Is 2019 a Year That Makes or Breaks India?

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(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

The course India likely to traverse in 2019 is disruptive and destructive; quite uncertain and unpredictable. Thus, peace essential for harmony, progress and prosperity is a utopian expectation.

In the face of unending unrests and turmoil engulfing the nation both from internal and external events and developments, is “2019 a year that makes or breaks India?” A million dollar question!

Quite often in the past over five decades, experts and intellectuals have been highlighting that India has the potential to emerge as a power to reckon with in regional and international affairs.  Also, it was academic fashion to highlight that “India is poised at cross roads”.  Yet, India was unable to realize its full potential.

Why? It is primarily due to corruption besides crises in leadership and national values. Almost all Prime Minister’s from I K Gujral day’s highlighted “corruption as the most heinous national security threat” and vowed “Zero Tolerance against Corruption”, yet none could stem the rot.

In particular, the turbulent past 12 months that engulfed and ravaged the country is an indication or prism through which one wants to view what lies ahead in future, it would only lay bare quite grim portends due to highly disruptive events unfolding in days ahead what with highly adversarial and cantankerous political narratives spun viciously by partisan media and on social media networks during pre poll campaigning of Lok Sabha elections in May 2019.

Rival contenders in pursuit of power will indulge in personality denigration of the most despicable order – make false allegations, viciously spin and spread malicious narratives against each other.   Yet, they will hail themselves highly worthy leaders fit to rule the nation and serve the people.

Most aptly, the current state of India can be compared to a rudderless ship traversing the high seas in a political slugfest or tempest perilously poised to sink.

Viewed in the above framework, chaos and anarchy will be real in all dimensions of national security interests – political, social, economy, technology and security forces. Forlorn hope it is to expect political leaders to change direction from self aggrandizement and political survival towards national security interests. Populist appeasement vote bank politics are bound to be on grand display with development issues shelved into background.

Importantly, “Unity in Diversity” is a bogey and fraud. Often political leaders, academic scholars and intellectuals invoke the ‘phrase’ whilst in the same vein indulge in vote bank politics through minority appeasement politics. In reality, political and social unity is a mirage and illusion.  National integration is the least concern of political, social and civic society leaders with all alike promoting and consolidating partisan ends aided and abetted by internal and external patrons.

Everyone is privy to mutilation of the tenets of democracy – negotiation, conciliation and consensus.  Disrupting, degrading and decaying democracy is on daily basis in both houses of the Parliament.  Its fallout spills over with cacophony in visual media channels followed by protests, gheraos, bandh’s, rail and road Rasta Roko events to paralyze normal and peaceful ways of life for the common people and even destruction of government properties.

Most important, few are really concerned with promoting, consolidating and advancing nationalism and patriotism.  All of them are working at cross purposes in consolidating and advancing a fierce sense of patriotism and nationalism.

Ipso facto, political leaders and parties are squarely responsible for promoting, patronizing and polarizing vested interest groups on narrow sectarian caste and communal lines promising to protect common man’s interests through reservations and a fair and just share of power, wealth and status. Most bizarre, leaders of such vested interest groups, once elected, rally and form opportunistic alliances, sans ideologies, in pursuit of power.  Once in power, they forget about the interests of their interest groups.  Under such scenario of politically divisive and socially disruptive developments, how can one expect and hope for political sanity to prevail. As elections unfold observers may opine that democracy is backsliding or even dying.

Mistrust and distrust will shape and escalate disruptive or destructive politics in the name of democracy. No end to vilification and demonization of political leaders of all shades in pursuit of power. Their bellicose rhetoric will be ‘no holds barred’.  Center-state relations will remain contentious.   No constraints on name calling of each other like the Prime Minister as “Chowkidar Chor Bangaya” and so on.

Crorepathis’ will dominate the “battle of the ballot Boxes”.  Large number of rebels will be in the electoral fray. No effort will be spared to influence and sway voter’s opinions by recourse to money, muscle and liquor power.

The end result is a foregone conclusion.  Democracy will be “of the few, by the few and for the few” particularly dynasty-centric breeding neo-Maharajahs and criminals masquerading as leaders.

Add to them, external State and Non-State actors pouring in financial aid to political leaders and parties to gain leverage to achieve their end objectives, mostly contra India’s national security interests.

Following Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy, the world order is in a dynamic flux. Whilst nations have been balancing “Hard Power” with “Soft Power” associated with “Smart Power”, a new term is emerging as the norm – “Sharp Power”.  There are a whole host of issues, ranging from the technological battle between the West and China to questions about the development of artificial intelligence, the militarization of space etc.  What does it imply for India? A strong and decisive leader at the helm of affairs with “India Dream and Vision” to steer the course of the nation in the turbulence of international affairs.

In the domestic scene, critical social flash points that will carry forward into 2019 include “Ram Mandir and Sabarimala issues; reservations for OBCs, Women and Muslim minorities; Triple Talaq; Rapes; lynching; etc” under the overall rubric of “Secularism vs. Communalism” framework.

