On July 5, India overtook Russia to become the third country with the most COVID-19 infections in the world. Only the United States and Brazil were ahead of India on that date. Three days later, by July 8 evening, the country recorded yet another grievous milestone, with the highest single-day spike of 24,879 COVID cases. For nearly a fortnight before this, the daily average of new cases has been 20,000. Several State governments, including those in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, went back to total or near-total lockdowns stating that this was the only recourse they had at the moment to contain the spread of the disease. But, throughout this period, no proactive intervention or focused management initiative came from the Union government. In fact, these initiatives were conspicuous by their absence.
When asked about this, senior officials in the Union Home and Health Ministries said that right from Lockdown 4.0, the government had been driven by the perspective that combatting COVID was primarily the responsibility of State governments. A senior Health Ministry official working closely with the Prime Minister’s Office told Frontline: “It is this perspective that has prevailed through the last week of June and early July when the daily average of cases has consistently been around 20,000. There is no point in discussing the merits and demerits of such an approach now. Only time will tell whether this was right or not. Very many parts of the world, including economic powerhouses like the U.S., are throwing up comparable high average of new cases on a daily basis. And in such countries too, Central governments have left the COVID combat to regional and local bodies and are focussing more on rebuilding the economy. The leadership of our government also seems to be following the same approach.”
In their public pronouncements during late June and early July, the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance government, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, steadfastly refrained from addressing the alarming situation in relation to the surge of COVID cases. For the most part of June, the Prime Minister had to deal with India’s face-off with China on the border areas in eastern Ladakh. The long negotiations carried out at the diplomatic and military levels by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defence in this period were supplemented by the Prime Minister’s trademark pep talk in different forums. First, it was through his “Mann Ki Baat” radio programme and later, on the ground, during a “confidence boosting visit to Ladakh and interaction with the soldiers”. In between, the government imposed a ban on 59 Chinese apps in the digital space. Modi-centric media hailed this as a “massive digital surgical strike”.
After all this, the first week of July witnessed some concrete de-escalation in the India-China face-off, with troops on both sides shifting back marginally from their earlier positions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In this context, Modi started making one pronouncement after another on “major economic pursuits and projects”. On June 9, barely hours after India had recorded its highest single-day spike, Modi addressed a conference titled “India Global Week 2020”, organised by India Inc, a London-headquartered media house. The central point of his address was that “green shoots” of recovery were visible in India’s economy. He added that India remained “one of the most open economies in the world” and that global firms should unhesitatingly venture to invest in the country.
Modi went on to identify sectors that global companies could look at. These ranged from agriculture to defence and space, evidently following the massive sellout delineated by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the name of COVID relief package (“An empty package”, Frontline, June 5, 2020). He said: “We are laying a red carpet for all global companies to come and establish their presence in India. Very few countries will offer the kind of opportunities that India does today. There are many possibilities and opportunities in various sunrise sectors in India…. There are also investment opportunities in the defence sector. With relaxed FDI [foreign direct investment] norms, one of the world’s biggest militaries invites you to come and make products for it. There are more opportunities now for private investment in the country’s space sector. There is also a market of millions of digitally empowered aspirational thinkers. Imagine the kind of products you can make for them.”
Referring to the “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) slogan he had coined amidst the multiple lockdowns that began on March 24, he asserted that the idea was to link domestic production and consumption with global supply chains. “Atmanirbhar Bharat is not about being self-contained or being closed to the world, it is about being self-sustaining and self-generating,” Modi said.
A day later, on July 10, inaugurating a massive 750-megawatt solar power plant in Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa, Modi went back to the idea of self-reliance and asserted that India must work towards reducing import dependency on solar panels and related equipment. “We need to speed up our production capacity of solar modules… and solar batteries should be made in India. We need to speed up all work in these areas.” Political and economic observers perceive this emphasis as something directly linked to the recent India-China military conflict and the battle that ensued in the trade and digital spaces. According to Union Power Minister R.K. Singh, until last year, one-third of Indian power infrastructure requirements were imported from China.
