Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his fifth address to India during the Coronavirus pandemic delivered two big headlines - and both are TBD or To Be Delivered.
In his usual 8 pm prime time slot, Modi announced a package of Rs 20 lakh crore - ten percent of the GDP - as a stimulus for a near-comatose economy.
If the number was large and grand, the prosaic details with all the devils entailed were left to others in Team Modi to announce. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will begin revealing the components of the financial package this afternoon. A series of pressers are reportedly planned for her.
Similarly, Modi delivered the big news that there will in fact be a Lockdown 4 - but he said details will be shared soon (before May 18 when the current lockdown is meant to lift). And rest assured that the face of this new phase of the lockdown will be Chief Ministers and states, not Modi.
Modi's long and rambling speech, about 30 minutes, had a crucial omission: migrant workers, pictures of whom have been seared into the nation's collective conscience. But Modi apparently finds unmentionable the dire straits of the destitute migrants, scrimmaging to get home without any money.
So Modi could talk about "self-reliance" cheer-led by the Sangh Parivar on social media. And, also give the oddly-worded "vocal for local" call which he said would turn Indian brands into eventual global heroes. Ram Madhav, the powerful General Secretary of the BJP said on social media that "Modi had given a new mantra for Bharat".
Naturally, the opposition disagreed. Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram scathingly commented, "Yesterday, the PM gave us a headline and a blank page. Naturally my reaction was blank. Today we look forward to the FM filling the blank page. We will carefully count every additional rupees that is infused in the economy."
Modi is a masterful orator but in this critical speech, meant to light up the economy, he seemed to lack his normal form. At one point he said "We will turn the pandemic in to an opportunity". Just exactly how India would do that was not specified. It was a long speech but very short on details.
"Aatma-Nirbhar India" or a self-reliant India seems to be Modi's new catchphrase but it was reminiscent of his first term's marquee scheme "Make In India" which never quite took off from the drawing board. India's trade imbalance with China makes it a hard ask.
Modi also tried to pass the buck of the exit plan on to the states. This was a political attempt by the centre to divert focus from the ill-planned lockdown with four hours' notice which ensured the panicked exodus of migrants.
On Tuesday, in a marathon six-hour virtual meeting with all the chief ministers, Modi was ambushed by the feisty Chief Minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who did some plain-speaking about the opposition states being targeted in the centre's indulgence in pandemic politics. She named her bete-noire, union Home Minister Amit Shah, as fighting a "letter war" with her state. Banerjee left both Modi and Shah speechless.
The current state of the federal and centre relationship is fraught. Opposition states such as Maharashtra, West Bengal, Punjab and Kerala feel that they have got a raw deal from Modi and Shah. The main problem is the lack of financial assistance provided by the centre with the procurement of all pandemic gear and equipment being centralised. Several opposition leaders I spoke to for this column are livid that their funds are not being released and cite the states' GST share in particular.
The other flash point is the PM CARES Relief Fund. Opposition leaders say it should have been utilised by the centre to take care of the migrants and ensure they get home. Most states have not been able to ramp up medical facilities and are reluctant to exit the lockdown. The tough question is lives versus livelihoods. Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, who has looked particularly lacklustre in his handling of the pandemic and particularly in coming across as unempathetic to the lakhs of destitute migrants from his state, did not want trains to restart. This sort of position is untenable from the economic point of view. Kumar and his ally, the BJP, have crucial state elections this year so he is being given a patient hearing by Modi.
Despite Modi talking of a federal model, the reality is that the centre is hostile to opposition states and has used the pandemic to attempt a quiet power grab to make India more unitary.
Modi is a big picture leader, impatient with details. The fight against coronavirus and an economic reset is a details fight. The migrants in particular need urgent attention. And so does an exit plan without gibberish circulars one contradicting another. Brace yourself.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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