Saturday 31 October 2020

Bihar will show if hope is running out (Sunday Guardian)



The Opposition is relying on emotions caused by the pandemic resulting in a protest vote against the Central and state governments in Bihar.

Depending on the results of the Bihar Assembly polls, either the Congress Party or the BJP will claim that the election was not a referendum on the central leadership of the losing party, but was based on state-specific issues having scant relation to the national level. Such a reading would be incorrect. So far as the Congress Party is concerned, increasingly since Jawaharlal Nehru was nominated by Mahatma Gandhi to be the first Prime Minister of India, the dynasty begun by Motilal Nehru has become inseparable from the party that ruled India for the longest time, and may well do so again, such being the inexplicable nature of politics in the world’s most populous democracy. As Prime Minister, Nehru accounted for much of the oxygen (authority) within the Congress Party, and by 1969, almost all the oxygen was diverted to Indira Gandhi. Because of the unprecedented mandate that the Congress Party secured in the 1984 polls, Rajiv Gandhi maintained the family’s dominance, but this began to fray after his defeat. P.V. Narasimha Rao ensured that Rajiv’s family was protected, but did not as Prime Minister concede to 10 Janpath the immense store of “oxygen” that gets attached to the most important job in the country. The loss of his job and his authority happened practically simultaneously. Once Sonia Gandhi formally took over as Congress President (or CP, as she is referred to within the party leadership), she demonstrated a ruthlessness that was absent in Rajiv, which is why she continues to hold sway in the party and has the ability to transfer its formal leadership to Rahul Gandhi, who seems much more like his father in temperament than his mother. While Sonia Gandhi enjoys being in the vortex of politics, Rajiv did not, and seemingly neither does Rahul, although Priyanka may be more like her mother in this respect. In the BJP, practically all the oxygen at the national level is provided by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, much as was the case of the Congress Party under Nehru in the 1950s.

While the Congress Party has depended on targeted voting clusters and state sops for maintaining its support level, the BJP depends on both sops as well as generous dollops of emotion. Fortunately for the Prime Minister, much of the media in India admires him, and their coverage reflects this. The abrupt change from dropping in on Nawaz Sharif to celebrate a birthday to the Balakot strike assisted the BJP I’m surprising the Congress Party in the 2019 polls, and in 2024, the party seems confident that a similar appeal to emotions will see it through. The problem facing the BJP is that emotions are intermixed not just with distaste for an enemy power or concentrated on those seemingly bereft of national pride, but in economic realities. The manner in which the 2016 demonetisation was carried out by North Block and the RBI drained liquidity from key sectors of the economy, especially those at the lower end. The impossibly high rates and bewildering complexity of GST when first fully rolled out in 2017 similarly had an effect on the economy. Even more consequential have been the WHO-recommended lockdowns this year that were intended to reduce caseloads and fatalities caused by the novel coronavirus that flew to the far corners of the world from Wuhan during November 2019-February 2020. Medical practitioners in Hubei warned local authorities of the toxicity of the disease, but were silenced rather than rewarded for their concerns. While those flights caused what ought to have remained a localised outbreak became a pandemic across continents, the impact on international goodwill for the People’s Republic of China has been severe, as are the longer-term economic consequences to its economy of the deceleration in growth caused by the countermeasures taken by key markets in the wake of the pandemic. In India as well as in the US and elsewhere, the calculation of the proponents of the “lockdown theory” is that millions of lives were saved as a consequence of restrictions that were applied. What is not contested is that hundreds of millions of livelihoods have been affected. Jobs have vanished, incomes have plunged, and this has produced emotions that have so far been mostly latent, but which are nevertheless potent. The rate of growth of GDP in India had been falling for some time prior to the Great Indian Lockdown, but despite the pain that was caused by that,  there was also hope that the future would be better. This is the first time since 2014 that such a hope seems to be diminishing. Even in the middle classes, there is a growing sense of hopelessness about the future that multiple assurances of “green shoots” from those in authority have not extinguished. Bihar is the home of millions of migrant workers who were left to fend for themselves during the first lockdown and found their reserves of money running out in the absence of work. The abrupt extension of the lockdown panicked many, and resulted in their leaving for home rather than in a strange place bereft of shelter, food or income. The exodus of migrant workers from cities fuelled the spread of the pandemic across the country. The Opposition is relying on the emotions caused by the pandemic resulting in a protest vote against the Central and state governments in Bihar.

The obstacle to this calculation by the Opposition is the credibility of Narendra Modi as the instrument of beneficial change across the country. The elections in Bihar will test whether this is intact despite the economic pain of the present. Even if intact, that is all the more reason that those working atop Raisina Hill concentrate more on policies that ensure that millions be assisted to jump out of the economic ditch into which they have fallen. Emotions rise when jobs vanish and incomes fall. Check what happened in Germany in the 1930s. It is time that North Block and the RBI stopped refusing to go ahead with enough of the monetary and fiscal measures that need to be taken this year and for two more years to enable recovery from the pandemic and its effects. The need is for the government to direct a copious flow of income directly into the pockets of the lower and middle classes who have built this country by their toil and need help now. Before their patience and hope runs out, such a response needs to come.

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