schools, healthcare and rural services that could create millions of new jobs, there will be the usual waiving of farmers’ loans and muddle-headed, leaky welfare programmes.
It is important to remember exactly what this means. After decades of ‘socialist, secular’ Congress rule, in 2014, every other Indian child was malnourished, 58 per cent of the population lived on less than $3.10 a day and about 170 million Indians lived below the poverty line of $1.90. Children whose parents were too poor to send them to private schools were forced to go to government schools so awful that if they could count to 100 and write their names by the time they finished school, they would be counted as literate. Healthcare standards in nearly all of rural India were abysmal, so most Indians were forced to use the services of dodgy private doctors if they wanted to survive an illness.
Unsurprisingly, when candidate Narendra Modi came along and started talking about how India had no reason to be a poor country and how we should aspire to doing more than just alleviating poverty, his words had resonance. He started saying these things in a series of speeches he made in 2013, and because by then television had reached deep into the rural hinterland, people were able to both see and hear him and they liked what they saw and heard. That year, I remember in particular, a tour of rural Rajasthan in which when I asked people who they were going to vote for, they said ‘Modi’. When I pointed out that he was the chief minister of Gujarat, they said they knew this but they wanted to make sure that he became prime minister. When I asked why, they said, “We have seen his speeches on television and we like what he is saying.”
Let me remind you that not in one of those speeches did he say anything about Hindutva. His message was entirely about change and development and making India a strong and prosperous country and it was this that voters wanted to hear. If he had concentrated on changing India’s economic direction, as he promised, we would have seen jobs being created today, in the private sector and in a whole new range of services even in remote, rural parts.
He chose instead to continue with the statist, socialist policies that the Congress followed and had kept India poor. And, when this came with cow vigilantes running wild and Muslims and Dalits being killed brutally on suspicion of slaughtering cows, it was this violence that came to define Modi’s tenure in office. So if his obituary is being written by even those who supported him, he has himself to blame.