Inflation prompts voters to begin listing all the things that he or she cannot afford and all the reasons why he/she cannot do so.
From the ramparts of Delhi’s historic Red Fort, the long-winded speech that Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered on August 15 painted a picture of a shining India racing to fulfil its destiny as a glorious success. He also confessed that inflation was a problem that he had not succeeded in controlling. He promised that he would do more to contain it soon.
Days later, to curb inflation, the Modi government announced that it was putting together a Rs 1 trillion fund that would be used to bring down inflation. The money, the government announced, would be collected by trimming the budgets of various ministries because the 15-month-high in terms of inflation, reflected in the surge in tomato and onion prices and fuel costs, imperils the outcome that Mr Modi guaranteed would follow from the general election in 2024: his return as Prime Minister.
There is a contradiction here. What is the truth? Is India doing better under Mr Modi’s leadership or is it not? The Prime Minister said that “we cannot be satisfied because our situation is better than the world”, implying that the price rise was an import and had nothing to do with either his policies or his politics.
Inflation is, politically, a real menace. It prompts voters to begin listing all the things that he or she cannot afford and all the reasons why he/she cannot do so. For some the hardships would be easier to bear if the father-husband-son-daughter had decently paid jobs. For others, inflation would be easier to cope with if she had a better paid secure job. It raises questions about broken promises of crores of job opportunities and the dismal recruitment by the government.
Confusing as these subtleties employed by Mr Modi are to excuse the current state of deprivation that people are experiencing, there is no probability of misunderstanding that he is frantically searching for ways to make voters feel that they are doing better under his dynamic and resolute leadership.
The ban on rice exports, the disincentive on export of onions, promises of major tweaks in the rate of interest on house loans are all moves that are calibrated to serve one purpose — control over “the great anonymous performance of citizenship”, that is votes.
The “politics of the governed,” to borrow the title of Prof. Partha Chatterjee’s book, chases all politicians, because reality has a nasty way of intruding into how people verify the performance of a ruling party. If there is pain, then there is the scary possibility that Indians can do what they have done before, in 1980, when runaway onion prices contributed to the election defeat of the first coalition Janata Party government. The return of Indira Gandhi, after her decisive rejection, following the excesses of the Emergency years, by the same electorate, is data that Narendra Modi cannot ignore. He cannot forget that in 2014, one of the contributing factors to his ascendance to power in New Delhi was the rising cost of fuel and the hardship it inflicted on voters’ household budgets.
Time is running out for Mr Modi. Inflation, like Nemesis, is chasing the government. Not being able to bring inflation under control will be read by voters as poor performance of the government. At this point, Mr Modi cannot revert to his most favoured and successful tactics, blaming the Congress Party for its failures of governance, the politics of appeasement pursued by the “parivaar vadi”, dynastic and corrupt Opposition, the splendours awaiting the faithful when a Hindu Rashtra is established and the “humi-liation of a thousand years of enslavement” under various Muslim dynasties is erased.
The reality is that Mr Modi’s “guarantee” that he will be back in 2024 and he will lead India during the “Amrit Kaal” to install the country as an economic superpower and a member of the elite club of the world’s richest nations can’t mask the absence of the flavour of onions in Indian kitchens. Nor can his guarantee alter the fact that pizzas and burgers, a favourite food of the upwardly mobile, no longer taste the same without tomatoes.
The festival season is looming ahead and all Indians need money to celebrate. And Assembly elections are due in the crucial states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram before the Lok Sabha vote in 2024. After the BJP’s defeats in the Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh elections, which were fought in his name, Mr Modi has every reason to feel the stress that inflation imposes on ruling governments everywhere in the world.
“Time is heterogeneous, unevenly dense,” Prof. Chatterjee noted in The Politics of the Governed. The experiences of Mr Modi, cocooned in the secure and sanitised space of the Prime Minister’s office, are very different from the experiences of the ordinary voter. What appears to be “achche din” when Mr Modi reviews the performance of his government can be very bad days for the out of work Indian who is going through the hardship of being unemployed. Data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy in August shows that the total joblessness rate fell to 7.95 per cent in July, down from 8.45 per cent in June. With the onset of the monsoon, rural employment has picked up. Urban unemployment, however, increased from 7.87 per cent to 8.06 per cent.
The problem for Prime Minister Modi and the BJP is that the Opposition, earlier a disunited gaggle of regional parties, smaller parties and a demoralised Congress, was an infinitely easier foe. Now, instead of being at each other’s throats, these parties, ideologically diverse and often rivals in reality, have formally entered into an alliance, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. The alliance has not stopped the Aam Aadmi Party or the Trinamul Congress lambasting the Congress. But the alliance has ensured that even after such lashing out, the dialogue does not stop between the parties for a unified strategy to defeat the BJP.
For the BJP and Mr Modi, the period from 2014 perhaps looks like the dawn of the golden age, when India shed its past and began walking into a different future. About 50 per cent of India’s voters shared this confidence in Mr Modi’s leadership in 2019. The remaining 50 per cent did not.
It is, therefore, imperative for the Prime Minister and the BJP to ensure that enough voters continue to be beguiled by his charisma and promises of a brilliant future instead of paying attention to a unifying Opposition which promises a change from Mr Modi and his mega speeches and guarantees of more of the same.