Following the Prime Minister’s lead, other BJP Ministers and leaders of the NDA constituents have been in recent times repeatedly focussing on issues relating to economic revival. One thing they constantly highlight is that the country’s pharmaceutical sector has played a crucial role in providing access to affordable medicines all through the pandemic. They have also been reiterating Modi’s views that India has an important role to play in producing and scaling up supplies of a COVID-19 vaccine as and when it is discovered.
Scepticism on growth
Economic affairs experts, however, view this show of confidence and optimism by sections of the ruling dispensation with scepticism (see story on page 72). Writing in Indian Express on how India’s management of lockdowns aggravated the virus infection, Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President at the World Bank and currently C Marks Professor at Cornell University, pointed out that “the IMF has predicted India will end up with a growth rate of -4.5 per cent in 2020, which will be the lowest growth India has seen since 1979. India’s growth, which had already been on a steady downward trajectory for two years before the pandemic, has now dropped even lower. There was an expectation that capital would move out of China because of the pandemic, and India would be a beneficiary. But that has not happened. The big beneficiary seems to be Vietnam and a few other nations, and, ironically, China seems to be holding back a lot of its foreign investment. The unemployment rate in India in May climbed to an astonishing 23.5 per cent, compared to Brazil’s 12.6 per cent, the U.S’s 13.3 per cent and China’s 6 per cent. China’s official data on unemployment needs to be taken with caution, I hasten to add. But that does not detract from India’s disproportionate poor economic performance and the fact that this price was paid for no purpose.”
Basu went on to explain how the management of lockdowns impacted the spread of the virus and consequently the economy. “Quite how this policy disaster happened will take time to uncover. But one thing has now become clear. The way in which the lockdown was executed, the lockdown itself became the source of the virus’s spread. By having people huddle together, infecting one another, and then having the same people travel hundreds of miles, the pandemic has been made much worse than it need have been.”
Ground-level reports from different parts of the country, including Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State, underscore the travails of the common people, especially the marginalised sections of society, as a consequence of the unscientific imposition of the first lockdown and the mismanagement of the situation thereafter.
The BJP leadership seems to have grasped the implications of these perspectives put forward by economic affairs specialists like Basu and the feedback from the ground. Sensational, at times ridiculous, controversies generated by BJP leaders, including party president J.P. Nadda, seem to be part of their desperate effort to divert attention from the ordeals inflicted on the people by the galloping pandemic and its economic impact. At one point, they even went to the extent of challenging former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s “moral and political authority” to question the Modi government on the India-China imbroglio on the grounds that he had not attended a few meetings of the Standing Committee of Parliament on Defence. This “attack” was led from the front by none other than Nadda.
This was followed by an eviction notice issued to Priyanka Gandhi, Congress general secretary and Rahul Gandhi’s sister, to vacate the government bungalow allotted to her in central Delhi. However, this did not generate the level of hue and cry that was expected because Priyanka Gandhi responded immediately to the notice expressing her readiness to vacate.
However, senior leaders of the Congress, including Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, deplored the government‘s action as a clear case of “vendetta”. Azad pointed out that the classification of threat perception of Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi remained in category “Z”, along with that of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda. “Their threat perception remains the same, though the protecting agency has been changed from the SPG [Special Protection Group] by a stroke of the pen. So, in many ways, it is a kind of cheap and petty trickery, a manipulation that has been done by the government,” Azad said.
Commenting on the overall situation, Samajwadi Party president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said that that the whole effort was aimed at diverting attention from the pressing concerns of the people and a debilitating economy. “Big, but hollow proclamations on economic prospects without any basis on facts and the actual situation abound at one level even as hundreds of thousands of people despair without food and medical attention across the country. Supplement this with diversionary and sensational controversies on one issue or the other. This is the modus operandi that has been followed by the BJP leadership.”
He was also of the view that these desperate tactics were getting more and more exposed as has been proved by the frenetic actions and intemperate statements of BJP leaders, from Nadda to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Akhilesh Yadav, however, said that the physical limitations imposed by the pandemic was, in a way, saving the BJP and State governments run by it and at the Centre from forceful expressions of public resentment on mismanagement of public health concerns and economic challenges.