A miasma of despair hangs over India like a ballooning nuclear cloud as it drifts to where no one knows.
The news from all fronts has been depressing and dark. But the despondency has been worsened by the fact that there are no greenshoots, to borrow an economist’s favourite cliché. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
In fact, there is darkness where one stands at the front of the tunnel, too. Quo vadis, India?
Over the last week, India stumbled and fell flat on its face in a discomfiting manifestation of its government’s incompetence. And it could get worse.
The economy was always in serious trouble, let us have no self-delusional pretensions about it. Actually, it has been on a steady downward decline since that gormless demonetization experiment in November 2016.
Before the pandemic pulverized the global economy India was already hanging precariously at 4.2% GDP growth ending March 2020. Unemployment was at a record 45-year high according to CMIE and perhaps more disconcertingly, poverty had bobbed up again after remaining on a falling curve since UPA (270 million people were lifted out of poverty between 2004-15).
The government had committed serial disasters but each were sold as a dazzling headline; tax-relief of a massive Rs 145,000 crore was given to the corporate sector when the need was increasing household purchasing power, bank mergers were announced when the priority should have been NPA cleansing and reducing legal cholesterol in the flawed Insolvency and Banking Code.
Everyone waited anxiously to know how bad the news was. It did not disappoint.
India’s GDP fell like Jack and Jill by an astounding 23.9% for Q1 (April-June 2020), during the most stringent period of the country’s lockdown. Among the emerging markets and the stately G-20 group, India’s apocalyptic ruins was the worst.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave India his usual arresting performance on his televised address on March 23, 2020 when he hustled everyone indoors after a reassuring four hours heads-up.
Surely the government should have had the rudimentary common sense to know that shutting down the entire country at one stroke was unnecessary (the famous Pareto principle applies in all walks of life; even today 70% of coronavirus cases comes from just 5 states) if not altogether an irrational overreaction.
But that is PM Modi for you; always in a hurry to make orotund speeches and play high-impact Faustian politics; immediate gains preceded long-term damage (which could then be handled by another manufactured spin later).
If India is in a deep soup today it is because of this petty opportunism bereft of proper planning and administrative intelligence.
The migrants walking home hundreds of miles away on desolate roads under a scorching sun is India’s unforgettable footprint (pun intended) of the government’s myopic handling of the pandemic. The 23% GDP de-growth does not capture the misery of the informal sector, which must be crippling all those who survive on daily wages.
With consumer demand, private capital expenditure and exports skewered, the only hope for India is government expenditure to trigger a bounce-back. But for some strange reason, in one of our planet’s most unprecedented crises, when even conservative analysts are suggesting fiscal profligacy, the Modi government seems reluctant to bite the bullet.
It’s meagre 1-2% of GDP as fiscal stimulus has not worked. It is estimated that 20 million salaried staff have been rendered jobless. With several sectors such as manufacturing (-39%), construction (-50%) and trade, hospitality and transport (-47%) facing temporary evisceration, it is hardly surprising that the GDP has sunk.
India has had a good monsoon and the silver lining among the dark clouds was that agriculture performed best at 3.4%. But then that would be like a drowning man clutching at a straw. A lot more needs to be done.
Other countries opened up their depleted treasuries to boost demand at a much higher 10% or more of GDP; India became unusually tight-fisted. The mega-purpose behind the drastic self-imposed incineration was to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from spreading wide. That is why no one protested the draconian step.
Modi alluded to the Mahabharata and a 21-day victory over the novel pathogen as if he knew something even Nostradamus could not have foreseen. It was a preposterous promise laden with puffery. As of today, India has overtaken Brazil with cumulative 4.4 million caseloads and rising at a worrying 95,000-plus cases per day.
Epidemiologists predict that India will overtake the United States and become eventually the most-infected country in the world. There is understandable panic in India; it has been dealt a double-blow, both equally perilous.
India is in a Catch-22; both the economy and the pandemic need quick remedial upticks as they are codependent on each other. It will be naive to expect people with masks gallivanting in shopping malls making purchases. Safety precedes fashionable intent.
Amidst the slippery slope, Indians were transported to an alternate universe of perverse voyeurism on India’s discredited television shows; actor Rhea Chakraborty who is being investigated for several alleged transgressions related to fellow actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s traumatic death was subjected to psychotic harassment at the hands of charlatan TV anchors and clearly partisan investigative authorities.
This was kangaroo court behaviour: repugnant and cringe-worthy. It appears that the ugly charade is purely motivated by the forthcoming state elections in Bihar.
Another controversial celebrity actor has now occupied centre-stage. The BJP has a standard operating procedure; intermittently release a Bollywood soap-opera and boondoggle the world. It is working.
But trust me, it shames the great country. India deserves much better. And at some point it will rise from this snake-pit.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author and do not reflect the views of Yahoo.