Inside Track: Modi’s challenge in 2021 will be to revive an economy which has slipped into deep recession

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January 03, 2021 8:00 AM

The economy may have hit an all-time low and unemployment and inflation a new high, but Modi, with his hirsute sanyasi-like looks and his air of calm assurance, exudes confidence and reassurance in these difficult times.

Home Minister Amit Shah

2020: Down, yet up

The year 2020 may have been disastrous for India, but not for Narendra Modi’s own image. The PM’s carefully cultivated avatar of a pater familias provided a reassuring presence when our world turned upside down in the pandemic. The economy may have hit an all-time low and unemployment and inflation a new high, but Modi, with his hirsute sanyasi-like looks and his air of calm assurance, exudes confidence and reassurance in these difficult times.

Indira parallels

The parallels between Narendra Modi and an authoritarian Indira Gandhi are unmistakable. The pandemic provided the perfect pretext for a further clampdown on individual rights and freedom of expression. No one in his party dares question the PM. The RSS is an appendage, Modi the driving force. Consensus-building with the Opposition or meaningful debates in Parliament are rare. Whether it was laying the foundation stone for a new Parliament House or a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, the spotlight was on the PM alone. Those who were expected to share the dais, such as L K Advani, who had been at the vanguard of the Ram temple movement, remained conspicuous by their absence.

Refusal to blink

Modi’s image as a strong and resolute leader means he resists bending or backtracking. He has been fairly successful in handling the fallout of the abrogation of Article 370, introducing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act with an obvious anti-minority agenda, and stigmatising Hindu-Muslim marriages as “love jihad”. Despite the economic meltdown, the government continues with its extravagant and ambitious Central Vista project, which will change the face of the Capital.

Very rarely has the PM blinked. One occasion was the belated permission to migrant labour to return home after ignoring their heartrending plight for weeks. Initially, concerned citizens and NGOs alone extended help, or the desperate migrants pluckily undertook the long journey home on foot.

Finally officialdom was shamed into arranging transportation for those stranded in the strict, long-stretched-out lockdown. The latest challenge is whether Modi can press ahead with long overdue agricultural reforms in the face of a formidable organised protest. The PM does not want to be perceived as anti-farmer. A major setback this year was the stealthy Chinese incursion into eastern Ladakh, leading to a continuing standoff at the border.

New power points

In 2019, Amit Shah was the master strategist, who as Home Minister and earlier as party chief, ensured that the PM was always a step ahead of the rest. But, for some weeks in 2020 Shah vanished from the public space. His absence was attributed to Covid and a long convalescence. But, Modi is not solely dependent on Shah. New faces also gained prominence. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who was on the margins during Modi’s first tenure, has emerged as a prominent voice during the differences with China. S Jaishankar, Hardeep Puri and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat are others whom the PM has given key responsibilities.

After the Bihar win, admittedly with a narrow margin, Modi singled out J P Nadda for special attention. The new BJP president had a shaky start at the end of 2019, but this year, apart from Bihar, the BJP made impressive gains in Telangana, a state where it had marginal presence. The litmus test will be whether Shah’s ambitious plan for ousting Mamata Banerjee will fructify. Nadda may be officially in charge of the party but Shah continues to play an important role, often acting through general secretary Bhupender Yadavs, who has emerged as a power centre in his own right. The BJP is a big beneficiary of the Congress’s failure to get its act together. The party drifts along, since Rahul Gandhi neither wants to hand over responsibility to others nor take full charge himself.

Pandemic truths

Perhaps history will largely judge the governments of 2020 on how well they tackled the pandemic. Despite an early and extremely harsh lockdown, doomsday predictors from the international media and scientific world from the US and UK, were quick to assume the worst case scenario for India. Ironically, India eventually fared far better in handling the virus than most countries. (India’s mortality rate from Covid per 100,000 of the population is around eight times lower than that of the UK and US.) Similarly, our infection rates are significantly less, even after making an allowance for under-reporting. Incidentally, our neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have fared even better than India.

The biggest casualty of the pandemic is the economy. Modi’s challenge in the new year will be to revive an economy which has slipped into deep recession and will require expert handling to spring back to life.

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