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Seize the narrative on the economy, Prime Minister
Modi's well-timed interventions have served well in the past. This time round, he spoke eloquently, forcefully and persuasively last week but he must speak often and provide the clarity in whose absence perception trumps reality
Given the proximity between certain journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists and wheeler-dealers in Lutyens’s Delhi, it is not surprising that mediapersons should be seen as repositories of restricted information. Access journalism, which flourished during the UPA decade with journalists playing brokers and messengers, was just another name for information gathering and influence peddling.
One of the things that Prime Minister Narendra Modi did upon his ascension to the masnad of Delhi in 2014 was to put a halt to access journalism. While he has been largely successful in his endeavour, it would be grossly wrong to say that the ecosystem which defined the Lutyens swamp has withered away. It hasn’t.
Those members of the establishment not particularly happy with Modi’s style of working, the crackdown on corruption and the fixing of accountability for delivery have kept channels open with the usual suspects in Lutyens media. Information is leaked, though its quality is far from being reliable, corridor gossip is planted as news, and the ingredients for churning out fake stories is supplied to be processed and produced as ‘exclusive reports’.
It is, therefore, not surprising that industrialists, who no longer get to see Cabinet notes (and amend them suitably) before they are circulated and discussed at Cabinet meetings, should reach out to still ‘connected’ journalists for information and to get a sense of which was the wind is blowing. The ‘direction of the wind’ will gain importance as the Lok Sabha election of 2019 draws closer.
Given the indisputable fact that the economy is facing rough weather and one of the key concerns of the masses (who could not care a toss for gross domestic product growth, banking sector NPAs, Foreign Direct Investment growth and other such parameters that determine the economic health of the nation) that of job creation, remains unaddressed, the wind is not blowing in a favourable direction for Modi Sarkar at the moment. There is no rocket science involved in arriving at this conclusion. It is common sense.
It is entirely possible, as the Government claims and many economists and institutions insist, that the current trough is a passing phase before the economy crests again. The contrarian view is equally compelling for the untutored who, unfortunately, comprise the majority. Perception, as is often said, is more important than reality in shaping public opinion.
In the absence of a proactive narrative on the economy from the Government (which increasingly appears to be dependent on Finance Ministry bureaucrats and their bureaucratese) robustly backed by the party (which now expends all its resources reacting to critics in Lutyens TV studios) the popular perception is inching round to the view that Modi and his Ministers are floundering.
Modi’s well-timed interventions have served well in the past. But this time round, he may have waited too long, allowing his critics a free run, uncontested and unchallenged. Yes, he spoke eloquently, forcefully and persuasively, as he does when he senses a threat taking shape and form, at an event of company secretaries last week. His speech was live telecast and widely reported. At last people got to hear and know of what he thinks of the economic trough and how he plans to get it going again.
But this one intervention by itself may not be enough. He has to, indeed he must, speak more often and provide the clarity in whose absence perception trumps reality. Just as he must now increasingly intervene in the decision-making process and policy implementation to ensure that avoidable blunders are actually avoided and not justified by callous statements. A case in point is the Goods and Services Tax and its implementation. Everybody knew what was wrong with the policy and its implementation but it needed Modi’s intervention to remove the creases.
A third thing that needs to be done, and done without waiting too long, is for Modi and BJP president Amit Shah to start repairing severely damaged bridges with the middleclasses. Modi’s rise to power and the BJP’s sweeping victory was propelled by the aspirational middleclasses, including what he once famously described as the neo-middleclass. Tax-funded bureaucrats, hubris-inflicted Ministers and self-appointed ‘dolt’ economists would tell Modi to ignore the ‘forever whining middleclasses’. To listen to them would be plain silly.
The middleclasses do not want the crutch of subsidies. The middleclasses want a permanent end to corruption. The middleclasses support tax compliance. The middleclasses want to see their country secure and prosperous. The middleclasses eagerly desire to be active participants in the building of what Modi calls ‘New’ India. But the middleclasses want the Government to be sensitive to their concerns.
Regrettably, a regime that came to power riding the support of the middleclasses is now perceived as abandoning its core support base. The collective anger over fuel prices, inflated by taxes that fetch the payer few benefits, reflects this feeling of being abandoned. This may sound facetious but it isn’t.
Thomas Piketty may impress (as all White folks do) Niti Aayog economists and Finance Ministry babus, but the middleclasses are not enamoured of him. They increasingly feel ‘Sab ka saath, Sab ka vikas’ is being transplanted with ‘Garib ka sath, garib ka vikas’. That’s a throwback to the Congress’s socialist era when it was a punishable offence for the middleclass to have sufficient food at home.
Which brings us back to where we began. These are the times when fencesitters among industrialists, businessmen who are impacted by the disruption in the cash-and-carry system they have been used to for long, and other movers and shakers discomfited by the fall of the Congress to chase Lutyens journalists for a sense of which way the wind is blowing. With Modi’s personal popularity still sky high, it would be difficult to answer this question with any degree of honesty. The coming Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections would serve as windsocks. We should wait for the results.
As for there being something in the air, well, it’s that time of the year when there is a nip in the air.
(The writer is Commissioning Editor and commentator at ABP News)
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