On Thursday, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first three campaign speeches for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the issue of national security seemed to hold centre-stage. In Akhnoor in Jammu, the PM was eloquent on the Balakot strikes.: “Those running terror mills across the border are scared’”. At another rally in Meerut in UP, he accused the Opposition of belittling Wednesday’s anti-satellite missile test. Social welfare schemes did find a mention in these speeches and the PM also talked about “freedom from corruption and ill-health”. But “a government that acts decisively to ensure the safety and security of the nation,” was the recurring theme. It’s too early to say if these speeches have set the tone for the BJP’s election campaign. But it would be unfortunate if national security overwhelms and overtakes all other issues —including and especially those that have to do with the state of the economy.
Recent reports and surveys have underscored why the election campaign of 2019 needs to give the economy its due. In January, a Reserve Bank of India study pointed out that investments by the private corporate sector have declined for the seventh year in a row. The growth in industrial output dropped to 1.7 per cent in January compared to 2.6 per cent in December last year. This has given rise to fears that the fourth quarter of this fiscal would be as slow as the last quarter which saw the Indian economy grow year-on-year at 6.6 per cent — a six quarter low. Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for about 60 per cent of the economy, slowed to 8.4 per cent during the period as compared to a 9.9 per cent increase in the year earlier. These are not mere statistics. They signal that the economic slowdown is hurting people. Sluggish consumption is a sign of falling real incomes; it’s also evidence that a section of the country is not gainfully employed.
The slowdown in the non-farm economy has come on the back of a serious crisis in the farm sector. Agriculture has grown at about 3 per cent per annum during the NDA government’s stint in office. However, what is more worrying is that farmers are incurring losses even though their outputs may be higher. And agriculturists have not been able to turn to the non-farm sector for jobs. Creating enabling conditions for private investment to revive thus holds the key to arresting rural distress. An election campaign bereft of ideas to arrest the economic slowdown will not augur well for the next five years.