Last week, in a surprise decision, the prime minister created two new cabinet committees: one to tackle investment and growth; and the other to handle employment and skill development. Both will be headed by him. This is the first official acknowledgement that the economy faces serious problems. Others were aware of this, but during the elections, the government, at least, would not admit it.
As I reflected on this announcement, I was struck by an inexplicable anomaly. Why did falling growth, rural distress and unemployment not affect the way we voted? The opposition repeatedly said it would but the BJP’s huge majority leaves no doubt it didn’t. Yet these problems have existed for a long while and people have suffered. The facts make this clear.
First, growth. In the fourth quarter of last year, it fell to 5.8%, the lowest in 20 quarters. As a result, for last year as a whole, GDP growth was just 6.8%. And the Finance Secretary has admitted it could fall further in the first half of this year. So the environment in which we voted should have been one of concern with the government’s performance.
Now, rural distress. From the first year of the last Modi government to the third, farmer suicides increased by 42%. before the National Crime Records Bureau stopped releasing figures. During the five years of the Fadnavis government in Maharashtra, farmer suicides almost doubled compared to the previous five years, according to a response from the revenue department of the Maharashtra government to an RTI petition. One explanation for this emerges from Labour Bureau data. They show rural wages only grew 0.5% annually during the first Modi government, and for two of those five years, inflation was greater. Worse, the terms of trade turned significantly against farmers. Whilst the price of what they sold dropped sharply, the cost of things they had to purchase rose steadily. Farmers were getting poorer or, at least, feeling poorer. They should have been unhappy with the government.
Finally, unemployment. For a start, the government no longer denies the unemployment rate rose to 6.1% by 2017-18, the highest in 45 years. The situation confronting the young is considerably worse. The same National Sample Survey Office report says youth unemployment more than doubled between 2011-12 and 2017-18. This happened in both rural and urban India. And the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy says unemployment has risen further. This May it averaged 7%. So the unemployed should have turned their backs on the BJP.
Now can you understand why I’m perplexed? Given these stark facts falling growth, rural distress and unemployment should have been key determinants of the way we voted. This is what the opposition expected. The fact they weren’t has turned all received wisdom on its head.
So why didn’t the economic situation matter? I have a simple answer: Narendra Modi. Trust in him influenced the vote. Farmers suffering distress or the unemployed young chose to consciously overlook their difficulties in the belief that Modi, if given a second chance, would take care of their problems. I can only guess at how they explained this to themselves. Perhaps they felt if he’s given them toilets and electricity, cooking gas and village roads he will, in a second term, do more. And though the toilets may not have water or they cannot replace their gas cylinders, a credible start has nonetheless been made. It’s definitely more than they had before. Seen this way, it is not hard to understand why they came to the conclusion that, given a second term, Modi would deliver again. This is nothing but faith in the man.
So what’s the conclusion? One man and his charisma, his oratory, strength of conviction and the response he evokes made people forget the reality of their suffering in the hope he can make things better. It’s as simple as that. Now is that delusionary? Not at all. Hope of a better future is what keeps us all going, particularly when things have gone wrong.
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal
Jun 08, 2019 18:03 IST
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