Modi’s problems, opposition’s opportunity

Narendra Modi

IT is three years since Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi came to power in India, promising “good days” which, among other things, meant better governance, faster development and an end to corruption.

There was the excitement that comes from the injection of a leader who, though new to the national scene, had served as three-time chief minister of an important state and an entirely new ideology. Part of the reason for his government’s popularity was the discredited one it replaced. Any country usually awards some sort of honeymoon to a new president or prime minister. In Modi’s case, it has lasted longer than he could have hoped for. Media too was indulgent.

But latest reports indicate that all this is not enough to mask his many vulnerabilities. News from the economic front is particularly bad. Indian economy has been slowing for each quarter for the last five ones. This means it has remained stagnant for the last 15 months. Government data shows the economy has been growing at only 5.7 percent. After three years, the country is back to where it was in the last days of the Congress-led Manmohan Singh government. From January to March of this year, Indian growth sank to six percent, down from seven percent in the previous quarter. They also brought growth over the last twelve months down to its lowest point for three years.

Worse still, there is no sign of the 10 million jobs Modi promised. If the economy has been slowing for five straight quarters, it means only one thing: There is something fundamentally wrong with the way this government manages the economy.

Government’s own admission on the less than satisfactory results of demonetization shows what they are.

It was on Nov. 8, 2016, that Modi announced, to a shocked nation, that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender. Of course, there would be some temporary inconvenience for the common man but the prime minister dangled, in front of them, the prospect of corrupt officials, businessmen and criminals — who are believed to hoard large amounts of illicit cash — being stuck with “worthless pieces of paper.”

However, the Reserve Bank of India’s annual report on Wednesday suggested that most holders of the old currency had managed to dispose of it, estimating that banned notes worth 15.28 trillion ($239 billion) were returned to the bank. This amounts to 99 percent of the 15.44 trillion of the high-value notes that were in circulation. Naturally, people are asking whether demonetization was a clever ploy designed to help corrupt officials, big businessmen and criminals to convert black money into white.

Another supposed benefit of demonetization — curbing terrorism which in India usually means violence in Kashmir — too failed to materialize. Depriving terrorists, real or perceived, of the sources of their funds, demonetization would help combat violence. Facts, however, tell a different story. Last year, there were 267 violence-related deaths in the Himalayan state. There have been 239 deaths in the first eight months of 2017.

Even those who agreed that demonetization would have long-term benefits had warned that its short-term economic cost would outweigh them. What has really happened is that the economy has been dented severely with no prospect of recovery in the near future.

Adding to Modi’s woes are the dismal performance of BJP chief ministers in states. In UP, dozens of infants died in two hospitals due to a delay in providing them with oxygen and medicines. In Haryana, there was complete breakdown of law and order after a court verdict against a man many consider holy.

Modi is still the most popular politician in India. But there are enough signs to show his aura of invincibility is fading. The real question is whether India’s opposition parties can unite on a common platform to mount a credible challenge to him in the 2019 elections.