There was a smattering of Sanskrit, a line from Tagore, and the expected hard sell as Narendra Modi opened proceedings at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The first Indian prime minister to speak at Davos in two decades, Modi used his hour on the stage to showcase his government’s economic track record, emphasising the “inclusiveness” apparently achieved during his term.
But the prime minister’s salesmanship abroad won’t undo the cracks that are showing at home.
That uneasy feeling
“You are aware of the changes we have undertaken and the improvement in our sovereign ratings. More valuable than these numbers is the fact that the Indian people have welcomed the government’s reforms,” Modi said.
Indeed, India’s economy is touted to be the fastest-growing major one in the next three years, according to World Bank. Yet, Modi’s flaunting of his economic reforms abroad belies the strong undercurrent of discomfort at home. Both demonetisation and the goods and services tax have been disruptive to say the least, and the promised benefits of both are yet to show up.
“We have done away with red tape and rolled out the red carpet,” Modi said as he invited investors to Make In India, the government’s flagship programme to promote manufacturing.
However, domestic players have cut back on investments as a lack of demand has rendered existing excess capacity useless. Indian industry is currently operating at only 70% capacity, according to a Reserve Bank of India (RBI) survey for the quarter ending September 2017. Between tepid demand, a monumental pile of bad loans, and shy investors, Indian banks’ credit growth has been abysmal in recent months.
India, meanwhile, has also played a significant role under the Modi regime in sealing the Paris accord to battle climate change. However, the steps to promote renewable energy at home have been let down by the lack of planning or coordinated effort within the government.
For instance, a lack of regulations for wind power has hamstrung the sector, while India’s red-hot solar power industry has also been squeezed by a narrowing pipeline of auctions. The Modi government’s latest move to stall the import of cheap solar modules from China and elsewhere won’t do the renewables industry any favours either.
Then, there’s an impending jobs crisis. As the economy struggles to capitalise on India’s slipping “demographic dividend,” the prime minister envisaged more Indians as job creators and not job-seekers. In the absence of credible data, the jury is still out on the amount of jobs or employment opportunities created. However, the consensus is that it is nowhere close to optimal.
“This philosophy of inclusion is the basis of every decision taken by my government—be that the opening of bank accounts for the financial inclusion of crores of people, or to take direct benefit transfer via digital technology to the poor and needy,” Modi said.
But, in the absence of secure livelihoods from the farms to the factories, the mere opening of bank accounts for the poor has done little for financial inclusion. Similarly, the rampant extension of India’s biometric identity programme, Aadhaar, under Modi’s watch hasn’t quite delivered what it promised at the outset.
Nonetheless, Modi remains a political force, far stronger than his competition in India. But the underwhelming economic and employment growth, and rising inequality, are hard to ignore.
Silence and violence
So is the case with the fractures in Indian society.
One of the key issues the Indian prime minister sought to highlight was that of terrorism. “As dangerous as terrorism is, the artificial distinction being made between good terrorist and bad terrorist is more dangerous,” Modi said.
This assertion, perhaps pointing at Pakistan’s dilly-dallying with sections of the Taliban and Kashmir-focused militant groups, seems a little off in the Indian context, not the least under Modi’s watch.
India, of course, is no stranger to religious or caste-based strife.
However, since he took power in 2014, incidents of Hindu right-wing aggression, both online and offline, have gained momentum. Yet, the prime minister and senior leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have mostly turned a blind eye towards those indulging in such violence—sometimes even tacitly backing them.
The argument could also be extended to Modi’s claim of “inclusiveness” followed by his government.
“In 2014 after 30 years, Indian voters provided complete majority to any political party to form a government at the centre. We took the resolution for the development of everyone and not just a specific group. Our motto is sabka saath sabka vikas,” Modi said at Davos, referring to his campaign motto that roughly translates to “Support for everyone, development for everyone.”
However, many would counter him on this front, too, not just on the basis of his government’s and colleagues’ public stances but also his own personal approach.
In the Gujarat legislative elections late last year, for instance, his party used outright toxic rhetoric against non-Hindus and Dalits. And Modi, as prime minister, spearheaded such bigotry. In campaign mode, he hasn’t shied away from gaining electoral dividends by sharpening religious divides.
At other times, when serious crimes were committed against non-Hindus, he chose a piercing silence.
Speaking at Davos, Modi quoted Rabindranath Tagore, the venerated poet who espoused universalism and striving for an India that was “a heaven of freedom where the world is not divided by narrow domestic walls.”
It is ironic then that the Nobel laureate himself would likely be branded an anti-national today—not the least by Modi’s own partymen.
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