Growth and populism need to go hand-in-hand for Modi to return in 2019
“What the F***?” was my reaction when I was told that an egg these days costs Rs. 5.75. I remember there used to be a time when eating a chapati with an onion used to be a highly spartan way of eating and if you could eat a chapati with an onion, you could practically live penniless (in terms of acquiring food). These days, consuming onions has become a luxury.
Daal-roti no longer remains the food for the poor as, at the time of writing this, most of the daals (lentils) these days cost over Rs. 100 per kg. Even the middle class households these days refrain from purchasing fruits (although, stupidly, they will gladly spend Rs. 600 on a pizza, but that’s another point) because they have become insanely expensive.
Modi’s detractors keep on emphasising that he indulges in rhetorical and useless activities and isn’t much interested in improving the lot of the people. This is why he trots around the globe meeting world leaders and business tycoons exhorting them to set up businesses in India but pays little attention to removing indigenous bureaucratic hurdles and curbing prices of essential commodities. He wants to spend Rs. 2000 crores on a Sardar Patel statue instead of spending the money to help the farmers, they complain. They say he wants to bring the bullet train to the country before improving the gargantuan and dilapidated existing railway system. He wants to build smart cities without providing housing to the slum dwellers and even the common citizens.
Of course most of these apprehensions are raised just for the heck of raising apprehensions, but sometimes all the suggestions that are forthcoming aren’t bad. And this is more so when the Indian electorate is quite capricious when it comes to casting votes. We can all see what happened in Bihar: even if the BJP lost due to its own follies, what was the reason for Lalu’s ascent? Despite improving law and order situation to a great extent, Nitish Kumar had to settle with Lalu’s semi-educated son as the deputy CM thanks to the bizarrely overwhelming support Lalu got from the Bihari public. Chandrababu Naidu lost despite his development work. Delhi people support Kejriwal despite his empty promises and him joining hands with the most corrupt figures in the country. Yes, the Gujaratis have been electing Narendra Modi for his performance but the dynamics in the rest of the country are quite different.
In order to ensure his return in 2019 Modi has to focus on both long-term and short-term “achche din”. The economy is growing more than 6.5% outpacing China’s growth, India’s stature in the world is improving in leaps and bounds, millions of poor have enrolled in the Jandhan Yojna, investments are coming into the country, Modi is leading an alliance of 120 countries for solar energy production, and most the girls’ schools these days have toilets (to name just a few achievements), but people will only begin to see the difference when these indicators begin to positively impact their day-to-day lives. For example, when an egg can be purchased at Rs. 2–3 and daal can be purchased for Rs. 25–30 and onions become as cheap as they used to be.
Of course the rates of food commodities cannot be taken back to what they used to be in the 70s and 80s, it’s the bringing down of the cost of living on day-to-day basis that will give people a feel of “achche din” and unless that happens, it will be very difficult for Narendra Modi to convince people into voting for him again in 2019.
The tragedy in India is that when there is a non-Congress (Right-wing or Right-of-centre) government people become extra critical. They want the misgovernance of 60 years to simply go away in 5 years, and if a non-Congress government cannot achieve this within 5 years, showing a suicidal tendency, they bring the Congress, or one of its varients, back. This happened in 2004. The UPA government survived on the hard work of the NDA government for 10 years and the same is bound to happen if Narendra Modi isn’t careful.
Even if the Congress party implodes by 2019 and is in no condition to play a major role in the formation of the new government, Narendra Modi should be cautious of the developments taking place under the aegis of the Mahagathbandhan. Many nefarious politicians have already started salivating at the prospect of forming a government at the Centre in case people get disenchanted with the Modi government by 2019.
So for the remaining tenure, he must strike a balance between sustainable development and populism. Prices of food items must be brought down drastically in order to make people feel that things are actually improving. Most of the people these days are saying that not only the prices of food items haven’t come down, they have been going up. New job opportunities, better schools and hospitals, sparkling bus and train terminals, cleaner cities and an efficient bureaucracy will matter more to the next generation who will be growing in a better environment, but for the current generation and the previous generation (both these generations will be voting) these are good things but not THAT good. For them, good would be the prices of milk, egg, vegetables, fruits and travel coming down.
If prices of these goods and services don’t come down, they won’t be able to notice a development that is happening in the background. The sort of development pursued by Narendra Modi will bring down the prices, or at least stabilise them for a long time to come, in maybe 6–8 years but by then it will be too late for him in terms of political dividends. If he doesn’t continue after 2019, the benefits of his almost superhuman hard work will be reaped by the next, totally undeserving government and India again will be pushed back a decade or so.
Even if he has to slow down other sectors a bit and draw cash from them, he needs to pump money into bringing down the cost of living by at least 40%. If he can achieve this in the next 1–2 years, coupled with a better handling of media, his return will be assured.