India’s date with its economic destiny is set for 2024, that is, the end of the second term of the Narendra Modi government, when it is projected to grow to $5 trillion size. It will outstrip countries like France and the United Kingdom, so the folks say. What is not being said is that before it reaches the fifth place in the world, it has to recover from the fact that India has slipped down to seventh place, because France grew and so did Britain; they reoccupied the fifth and sixth slots. Whereas India did not grow as fast it should have.
Not growing at the rate required is the problem. Size is not. Size will not make the poor very much better off than they are today. The bad news is that India will not be an upper middle-income country by 2024.
The best is yet to come, or so goes the message. What this means is that India should continue to live on a hope and a prayer. Whereas by 2024, Bangladesh will almost certainly transition to an upper middle-income economy from low income, the people of the Maldives and Sri Lanka will definitely be way better off than India by 2020.
Consider that Bangladesh started out as a devastated nation when it fought and parted company with Pakistan. It was at the tail end of all rankings on the development front in 1971. Ever since, its progress has been spectacular. The journey has been rough; it is dealing with religious fundamentalists, terrorists, a strong Opposition, climate change and crushing poverty. Ever since 2015, when the transition to middle income became a near certainty, Bangladesh has been working on making the changes that will propel it to the next level.
Sometime between now and 2024, it may well be that very few of the poor in Bangladesh, irrespective of whether they are Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists, will think of India as a desirable destination, a place of economic opportunities at the very margins of subsistence. It could be that the Modi government’s problems of illegal migrants from Bangladesh arriving in large numbers in the border states of West Bengal and Assam may decline to a trickle, thin enough to prevent detection.
The issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, mainly Muslims, about which the Modi government, its home minister Amit Shah and the BJP as a whole in Assam are so exercised, may solve itself, because the destination, namely India, will be economically a much less attractive proposition. What is certain is that long before the Indian government’s machinery, including the state government’s apparatus in Assam, solves the problem of who is a bona fide Indian and who is an illegal migrant, Bangladesh will be an upper middle-income country. Its people will be better educated, better fed and better off than their neighbours in India.
In its obsession with rankings, the Modi government is sinking deeper into a maze of its own making. Will its size as an economy matter if the country continues to be ranked as not a middle-income country, unlike Bangladesh? Or Bhutan? Will size matter if the institutions of governance fail so desperately that children in schools are fed salt and cereal instead of a nutritious diet? Will size matter if a quarter of the world’s malnourished-undernourished children are in India? Will size matter if despite the increases in the rate of enrolment in schools, and more tertiary education admissions, the unemployment problem is not fixed?
Every time the Modi government pats itself on the back for its achievements and in the same breath describes its act as changing India and making it new, it turns away from making change happen into giving the change that has happened a spin. Attacking the Congress for its legacy of failures is one way of earning political capital. It is also relatively cheap.
No matter how loud the champions of the Modi government, including Prakash Javadekar and Nirmala Sitaraman, may be, the problem is that not one of them seems inclined to listen to critics. Questioning Dr Manmohan Singh’s knowledge and challenging his credentials for his observation that the Indian economy is being seriously mismanaged may produce noisy applause from the BJP faithful, but it fails to admit that there are people who may know more and may be better informed.
Offence may be the best form of defence, and it is also cheap. And it has limited value for a limited time. It is difficult to explain or interpret job losses, high unemployment, low investment, atrocious inequality, and a lousy quality of education as good news. Putting a gloss on these will not make the problems disappear. Calling the Opposition parties and sundry other critics “anti-national” or any other names is a gimmick that is on the verge of outliving its political utility.
After the security-military clampdown on Kashmir, cutting off all communications, including telephone landlines and the Internet, before the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the number of people deemed “anti-national” by the Modi government has spiralled to the point of absurdity. The fact that the BJP government has no clue as to when it can begin to restore some semblance of normality in Jammu and Kashmir is a clear indication that the leadership has no clue on how it can be done.
The BJP is painting itself into a corner, because it is convinced that it knows best. On the economy, it has set its heart on reaching fifth place in terms of size. On Jammu and Kashmir, it has set its goal as ending terrorism and corruption. It thinks it can be done by transforming the state into a Union territory, which would be an interim stage, before Jammu and Kashmir revert to being a state again. The BJP is set on cleaning up Assam by getting rid of the “termite” illegal migrants, mostly Muslims. On each of these very limited goals, the BJP appears to be floundering.
There is a time limit by which things need to happen. The deadline cannot be pushed back indefinitely. Unless all Indians are very much better off, the BJP’s ambition of reaching fifth place will be meaningless. Unless Jammu and Kashmir begins to function like any other part of India, the entire exercise will have been pointless. Unless there is a sensible plan for managing the “illegals” in Assam, merely unearthing them is senseless....