Losing the plot

Venky Vembu | Updated on January 04, 2019

Photo credit: NAGARA GOPAL

Entering an election year, the Modi government no longer controls the economic or political narrative

In 1984, the communication scholar Walter Fisher propounded the “Narrative Paradigm” theory, which envisioned the world as being shaped by multiple stories vying with one another for acceptance. People either accepted or rejected the “truthfulness” of competing strands in these stories. In Fisher’s framework, “stories” are more persuasive than “arguments”, a notion that challenged the Aristotelian “rational-world paradigm”, which placed a premium on the rationality of humans and the persuasive power of logic.

The “narrative paradigm” concept has been harnessed by political pundits to judge the effectiveness of political candidates and their narratives, and it is a truth universally acknowledged by political theorists that the leader who controls the narrative controls history and defines the future.

As the Narendra Modi government lurches into 2019 and into the final months of its five-year term, it will have reason to reflect on its incapacity to seize the economic and political narrative by the scruff of its neck with the same vigour that it demonstrated even two years ago. The BJP’s recent string of losses in Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has effectively punctured the bubble of perceived invincibility of the Modi-Amit Shah combine. And, yet, the more serious failing for the party is the fact that it is seen today as being not the agenda-setting juggernaut that it was in the run-up to (and a short while beyond) the 2014 elections. Instead, it is largely being viewed as a ragtag outfit that has been dragged down into a cycle of reactive — and regressive — responses.

Even when the Opposition’s campaign offensives have rested on pillars of bad economics or outright mendacity, the BJP has in recent times demonstrated a fickle adherence to its core principles, and descended too readily from a high ground into matching me-too populism. Such a climbdown not only reveals a desperation evidently born of these electoral reversals, it also puts at risk the few gains the party had harvested from its erstwhile abidance of sound economic policies.

Illustratively, one of the few areas in which the NDA government had distinguished itself from its predecessor was in its fidelity to fiscal prudence and its taming of the inflation genie. But caught up in competitive populism, which it erroneously sees as a vote winner, it has jeopardised much of those gains. Worse, it risks unnerving the bond and currency markets with its pointless tug-of-war with the RBI and the perception that it is looking to raid the central bank’s reserves to bankroll its election-year spending.

Even with the goods and services tax (GST), finance minister Arun Jaitley had expended much political goodwill in holding out for a multi-tier framework with a peak rate of 28 per cent. But after Congress president Rahul Gandhi caricatured the GST as a “Gabbar Singh Tax” (an uncharitable characterisation that appears to have gained traction among sections of small businesses, which are still to come to terms with its complexities), the government caved in. Jaitley agreed to an eventual phaseout of the 28 per cent slab and a single standard GST rate — an idea he had until recently dismissed as “stupid”.

A willingness to be persuaded by a more compelling argument may, of course, be seen as a welcome manifestation of openness of mind — a rarity in politically polarised times such as these. But, in this instance, it is hard not to see it as the feckless capitulation of a party that has lost its nerve as well as the narrative.

There are several factors that account for why the tide turned against the NDA government. Some of it is centred on the BJP’s failure to deliver on its election promises and to manage the heightened expectations they gave rise to. As the putative challenger in the run-up to the 2014 elections, Modi had roared with a thunderous Thatcherite conviction about the merits of “minimum government”. But in these four-plus years, his government has expanded the areas of invasiveness into people’s lives and, more generally, made little headway in staunching the flow of good money after bad to unproductive sectors of the economy.

Which is perhaps why, as it heads into 2019, the government finds itself on the back foot over its management of the economy, and for that reason feels rather more inclined to stoke political polarisation with a nativist narrative.

As if these regressive domestic impulses weren’t bad enough, the external economic environment, too, is fraught with many perils in the year ahead. In the US, Donald Trump’s border brinkmanship, which partially shut down the administration in the short term, will likely be compounded by moves to impeach him when the Democrat-controlled House reconvenes. And over in the Disunited Kingdom, the prospects of a “hard Brexit” have the potential to whip up yet more market turmoil. Nearer home, China’s economy, worn down by Trump’s tariffs, appears headed for a hard landing.

All these forewarnings point to grim times ahead, which even in normal circumstances would have challenged the economic stewardship of the government of the day. Throw in an election year, a fractious polity, and a race to the bottom in making populist promises, and we may be sailing into a perfect storm in 2019.



Venky Vembu is Associate Editor, BusinessLine;


Published on January 04, 2019

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