In recent years, India’s Meteorological Department (IMD) hasn’t exactly earned a reputation for unfailing accuracy. According to a media report based on the IMD’s own analysis, “The average error in IMD’s monsoon forecasts in the past 13 years (2003-2015) has come down to 5.9 per cent from 7.9 per cent in the previous 13-year period…” Assuming that the margin of error hovers around the same six per cent range, the good news is that the 106 per cent monsoon forecast will probably mean the end of the two-year drought in a large tract of central India.
This is good news for both the rural economy that is in deep crisis owing to the shortage of water for both drinking and irrigation and also for the country’s overall well-being. No wonder the stock market registered a staggering 400-point surge on Wednesday, in anticipation of better times. After a prolonged economic downturn caused by waning demand, there is a desperate desire to secure an economic growth that reaches all sections of the population.
While the advent of the “normal” monsoon in end-May will not necessarily result in an immediate economic upturn, it will be a big breather for the Narendra Modi government. It is not that the Modi government has expended its political capital in the two years of its existence. Far from being hobbled by the agricultural crisis, it has made significant progress in laying the foundations of a more vibrant and sustained recovery.
What rural distress, now reaching its peak in parts of Maharashtra, has done is to convey an impression that India’s encouraging growth figures are contrived. The suggestion that it “doesn’t feel” like a 7.5 per cent GDP growth may appear problematic to economists who go by hard numbers, but it is a sentiment I have witnessed, even among individuals who are by no means inimical to the Prime Minister.
The past few weeks have also seen media reports of the Prime Minister’s fanatical blend of personal austerity and waste-free time management, suggesting a schedule that would put many younger people to shame. However, politically speaking, mere hard work — however purposeful — doesn’t yield returns unless it translates into the lived experiences of people. On the contrary, “talking-up” at a time of difficulty merely encourages political opponents to persist with a shrill campaign of calumny.
What has been evident in the past year at least is that while the Mr Modi’s personal ratings are by and large unaffected — he is still drawing large and enthusiastic crowds at his election rallies — these are not necessarily translating into increased support for the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is conceivable, especially if anecdotal post-poll reports are any indication, that the outcome in Assam may end the bad run that began with the Delhi debacle in January last year and touched new heights after the resounding defeat in Bihar last October. However, since the “mainstream” media has a habit of persisting with an air of cluelessness on Assam, it is also possible that the importance of this verdict may be seriously discounted.
It is the aftermath of a good, normal monsoon that really opens up the possibility of a sustained political recovery and advance for both Mr Modi and the BJP. It is my belief that the aggressive campaigns centred on voluble nationalism have had only a limited impact. While the bouts of flag-waving and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” chanting have definitely galvanised the faithful, their impact on the rest of society has been uneven. This isn’t entirely because of the undoubted scepticism, verging on hostility, of the media and the old establishment that remains un-reconciled to the loss of political power and patronage in Delhi.
In moments of economic difficulties, there is always the temptation to see issues of “identity”, especially those linked to the ruling dispensation, as calculated distractions. The BJP has always been attached to the idea of the sacredness of nationalism and its reaction to ultra-Left provocation wasn’t unusual or unexpected. But had these controversies erupted in economically better times, their responses on the ground would have been more positive.
The extent to which the Modi government is dependent on a good monsoon to regain the momentum shouldn’t be underestimated. For the past two years, the government has worked ceaselessly and with a great deal of dedication to create the environment for a soaring economic take-off. The improvements in the ease of doing business — an unending work in progress, the overhaul of India’s image as a global business destination, the modest levels of inflation and the discernible drop in levels of corruption at the top are all calculated to yield significant results. In the past two years, in the face of low capital expenditure by the private corporate sector, the Centre has been compelled to embrace a Keynesian strategy of massive government investments in key infrastructure projects. In particular, India can look forward to capacity enhancement in power, roads and railways in the short term.
However, their visibility on the ground and their multiplier effects are yet to be felt. Indeed their larger impact is certain to be tempered by the erosion of demand, particularly in the rural areas. The encouragement to family units and start-ups too will take time. It often seems that the approach of Mr Modi has been to chip away relentlessly in the first three years of his term and await the returns in the final 24 months. The first two years have created expectations and underlined India’s potential. Now it awaits at least two years of “normal” monsoons for the yields to seep in. The “act of God” is a discredited expression after the Kolkata flyover tragedy, but India, more than ever, needs the rain gods to smile on Bharat Mata. Let’s pray the IMD has got it right this year.