UNFORTUNATELY, or fortunately, Agenda 2019 will comprise the same issues as Agenda 2014. Despite a political wave a few years ago, and flamboyant promises of a complete transformation of the nation, the on-ground reality remained the same. In terms of politics, economics and social change, the country has possibly inched forward. The more things were expected to change, the more they remained the same. In the bargain, several grand opportunities were lost.
A few weeks from now, the BJP will sing the same songs in the same manner that it did in 2014. A subdued, but now rejuvenated Congress will say the same things that it tried to use against the BJP in 2014. Regional parties, and their leaders, will re-try to regain their fiefdoms, and hope that they can somehow emerge as kingmakers. The only section that will continue to be manipulated will be the country’s citizens, who will vote not on the basis of the best choice, but the least harmful.
In 2019, like in 2014, experts will regale us with their opinions on governance models, job creation, growth and development, and the new socio-economic order that India needs. The views will be as confused, random, and chaotic, as they seemed to be five years ago. The people, forced to listen to them, will trudge to the booths to elect a new regime. In a sense something has changed – the hope is gone. May be, we cannot change.
India versus Bharat
THERE is a part of the nation that is ready for this century. But there is the other portion that continues to grapple with same issues as their forefathers did decades ago. Nothing has changed for the latter; they continue their struggle to arrange for two square meals a day, every day, for their families. There is the urban India, and there is the rural Bharat. The twain doesn’t seem to meet—ever.
For most of us, who still have a foot each in a city and village, it is easy to see the sharp socio-economic differences. Farm incomes have dwindled; they aren’t enough to survive. This is true for households with larger land too. The rich farmers barely manage to earn profits. This is the prime reason that the younger generations either migrate to the cities, even if they have to do menial jobs, or stay away from the farms, even if they remain unemployed.
A classic example is Punjab. As productivity decreased, costs went up, and profits plummeted, the younger people drifted towards drugs. Some studies indicate that 70-90% of the rural youth is addicted to drugs like heroin because of a lack of job opportunities, and their disinterest in working on non-remunerative farms. In the eastern belt, younger people are prone to join the Maoist groups. Progressive Kerala has turned into a post-office economy, which is dependent on inflows from abroad.
One more way to look at the rural-urban divide is to explore at the JAM (Jan Dhan bank accounts, Adhaar numbers, and mobile ownership) index developed by Brookings Institution. At the All-India level, it shows that over a fourth of the population has only two of the three, another 7% only one, and 1% neither of the three. Hence, over a third of the population falls out of JAM. Hence, this segment will not be able to access the government’s welfare schemes, which are likely to be in the form of cash transfers.
Sadly, there are stark differences between the states. Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Kerala, and Rajasthan rank high on the Brookings Index. “The states that stand out for poor JAM connectivity are Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Assam from the North-East, and Bihar. What is somewhat surprising is that Uttarakhand lags behind Uttar Pradesh…. Among the southern states, Tamil Nadu is the least prepared…,” states the report. Although these figures are for 2015-16, the relative status between the states may be the same now.
On top of this, one needs to account for the rural-urban divide. Financial exclusion in the form of bank accounts is higher in the villages. Even if the people have bank accounts, a sizeable proportion may be dormant, have less than Rs. 50 in each, and are more likely to be used by the male members resulting in a gender bias. The same is true for mobiles. In the rural areas the girls and women either don’t possess mobiles, or their usage is monitored extensively.
Unless India weds Bharat, or somehow tango with each other in social and economic terms, the country will remain at a crossroad. Governance will prove to be a failure. Policies will not yield the desired results. Progress and prosperity will prove to be divisive.
Let’s be frank with ourselves. The various governance models tried in the past two decades have flopped, actually failed miserably. The infrastructure-led vision of the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which was hailed as ‘Shining India’, led to an electoral disaster. Twice, the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh combine tried to play around with the ideals of ‘Inclusive India’ and transfer of power to the people through the Right to Information Act. Neither worked.
