By: Dipak Kurmi
From the elevated walls of Delhi’s renowned Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered an extensive speech on August 15th, portraying an image of a resplendent India sprinting towards realizing its destiny as a magnificent triumph. Amidst this, he openly acknowledged the challenge of inflation, expressing his inability to entirely rein it in thus far. However, he assured that he is committed to intensifying efforts to curb it in the near future.
A few days subsequent to this, in a bid to tackle inflation, the administration under Prime Minister Modi revealed its plan to establish a fund amounting to Rs 1 trillion. This fund is earmarked for the purpose of alleviating inflationary pressures. The government clarified that the funds would be sourced by making adjustments to the budgets of different ministries. This decision was prompted by the recent 15-month peak in inflation, exemplified by notable hikes in tomato and onion prices as well as fuel expenses. The significance of curbing this inflation is heightened as it poses a threat to the realization of Mr. Modi’s promised outcome following the 2024 general election: his re-election as the Prime Minister.
A paradox emerges from this scenario: Is India truly experiencing an improved state under Prime Minister Modi’s guidance, or is the situation not as positive as portrayed? The Prime Minister’s assertion that “we cannot be satisfied because our situation is better than the world” introduces a sense of ambiguity, suggesting that while India might be faring better on a global scale, there might still be underlying concerns. This implication attempts to distance the price escalation from the Prime Minister’s policies or political strategies by attributing it as a consequence of external factors, akin to an import.
Politically speaking, inflation poses a significant threat. It compels voters to compile a catalog of unaffordable necessities and the various factors hindering their acquisition. In certain cases, the burdens would be more manageable if there were adequately compensated positions for fathers, husbands, sons, and daughters. For others, navigating inflation would be less arduous with higher-paying and stable employment opportunities. This situation also brings to light concerns about unfulfilled commitments regarding the creation of numerous job prospects and the disappointing recruitment efforts by the government.
While Modi’s utilization of these intricate nuances to rationalize the prevailing sense of hardship might be perplexing, one thing remains unequivocal: he is actively exploring avenues to instill the belief in voters that they are progressing positively under his vigorous and determined leadership.
The prohibition on rice exports, discouragement of onion exports, and commitments to significant adjustments in house loan interest rates are all strategic maneuvers tailored with a singular objective — exerting authority over what can be referred to as the “remarkable anonymous display of citizenship,” essentially the act of voting.
Referred to as the “politics of the governed,” a term drawn from Prof. Partha Chatterjee’s book, this dynamic pursues every politician, as the harsh reality tends to intrude upon how people assess the accomplishments of a ruling party. In the presence of suffering, there exists a daunting potential for Indians to replicate their past actions, as seen in 1980 when surging onion prices played a role in the electoral downfall of the inaugural coalition government of the Janata Party. The resurgence of Indira Gandhi, despite her resolute rejection following the excesses of the Emergency era, by the very same electorate, stands as a piece of evidence that Narendra Modi cannot disregard. He must also bear in mind that in 2014, one of the factors contributing to his rise to power in New Delhi was the escalating fuel costs and the resulting financial difficulties endured by the voters’ households.
Time is swiftly diminishing for Modi. Inflation, akin to Nemesis, is in pursuit of the government. Failing to rein in inflation will be interpreted by voters as a sign of governmental inadequacy. At this juncture, Modi is unable to resort to his commonly preferred and successful strategies, which involve assigning blame to the Congress Party for governance shortcomings, criticizing the “parivaar vadi” for pursuing appeasement politics, highlighting the dynastic and corrupt nature of the Opposition, envisioning the grandeur of a Hindu Rashtra, and erasing the perceived “humiliation of a thousand years of subjugation” under various Muslim dynasties.
In actuality, Modi’s “assurance” of his return in 2024, along with his vision of guiding India through the “Amrit Kaal” towards becoming an economic powerhouse and joining the esteemed ranks of the world’s wealthiest nations, cannot conceal the noticeable absence of the onion’s essence in Indian households. Similarly, his pledge cannot change the reality that pizzas and burgers, cherished by the upwardly mobile, lack their usual flavor without tomatoes.
With the festival season approaching, there’s a collective requirement for funds among Indians to partake in the celebrations. Additionally, pivotal Assembly elections are on the horizon in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana, and Mizoram, all preceding the 2024 Lok Sabha vote. Following the BJP’s setbacks in the Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh elections, contests closely associated with his leadership, Modi now undoubtedly feels the pressure that inflation exerts on governing administrations worldwide.
“Time exhibits heterogeneity, with varying levels of density,” as observed by Prof. Chatterjee in “The Politics of the Governed.” The experiences of Modi, ensconced within the secure and sanitized confines of the Prime Minister’s office, diverge significantly from the realities faced by the common voter. What may seem like “achche din” (good days) during Modi’s assessment of his government’s performance can translate into trying times for the jobless Indian grappling with the challenges of unemployment. Data released in August by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy indicates that the overall unemployment rate declined to 7.95 percent in July, marking a decrease from June’s 8.45 percent. The advent of the monsoon has led to a surge in rural employment opportunities. Conversely, urban unemployment witnessed a rise from 7.87 percent to 8.06 percent.
Prime Minister Modi and the BJP currently face a dilemma: the Opposition, previously a fragmented collection of regional and smaller parties along with a demoralized Congress, used to be a considerably simpler adversary. However, the situation has transformed. These parties, once engaged in internal conflicts, have now coalesced into an alliance known as the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, despite their ideological diversity and historical rivalries. This alliance hasn’t prevented the Aam Aadmi Party or the Trinamul Congress from criticizing the Congress. Nonetheless, this alliance has ensured that despite these criticisms, the dialogue persists among the parties, fostering a cohesive strategy aimed at countering the BJP.
From the perspective of the BJP and Modi, the span between 2014 and onwards could be seen as the emergence of a golden era, marking the point when India left its history behind and embarked on a new trajectory. This optimism in Modi’s leadership was embraced by approximately half of India’s voters in 2019, while the other half held differing views.
Hence, it becomes crucial for the Prime Minister and the BJP to secure a sustained enchantment of voters through his charismatic appeal and pledges of a prosperous future. This should divert their focus away from a united Opposition that advocates for a shift away from Modi’s leadership, his grand oratory, and assurances of continuity. (The writer can be reached at email@example.com)