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When Modi Promised Voters 'Vikas' in 2014, He Meant Spectacle and Not Substance

His catchy announcements over the past 10 years may have painted a pretty picture of an India on move but the reality is that 80 crore Indians – more than half the country – are unable to earn enough to even afford two meals a day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: X (Twitter)/@narendramodi

A vegetarian thali costs more in 2024 than it did a year ago because of a surge in the prices of onions, tomatoes, potatoes, rice and pulses, newspapers reported on the morning of April 5.

The same day, Narendra Modi told an election rally in Churu: “The past 10 years are only the appetiser, the full thali is yet to come.”

On some television channels, a Congress party ad has been playing: “Cheeni, patti, gas, sab mehnga hai, toh badhiya chai kaise? Mehngai ka do jawab. Mere vikas ka do hisaab.”

Vikas – development – was a promise Modi made to become prime minister for the first time. Speaking at the release of the BJP manifesto on April 7, 2014, Modi had identified good governance and inclusive development as the two main issues for the country and promised he would deliver these in 60 months or 5 years.

Modi spelt out what he meant: good governance is a government that thinks for the poor and listens to the poor; development has to be all-encompassing, has to touch everyone, and be welcomed by everyone.

Did Modi keep his promise?

India’s GDP today is the fifth largest in the world, and the country is on its way to becoming a $5- trillion economy by 2028. Sounds impressive, but only as long as you gloss over the abbreviations and numbers that crowd economics.

GDP or Gross Domestic Product is the total value of the goods and services produced in a country during a specific period of time, usually a year.

India is the world’s most populous country – from roughly 125 crore in 2014, our count has gone up to 140 crore now. Over 60 per cent of the population is working age. A larger population means a larger workforce to produce goods and services, and a larger market to consume those goods and services. India’s GDP being the fifth largest in the world, therefore, is no surprise.

Amid the growth hype, the reality check has come unwittingly from the prime minister himself. At an election rally in Chhattisgarh last November, he said the Union government’s free ration scheme would be extended for another five years till 2028 to ensure that India’s 80 crore poor have food in their thalis.

By 2028, India is projected to become the world’s third largest economy with a GDP of $5 trillion.

The unspoken admission in the Chhattisgarh announcement: development has bypassed 80 crore out of 140 crore Indians. The economy might be growing in size, but under the dazzle of trillions of dollars, more than half the country is unable to earn enough to even afford two meals a day.

The GDP per capita, which is calculated by dividing the GDP value by the country’s population, is recommended as a more real measure of the state of an economy. On this list, India does not figure even among the top 100 countries. But even GDP per capita does not tell all because it cannot account for the obscene rich-poor divide.

For several days last month, a pre-wedding celebration in the Ambani family made non-stop news – Nita Ambani’s emerald-and-diamond necklace said to be worth hundreds of crores, Anant Ambani’s watch that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife were seen admiring, Rihanna as star performer, a global who’s who of a guest list, international status to Jamnagar airport for 10 days to welcome those guests, the spread of 2,500 dishes laid out for them….

Around the same time came a study that said there were 6.7 million “zero food” children in India. “Zero food” children are children between 6 and 23 months old – an age group where breastfeeding is not enough — who had not been fed any semi-solids, solids, dairy milk or formula over a 24-hour period. The 19.3 per cent prevalence of “zero-food” children puts India third on this list, behind Guinea and Mali. The study used data from the national family health survey for 2019-21 conducted by the Union health ministry.

Last October, India was ranked 111 out of 125 countries on the 2023 Global Hunger Index with a level of hunger categorised as serious. The report said India has the highest proportion of child wasting in the world at 18.7 per cent.

In other words, at least one out of every six children in India is undernourished.

The government’s response has been to reject the methodology and the findings of the peer-reviewed annual report that is accepted worldwide.

A report released by the government itself in 2019 – the year by when Modi had promised to deliver inclusive development – said unemployment was at a 45-year high. Five years later, the photograph of over 60 Indians leaving to work in warzone Israel this month is a telling commentary on the lack of jobs at home.

Last November, the failure of over 100 IIM Bangalore students to get internship placements within the designated window made news. This placement season, media reports tell us that about 30 per cent graduates of the top IITs who had registered for job offers are still waiting.

But Mukesh Ambani’s net worth has increased almost five-fold since 2014 to $116 billion in the Forbes Rich List 2024 and Gautam Adani’s is 27 times what it was a decade ago.

The lived reality is reflected in Oxfam India’s 2023 report on inequality that found that the richest 5 per cent Indians own more than 60 per cent of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 50 per cent own only 3 per cent. Between 2012 and 2021, 40 per cent of the wealth created in India has gone to just 1 per cent of the population, the report says.

So, did Modi keep his word on “sarvasparshi, sarvapriya vikas” – development that touches everyone and is welcomed by everyone?

We do know how he has fared on a test of governance that he had himself set for another Prime Minister: Petrol prices.

In May 2012, when Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister, Modi had declared: “The rise in petrol prices is living proof of the Delhi government’s incapability to govern.”

The petrol price in May 2012 was Rs 73 a litre in Delhi, Rs 78 in Mumbai. The petrol price now is Rs 94 a litre in Delhi, Rs 104 in Mumbai.

On another parameter that he had used to mock the Manmohan Singh government – the rupee exchange rate – also, the Modi government’s performance is for everyone to see.

“The way the dollar is becoming stronger and the rupee is getting weaker, India will not be able to last in international trade,” Modi had said in a public speech in 2012, demanding an answer from the Prime Minister and blaming the slide on corruption. In 2013, he said: “The rupee is in the hospital, in the ICU.”

The average exchange rate in 2013 was Rs 58 to a dollar. The exchange rate now is Rs 83 to a dollar.

But to come back to his promise made in April 2014, did Modi deliver on the second part — good governance?

The two yardsticks for this, set by Modi, were a government that thinks for the poor and listens to the poor.

In November 2016, when the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes was announced at a 4-hour notice, did the government think about the poor? The cash-driven informal sector, which gives employment to the poor, was battered as 86 per cent of the currency in circulation was suddenly sucked out. Thousands of small businesses shut down in the following months, destroying lakhs of jobs. However noble the stated objective was, before embarking on it, should the government not have thought about offering a cushion to those who would be hardest hit? At the end of the day, when almost all the currency declared void came back into the banks, the avowed mission of flushing out black money was labelled a failure.

Justice B.V. Nagarathna, who was on the Supreme Court bench that heard the demonetisation case, said recently: “….98 per cent of the demonetised currency came back to the Reserve Bank (99.3 per cent, according to the RBI), so where were we heading towards in black money eradication? I thought it was a good way of converting black money into white money.”

In March 2020, another 8 pm announcement shut down the country, again at a 4-hour notice. Did the government think of the poor? Did it wonder where the day labourers would find the money to buy food or pay rent? Did it think of how small businesses would cope with the losses that a total lockdown would inflict on them? Did it think of how people, poor or rich, would reach their parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses or children living in another city if there was an emergency in the family?

Stranded migrant workers during the fourth phase of the lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic in Delhi, taking rest on the way to their village near New Delhi railway station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Sumita Roy Dutta/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Before the lockdown was clamped, were any provisions made to help the poor with cash, or support small businesses, or to allow travel at least for people trying to reach family members who were grievously ill or to mourn a loved one who had died. Does the migrants’ long walk home speak of a government that thinks of the poor?

Later in 2020, three farm laws were brought in when the country was in lockdown. The farmers protested, fearing they would be robbed of their lands and livelihood. Did the government listen? When, after months of protesting in their own states, the farmers tried to come to Delhi to be heard, the roads were dug up, nails were planted, concrete walls were built, and concertina wires were installed. Thousands of farmers sat on the border of Delhi for one whole year, through winter, summer and Covid. Seven hundred died protesting, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha pointed out in a list submitted to the government.

Eventually, the laws were repealed months before the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections and promises were made to the protesters on their other demands. But this year, when the farmers tried to head to Delhi again to ask about the unkept promises, police fired teargas shells on them using drones. One farmer was killed. Is this a government that listens to the poor?

Had we been listening to Modi carefully before 2014, maybe we would have been on our guard.

In May 2013, speaking in Hindi, he had said to cheers and applause: “I asked the Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) to start a high-speed bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. What purpose will it serve, he asked. It will show the world our strength, I said. No one is going to come here to ride the train. You need to do this to show we are no less than anyone else.”

“China shows the world only Shanghai. It doesn’t show all of China,” he laughed.

In that speech, Modi was laying bare his governance philosophy. Spectacle, not substance, was the mantra.

The past 10 years, therefore, have been about catchy announcements: Start-up India, Khelo India, Make in India, Skill India, Digital India, G20, $5 trillion economy…. The headlines paint a pretty picture of a country on the go.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As he asks for another term to serve the full thali and sells new dreams, the question that needs to be answered is: Did Modi keep the promise he made to us in 2014?

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