When Narendra Modi came to power with a huge bang, dangling his ‘Gujarat Model’ like a carrot in front of the voters, he was the new image of hope and change. However, his centralised decision-making style that was forced upon others, led to actions that weren’t thought through properly. Old allegations that were flung against the Congress in 2014 stuck to the new regime like dirty patches of mud on one’s clothes. It wasn’t just the politicians who failed us. Even the civil servants, who could have made a difference, took a back seat. May be it was due to fear, partly it was incompetence, or may be they didn’t get any direction.
THE fact remains that they could have played a role. Instead, they decided to walk from both the political and administrative theatre. The mid-level actors left the play quite early after Modi became the prime minister.
Which left only the Civil Society, which could have put pressure on the government to ensure delivery. Sadly, these influencers got trapped in a deep well that was of their own making. They took on cudgels with the government on issues that they felt were more important. Obviously, the regime took them on, and curtailed their growing powers. A stalemate ensued. The chess game was drawn after only a few moves.
The country’s youth was enthused by the entry of Modi in national politics. The reason: the latter promised jobs to the youngsters. For a decade during the UPA years (2004-2014), the country witnessed jobless growth. In some years, the GDP saw a double-digit increase. But the huge public and private investments didn’t create large number of jobs. Modi sold the idea that the solution lay in even higher growth rates achieved in a transparent and corruption-free society.
In retrospective, our national leaders over the past two decades barked at the wrong tree. In fact, they missed the forests for the trees. Rapid industrialisation and manufacturing don’t provide jobs these days. In fact, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation and technology is killing jobs by the millions. The same is true for the services sector in several areas.
Experts contend that in the near future, the jobs will need to be created in rural areas, and connected to the farms. It can be in the form of value-addition in agriculture—food processing and fruits. In services, the jobs will go to individuals with specialised skills. In essence, one has to teach the youth the skills of tomorrow, the ones that will be required for at least the next 10-20 years, and not the skills of today.
HOWEVER, political realities, and efforts to regain power, force a different mindset on the policy makers. They wish to create immediate jobs and, hence, they rightly focus on skills that are required immediately. It results in a wrong environment. The skills that are gained don’t lead to higher employment as such jobs are shrinking. The skills required tomorrow remain in short supply today in areas where opportunities are multiplying.
Let us take an example. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the information technology (IT) sector regularly complained about the lack of requisite skills, especially soft skills. By the time the nation geared to produce enough people with those skills, the jobs in the IT industry had vanished. Earlier, we had engineers without jobs. Now, we have computer-trained people with zero opportunities. In both periods, the youth was hit.
WHAT the colonial empires failed to do, or did it partially in the 19th and first half of 20th centuries, the MNCs (multinational companies), or TNCs (transnational companies), have achieved in the 21st. Today, many of them have become an inherent part of local and national cultures and sub-cultures. Policy makers at the national, state, and local levels woo them. They have emerged as the go-to investment sources to achieve growth and development. For example, Make in India is essentially to make in India by foreigners, who will be in control of the strategy.
In this century, TNCs are global actors with international networks. Their managements can be more powerful than most nations; they act independently, and not in the shadows of their home governments. Today, Exxon-Mobil, the largest oil and gas enterprise, can override the views of the US regime, and take independent decisions. Apple and Google may or may not follow America’s policy agenda. The traditional impression that MNCs were the extension of the arms of their governments is no longer true.
A review of Private Empire, a mammoth portrait of Exxon-Mobil by Steve Coll, said, “Exxon-Mobil’s foreign policy… sometimes coincides with that of the United States, and sometimes diverges. For example, the corporation had no enthusiasm for invading Iraq. Yes, Iraq has all that oil, but with most remaining reserves harder to get at, oil executives knew that whoever ran Iraq would ultimately depend on the technology and capital of the Exxon-Mobil of the world.”
As global actors and networks, their empires are mind-blowing. Starbucks directly employs over 150,000 people, sources coffee from thousands of traders, agents, and growers, makes coffee in dozens of countries, and has tens of thousands of retail outlets across the globe.
In 2014, iPhone components were “produced by 785 suppliers in 31 countries. The product is designed in the United States, and assembled in China, which also had the largest number of suppliers in 2014 at 349, nearly half the total”.
