Some moments are so euphoric that we fail to hear and understand the ominous sounds hidden behind them. Such was the afternoon of 25 February. US President Donald Trump was there at Hyderabad House in New Delhi for the lunch hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Trump may have not eaten much that day, but he had a long chat with Modi. Trump’s wife Melania, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner were also there at the table. Away from the confines of diplomacy, this family chat went on for so long that a tea party organized by the US ambassador drew near.
When the guests started to leave, the discussion between Modi and the Trump family was still on. It was a common opinion among those who were attending the lunch that they had never seen this kind of relationship before.
However, everything was not normal. A few kilometres away from Hyderabad House, the government was struggling to control communal riots. There was also the fear of a recession, but everyone was of the opinion that these are temporary obstacles in a long journey. Covid-19 had already started to spread its terror outside China. But no one knew that we were moving towards the century’s biggest human tragedy.
As Modi enters the second year of his NDA-2 tenure, the pandemic is posing the biggest challenge to him. There is the issue of saving the lives of millions, while havoc on the economic front has obstructed the path towards progress.
The Centre is leaving no stone unturned, but the trauma of the pandemic is multifaceted and multifactorial. Now, when Lockdown 5.0 has already begun, it is clear that the whole process of lockdown could not stop the pandemic, and that the economic damage is much deeper.
When the path ahead is not clear, there is nothing wrong in turning the pages of history. Previous experiences are the best guide for future strategies. Let’s go to 1965 when India was attacked by Pakistan. Lal Bahadur Shastri put all emphasis of his policies on agriculture. He evaluated central planning and price control policies. In August 1965, he told Parliament that the government is going to lift many economic restrictions. He even wanted to devalue the rupee, but his finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari stood in the way, and was fired for this. Unfortunately, Shastri couldn’t survive for long. His successor Indira Gandhi continued with his policies; she even devalued the rupee by 57% in 1966. Later on, she moved ahead with bank nationalization and abolition of privy purses.
It’s believed that, till then, Indira Gandhi upheld the policies of Shastri. The Green Revolution and a whole lot of cement factories are actually a product of this era. It helped her to deal with the drought of 1967.
In 1979, during the Janata Party regime, the GDP fell below zero. After coming back to power in 1980, Indira Gandhi devised a new industrial policy and also formed a number of committees for trade and financial reforms. Though it seemed like a government of socialist jargons, the monopolies and restrictive trade practices Act was actually liberalized to increase the role of the private sector in large industries.
Modi is often compared with Indira Gandhi—no doubt there are some similarities, despite a number of differences. There are many such things that bring both the leaders together, like high-handed control of both the party and the government, guts to take a hard decision, a strong urge to defeat the opposition, commanding the mandate of the people and a proven record on diplomacy.
Look at the decisions taken by Modi in the past six years; while taking a hard decision, his stand was always firm. While carrying ahead the economic reforms, started in his last term in office, the virus crisis arrived. Now, the biggest question is, will he be able to overcome it?
For this, we have to look at his political journey. Everybody talks about removing obstacles from the path, but it is Modi who paved his way, entirely by himself, every time. He likes to adapt to difficulties. But this time around, he is faced with a pandemic. Now, the ‘Pradhan Sevak’ has written a letter to his countrymen, with an appeal to unite. Trust generated by dialogue with the common man was always his strength. Now, he is going to fight this battle with it.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin