The NDA should pay heed to the serious concern expressed about its handling of the economy.
Once more, in a different country, “it’s the economy, stupid”. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville had focused on a recession to unseat George H.W. Bush. India’s 2019 general election is still in the middle distance, but the NDA should pay heed if serious concern is expressed about its handling of the economy. Voices are being raised in the public domain precisely because the government has ignored constructive criticism within the formal political system. The senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, whose article in The Indian Express set off a bicker-storm, has clarified that he aired his views publicly because he failed to catch the ear of the prime minister. At a book release function the next day, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the stated target of Sinha’s article, retaliated by referring to him — by implication rather than by name — as a “job applicant at 80”.
The economy is a matter of national interest, and the government cannot assume that those questioning its policies and performance are actuated by competing interests. And it should certainly not allow the debate to descend to the level of retail sarcasm. Sinha himself kept the bar appropriately high, speaking out of a sense of “national duty” to criticise policy and lay out issues which the government should address with utmost urgency. Growth has faltered under the double blow of demonetisation, which does not seem to have secured its stated objectives, and GST, a very necessary intervention which could have been organised and timed better. Agricultural distress has become a structural feature, aggravated by the powerful disincentives suffered by the cattle trade. The stress on banking is unrelieved. Small industries are already suffering a cash flow problem, small business investments are being diverted to financial speculation and the impact on the unorganised sector, while unquantified, may be reasonably assumed to be huge. The flagship electoral promise of job creation has not been fulfilled and a contraction in consumer demand is expected, compounding the economic slide.
In particular, when the biggest brands voice their anxieties, the government should listen. The State Bank of India is pessimistic and A.M. Naik, group chairman of L&T, the biggest infrastructure company, does not foresee a recovery for two years. If the government is perceived to be unequal to the daunting task of reversing the slide, it should seek participation from industry and welcome criticism from across the political spectrum. Promises of last-mile electrical connectivity, or the mere reincarnation of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, will not stem the growing uproar. If the government prioritises winning a war of words, it cannot organise a campaign for economic recovery. And it must know that this campaign will be won by generals, not snipers.