Believe it or not, politics overwhelmed economics in the past two decades. This was despite a resurgent focus on growth, development, and employment by the four governments. Vajpayee’s NDA-1, and Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh’s UPA-1 and UPA-2 faced the political implications of coalitions. In the three cases, decision-making was twisted and distorted by the political partners. In many cases, like the 2G scam, the ministerial representatives of lesser parties managed to bulldoze the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister.
MODI didn’t have those disadvantages, although NDA-2 too was a coalition. BJP on its own had a majority in the Lower House. The problem lay with the NDA-2’s minority in Rajya Sabha. Hence, the Prime Minister’s priority was to win enough seats in the assembly elections to shore up its seats in the Upper House.
In addition, Modi used his economic policies to decimate political rivals, especially the regional parties.
Willy-nilly the economic policies were motivated by political reasons. Hence, they were wonky, or they weren’t thought through. The biggest example of the former was demonetisation, whose overriding objective was to curtail the moneybags of a few powerful regional parties. It cost the economy and citizens a lot in terms of lower growth, unemployment, and lower national expenditure levels. It led to a form of social chaos.
The Goods and Services Tax (GST) is a prime example of an excellent, most-needed policy that was implemented in a hurry. Its only aim was to gain political brownie points. Hence, the implications of the various clauses weren’t analysed. Hence, the GST created confusion, and the laws had to be constantly changed. In the ongoing uncertain scenario, businesses in both the organised and unorganised sectors were hit. It is only now that some sort of stability has ensued.
Such policies led to even lower growth rates. In the race to push up manufacturing, the core issues in agriculture were neglected, and skills required in the services sector were not given to the people. In the end, the policy makers at the central and states’ levels re-resorted to freebies—loans write-offs, subsidies, and cash incentives to woo voters. It was a kind of a return to the 1970s, when this was the sole means to create vote banks.
In the name of development, new schemes were launched, and the old ones re-packaged. But the crucial problems associated with them weren’t addressed. The minimum support prices (MSPs) of several food grains were doubled in a bid to double farm incomes. However, like in the past, the farmers never got them because of different reasons. The governments either didn’t have the money to buy the produce, or the farmers were forced to depend on the middlemen.
Women were favourite targets in this welfare race. They were given gas chullahs and LPG to get out of the mess of cooking with wood and coal. They later found that they had to buy the cylinder at the high market price, which they couldn’t afford. Toilets were built, especially for girls. But in many areas they couldn’t be used because of lack of water, or for safety reasons. Women empowerment, thus, remained a slogan.
DEVELOPMENT in Modi-speak, especially in 2014, meant a creation of new social order that cut across caste, community, and religion. This was exactly what was spelt down in the Constitution. But over the past few areas, the country has got more divided along these lines. By not acting firm, the government seemed to only encourage the process. There was violence across the country, even as the BJP and others bent over backwards to accommodate new castes and communities.
Modi had the opportunity to change this. In fact, when he was elected to power, most sections of the society had backed him. The BJP itself gloated that it was no longer a ‘Hindu-Upper Caste’ party, but was supported by people from other religions, especially the Muslims, and those from lower castes, including Dalits. Any party that gets over 30 per cent of the polled votes has cut through such social divisions. But then, the government began to focus on caste and community-driven votes.
Not that Modi alone was at fault. In the past several decades, most Prime Ministers have fallen prey to the need to create new vote banks, or decimate the older ones that were built by the opposition parties. The Congress started this in the 1960s, and intensified it in the 1970s. The expansion of the regional parties in the 1980s was solely based along caste and religion. The Third Front was its by-product. The situation never did change.
The more we thought that things would change the more they remained the same. Only the political personalities changed, they slogans acquired new hues, and their language was different. In some cases, like Modi, there was an initially genuine attempt to effect changes. But the transformation process petered out as political reality sank in. The greed to remain in power, and retain it, is overwhelming. Not many can escape it. Modi didn’t, like Manmohan Singh couldn’t, and Vajpayee didn’t.