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Down to the wire

Venky Vembu | Updated on February 08, 2019

Chink in the armour: Populist giveaways signal an inherent nervousness in a leader who has otherwise claimed that he does not pander to the lowest common denominator of expectations   -  Bloomberg

The BJP reckons that with the Budget, Modi has ‘done a Dhoni’ and will carry it through to electoral victory

On the afternoon of February 1, barely minutes after interim finance minister Piyush Goyal, his voice reduced to a reedy rasp, began winding down his Budget speech in Parliament with the de rigueur poetic flourish (which was virtually drowned out by the extraordinary, high-decibel ‘Modi-Modi’ chants by BJP members), a meme began circulating on social media platforms.

It was a straightforward Photoshop job of an iconic image from India’s cricketing history; it was striking in its simplicity, and like the best of copy-paste art that characterises the insta-pundit ‘pop-art’ editorials of our times, its message was instantly relatable to anyone who follows the fortunes of the Indian team.

The meme invoked a moment from India’s thrilling victory over Sri Lanka in the final of the 2011 World Cup: It depicted then-skipper MS Dhoni belting a six in the penultimate over to take India to victory, while the rival team’s wicketkeeper-captain KC Sangakkara watches in stunned frustration. In the digitally-doctored version, it was Narendra Modi who was ‘doing a Dhoni’; Rahul Gandhi was the bamboozled opponent. Like Dhoni, the consummate finisher, Modi would carry his team home to (electoral) victory with this budgetary equivalent of a late-inning flourish, the cartoon suggested.

The cricketing parallels that equate Modi with ‘Mahi’ are not entirely specious. Both are barrel-chested players who command enormous fan-bhakti; both fuse Chanakyan stratagems with an ability to take the Opposition by the scruff of the neck; both have a phenomenal record of success in their respective fields; and even until recently, both have seen their reputations as ‘finishers’ with a golden touch called into question.

To an extent, the BJP-led government’s last Budget of its term does count as a Dhoni-esque finish, complete with crowd-pleasing sixes in the form of giveaways to farmers, to the middle class — and, indeed, to every constituency that felt aggrieved after five years of Modinomics.

But whereas in limited-overs cricket, a late surge and batting pyrotechnics make for a thrilling finish and generally elevate the protagonist to the status of an unvarnished hero, politics is rather more unforgiving. Populist giveaways may be crowd-pleasing, but they also signal an inherent nervousness in a leader who has otherwise claimed that he does not pander to the lowest common denominator of expectations. In fact, the Modi government has made something of a virtue of its claim that it does not shy away from taking tough decisions, however unpopular they may be in the short term.

To an extent, that last claim is serviceable. This government has, over the past five years, harnessed its parliamentary majority to put in place a framework for insolvency and bankruptcy proceedings, which has had erstwhile barons running scared of losing their family jewels, so to speak.

And even though the goods and services tax (GST) framework has proved disruptive for businesses owing to its complexity and imperfect design, the BJP did give a decisive nudge to the process of framing a unified national market, which had been in the ‘jaw-jaw’ phase for over 15 years.

Likewise even though the demonetisation exercise was disastrous, the government’s muscular efforts in ensuring better tax compliance have yielded positive results, as reflected in, among other data points, the improved tax-to-GDP ratio.

Taken with the legislative effort to ensure greater accountability among the real estate lobby and to protect buyers, these are all definitive markers of the government’s performance over these five years.

Goyal did, in fact, use his Budget oration to trumpet these achievements. But rather than go on the front foot on just the strength of these accomplishments, the government was evidently unnerved enough by a string of unflattering data points — in the days leading up to the Budget — to resort to fail-safe populism. The data in respect of unemployment, in particular, was so shocking that the government sought to bury the official NSSO survey report that bore the bad tidings.

Unemployment data is, in fact, notoriously hard to capture, particularly since the fundamentals of the job market have changed dramatically in recent years. But instead of putting the numbers out and grappling with their complexities and getting ahead of the narrative, the government made a ham-handed effort to discredit it with ludicrous claims about anecdotal evidence of employment opportunities. For its efforts, the government had to bear the ignominy of seeing two official statisticians resign, further undermining the credibility of its data and damning its unsubtle attempts to massage it.

Even the backdated upward revision of GDP data, barely days before the Budget, appeared calculated to give the government the elbow-room to throw money around without blowing up the debt-to-GDP ratio and spooking the bond market.

For the moment, however, and despite the swirl of bad headlines, the BJP reckons that the Budget giveaways have helped it seize the narrative from the Opposition and put it on the path to victory. The Opposition’s muted response, too, bears out its own limitations. But for all the theatrics of recent days, this political match is far from over. As the immortal Bette Davis says in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

 

Venky Vembu is Associate Editor, BusinessLine; venky.vembu@thehindu.co.in

Published on February 08, 2019

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