<![CDATA[It’s a familiar ritual. In the months before a general election is held in India, the ruling regime gets into hyperactive mode. A quick flurry of schemes is usually announced, many of them being financial largesse that is handed out or promised to usually the poorer or more disadvantaged sections of the population. Loans are waived; subsidies are enhanced, or new ones announced; and other populist schemes are unveiled. Political entities in power usually have that advantage. They’re in charge and have the executive powers to announce such sops.
So, it has been, unsurprisingly, this time as well. With the national elections for the Lok Sabha around the corner, The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has announced a series of scheme, concessions, and other benefits—all, ostensibly, designed to make an electorate more amenable towards voting it to power again. Pre-election populist measures are a common tactic. Every regime, no matter what its political stripes are, does it. Only, this time there is a difference.
Five years ago, when Mr Narendra Modi campaigned vigorously—and remarkably successfully—before the 2014 election that he, his party, and its allies won decisively, there were two central themes that he focused on. The first was, expectedly, sharp criticism of the then incumbent government, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Mr Modi and his colleagues singled out several scams and irregularities that it charged the government with, including the biggest of them, involving coal block allocations where it was alleged that the government colluded with private sector beneficiaries, which led to estimated losses to the exchequer amounting to more than Rs 185,000 crores. That scam had other repercussions—the government’s decision-making process got paralysed and towards the end of its term in 2014, the UPA government, led by the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, became almost inert when it came to policy making.
Expectedly, that gave Mr Modi’s campaign much grist for the mill and he capitalised on it. But it was the second theme that he had focused on, which probably resonated more with the electorate (which, as is known, gave the NDA a mandate in the form of 336 out of Lok Sabha’s 543 elected seats). This was one that largely consisted of promises. Big ones. Some of them were downright outlandish: Mr Modi and his colleagues in the BJP promised that if elected they would swoop down on unscrupulous businessmen who had siphoned out black (or unaccounted) money overseas, diddling the government of taxes, and that there was so much black money in havens such as Swiss banks that if it could be brought back, which he promised to do, every Indian could stand to get around Rs 15 lakh.
It was election campaign rhetoric, of course, and one that only the very naïve fell for. But there were other, more believable promises. His government, he promised, would generate jobs for India’s burgeoning youth; improve the lot of its neglected farmers (70 per cent of rural Indians depend directly on farming, and more depend on the sector indirectly); and usher in an era of great, good days, viz. development, growth, and all-round progress. Five years later, those promises have largely remained unfulfilled. The NDA regime announced a slew of schemes with catchy labels. Some, such as Make in India, aimed at driving up investment in the manufacturing sector and generate jobs. Others, such as Startup India, were aimed at helping entrepreneurs set up and run new enterprises. These schemes were aggressively publicised and marketed but there is little to show in terms of their success. Likewise, Mr Modi’s hastily announced decision to demonetise large currency notes in order the nab hoarders of black money was a near-total disaster, ending up inconveniencing many small traders and daily wage earners.
In reality, the Modi regime’s performance, particularly on promises of accelerating investment and generation of jobs, has been poor. India, inexplicably, has no reliable data on jobs, leaving room for claims and counter claims about how many jobs are being created. Mr Modi’s refrain has been that jobs are being created, only most of them are in the informal sector, and, therefore, (some would say, conveniently) hard statistics are unavailable. India’s GDP growth rate during the current regime’s term seems to have improved but there too questions arise: the government resorted to base changes and methodology changes that many think served to doll up the official figures.
There’s little surprise, therefore, that Mr Modi’s government has resorted to a flurry of announcements. Quick approval of loans (in just an hour) to tiny, small and medium enterprises have been announced; and a budget proposal this month gives such enterprises an interest relief if they’re under the new Goods & Service Tax scheme. Late last year, the government announced a scheme that provides annual medical insurance coverage to nearly 500 million poorer Indians. More recently, in the interim budget, the government focused on farmers who have been in distress because of low prices and loan burdens. Annual pay-outs of Rs 6000 each to farmers holding land of two hectares or less have been announced and the first instalment of that payment is scheduled for March, just a couple of months before the elections are expected to be held. Higher prices for farm produce have been promised as well. There have been sops also for workers in the unorganised sector, which in India employs more than 80% of the workforce, in the form of a pension scheme.
The other, and more sinister, thing that regimes do before elections is to launch aggressive investigations into rival political entities and their leaders. In January, the government’s Enforcement Directorate, which is a powerful law enforcement agency that investigates economic crimes, raided two important political opponents of the current regime: In Uttar Pradesh, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati, and her current ally and leader of the Samajwadi Party Akhilesh Yadav, were raided—the former for an alleged scam in building memorials in the state while she was chief minister there in 2007; and the latter over alleged irregularities in a mining scam case during his tenure as chief minister. Besides these, there have been raids and investigation into a range of other Opposition leaders or their kin. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s brother-in-law Robert Vadra’s offices were raided; former Union minister P. Chidambaram and his son have been probed and raided in connection with a money laundering case and other alleged irregularities; and in the past couple of years, similar action has been launched against other powerful political opponents, including heavyweights such as National Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar, and the Congress’s Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
There is, of course, a cynical aspect of the sops and threats that regimes adopt as elections approach. But the question is: will this help steer him and the NDA back to power when more than 800 million Indians queue up at election booths to cast their vote. The answer to that is anybody’s guess but the ground realities appear grim. In early February, a leaked report by the government’s National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) revealed stunning data that more than half of India’s working age population was not employed—or that India’s unemployment rate currently was at its highest level in 45 years. Government officials were quick to dismiss the leak. Union minister (and former finance minister) Arun Jaitley termed it “misinformation” and that it was absurd to think that when India’s GDP was growing fast jobs were not being generated. Other officials said the report was not final and only a preliminary draft.
The fact is that Mr Modi’s government has not been able to present data that credibly establish a healthy trend of job creation—in fact, most indicators show that it has been the opposite, viz. employment generation has been stagnant. Many believe that the jobs issue could be the core issue that could decide which way Indians would decide to vote. And in that, India’s youth, who form a large and decisive proportion of the population, would play a crucial role. The Modi regime’s slew of sops for voters and potential threats against its political rivals may help it to some extent but, shorn of everything else, the central issue on the minds of most voters in the coming elections could simply be “jobs”. It would be interesting to see how Mr Modi, an eloquent speaker whose political rallies usually have huge mass appeal, addresses this on the campaign trail. And no, fresh promises are unlikely to work this time.