Did Modi Just Admit To Leading India's Second-Worst Government?

Published: October 06, 2017 16:47 IST
After weeks of enduring criticism of his mismanagement of the economy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck back on Wednesday in a speech to company secretaries. It was a typically impressive Modi performance, mingling mythological references (Karna's gloomy charioteer in the Mahabharata) with robust defences of his record in office, repositioning of himself as an "outsider", and, of course, the usual trenchant attacks on the Congress.

The problem is precisely this: it was a typical speech. There was little in the speech that recognised that the Indian economy is, in fact, facing a serious and deep problem - one that goes beyond point-scoring about demonetisation or the goods and services tax (GST). Instead of owning up to what has been done wrong, and what can be done better, the Prime Minister instead played his Greatest Hits and little else. We are more than three years into his administration; shouldn't we start asking why the country's most powerful leader in a generation still spends much of his speeches talking about the government that came before him?

The PM's speech had no answer to those with real questions about the economy, including (openly) former BJP cabinet ministers such as Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and (privately) many senior members of the party and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. There was no explanation in his speech as to how the country will overcome a crippling investment deficit. If anything, this is Modi's greatest failure. After all, the only thing that his critics and his defenders can agree on is that Modi has worked hard to change the "narrative" about the Indian economy, with considerable effect. But a more positive narrative has a purpose: it is meant to induce private investors to bet on the future of the Indian economy, to put their money where their mouth is. That isn't happening. If investment continues to collapse, then have Modi and his ministers wasted all the time they spent on talking up the economy and their own efforts?

We should be worried that the political image that Modi has constructed for himself is one that paints him into a corner - he would suffer too much politically if he admitted an error in judgment or in leadership. He can concede nothing, for then he is diminished. In this legend, Modi does not make mistakes like other, ordinary men; even if he appears to have made mistakes, it is only because we have no faith, or are gloomy defeatists like Shalya. (It is interesting to compare this image with the one that Arvind Kejriwal had built up for himself in which self-correction could become a vote-winner.) The only place where there appeared to be even the slightest amount of "give" in Modi's speech was when he talked about the implementation of the GST - after all, much-needed tweaks to the GST could be sold as being made necessary by Arun Jaitley's bungling or by unreasonable demands from the states, and not through a failure of leadership at the top.

But the core of Modi's argument was not a programme for recovery, or even a musing on what may not be working as well as hoped - it was a whole-hearted defence of the numbers that the government has put on the board since 2014, and a comparison with the one that came before.

Now let's be clear: the Modi slowdown that has begun is in no way as long and as deep as the one that the Indian economy endured from about 2012-13 onwards for several quarters. Modi claimed that in eight of those quarters, growth came in at or lower than the 5.7 per cent India recorded in the just-concluded quarter. As economist Vivek Kaul has pointed out on Twitter, that does not seem to be an accurate statistic; and even if it were, it would compare the old and new GDP series, which is pretty much the definition of the sort of tendentious cherry-picking that Modi had ironically accused his critics of indulging in.

Instead, Modi argued, inflation was down, interest rates were down, the fiscal deficit was down, the current account deficit was down - India was no longer part of the "fragile five" - and so on. He is absolutely correct that this means the economy looks far more stable than in, say, 2013, when we appeared close to a crisis. The difference between then and now, however, is not that we have Modi's hand at the wheel this time; it is that then, oil was two and half to three times the price that it has been since Modi took over. India imports all its oil; when prices of oil spike, all its macro-economic indicators sour. Even the crisis of 1991 that spurred liberalisation was not unrelated to the oil price spike that followed tensions surrounding Iraq and Kuwait. Modi has benefited from the great good luck of low oil prices - and done little enough with the time that granted him. Indeed, I think we should all be grateful that it was Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram in charge in 2013 dealing with the adverse conditions of a financial crisis, a taper tantrum, and high commodity prices - given how Modi has mismanaged the most benign economic conditions imaginable, what a mess he would have made back then!

In other words, Modi's comparison of his record with the last, troubled years of the UPA - the argument that formed the heart of his speech - was based on the wrong data, and fundamentally mis-stated what was actually going on. But let's leave that aside for a moment and look at what the comparison actually meant. Remember how troubled those years were? How one writer and politician after another declared that we had the worst government in India's history? Well, consider this: Modi's sole defence seems to be that he is not yet doing as badly as the "worst government in India's history". I'm not sure admitting to running the second-worst government in India's history is a winning strategy for 2019.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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