In the political arena, rivalry and competition among political parties are bound to intensify. Common feature will be “Opportunistic” pre poll alliances. Mahaghatabandhan and Federal Front will oppose BJP led NDA resulting in a triangular electoral contest. Fractured verdict appears a distinct prospect. Stability of ‘post poll alliances” is any ones guess.

Next, no end to internal security threats proliferation. J & K will remain on boil. Cross border sponsored terrorism may further escalate what with the ISIS also joining the fray with the American withdrawal from the Middle East and Afghanistan. Islamist radical groups under alien patronage and doles will continue to attempt launching terror strikes, albeit sporadically.  Left extremism violence will remain sporadic. In the Northeast, there will be sporadic insurgent strikes before the 2019 elections. Any peace breakthroughs will be dependent on outcome of 2019 elections.

On the economic front, among many promises Modi made during poll campaign in 2014, economic growth based on “Sabke Sath, San Ka Vikas”, that is, all inclusive growth and development through creation of jobs for millions of young people remains a Himalayan challenge.   As per economic experts, “the election is likely to prove a turning point for the economy.”

India’s economy surged ahead in the first half of 2018 after spending much of the previous year recovering from a tax overhaul and a shock decision by Modi to ban most of the country’s cash. As per data in public domain, growth accelerated to 8.2% in the quarter ended June 2018, the fastest rate of any major economy. India still holds that distinction, but growth pulled back sharply to 7.1% in the most recent quarter. The GDP growth may remain upwards of 7+.

Yet another key economic issue is unemployment, which will remain major source of concern. The recent study at Azim Premji University concluded that an “increase in unemployment is clearly visible all across India.” Around 12 million Indians enter the workforce every year. None is interested in controlling population explosion which is the root cause of unemployment and poverty.

Unemployment is also behind agitations on job reservations even by dominant castes (Marathas, Patidars, Jats, Kapus, etc.) and behind the mobilization of lumpen elements of the political party affiliates in various incidents of extortion in the name of cow protection and minority lynching’s.

Turmoil in the Reserve Bank of India is also real. Former central bank Chief Urjit Patel stepped down abruptly in early December. In his place, Shaktikanta Das, a former government finance official, was appointed. There are concerns over RBI’s autonomy given his close ties with the government. The government is reportedly pressuring the bank to do more to boost growth ahead of the election.

Rupee-dollar depreciation is a real. It has hit a series of record lows in 2018 and ranks as one of Asia’s worst-performing currencies.  Despite a slight recovery of late, it is still down 10% against the US dollar. The currency will weaken further in 2019 because of political uncertainty around the election and concerns. Recovery of dues of NPAs will remain a major issue.

Fluctuating oil and gas prices will bound to have economic and political backlash. But as one of the world’s biggest energy importers, any spike or fluctuations in oil and gas prices could hit India hard. The US ‘Waiver” to import oil and gas from Iran would expire sooner than later. What next?

Farmer’s distress will depend on monsoons and remunerative minimum support price even in 2019. Farm loan waivers as ways and means to achieve farmers debt burdens year after year is not the right strategy particularly when barely the relief reaches only the privileged few.  So also, there are many loopholes in the Rythu Bandhu income support to Telangana farmers.  Tenant farmers and agricultural workers who constitute the work force remain outside their ambit. The highly defective loan waiver programme, if applied to all states in India, will easily cost more than 4 trillion rupees.

Recently both BJP (around election time in UP and Maharashtra) and Congress (in Punjab, and now Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh) have indulged in bank loan waivers for farmers. In principle, it is a bad economic idea.  Ipso facto, more than two- thirds of our farmers are marginal farmers with less than 1 hectare of land, continue to borrow from private lenders at exorbitant interest rates.

The farm distress is ultimately because of low productivity (due to lack of enough irrigation, cold storage and extension service, apart from the effects of climate change). Also, streamlining the farm-to-spoon marketing mechanism remains unaddressed by all political parties over many decades.

Many of proposed reforms and policies, particularly land acquisition and labor laws, have not yet materialized. Few experts believe that election victory for Modi could provide space to re-energize his reform agenda after a lackluster 2018. Modi could seek to cut red tape for business and further open India to foreign investment, Shah said.

Poverty remains the most acutely felt economic problem. While most measures suggest that only around one-fifth of the population today is under the official poverty line, large sections of them even much above that line are subject to brutal economic insecurities of various kinds (due to weather or health risks, market fluctuations, job uncertainties, etc.). Yet another populist welfare measure is the Universal Basic Income Supplement (UBIS) currently viewed as an anti-poverty programme. But what about the fiscal cost of UBIS? Can the ruling regime ever attempt to mobilize additional funds amounting to 10% of GDP through taxes without a backlash from the middle class?

In sum, populist initiatives like writing off bank loans of industrialists, farmers, unemployment doles etc., will certainly be promised by political parties with none of them fulfilling them once elected.

Most bizarre recently is the claim of reaching US$5000 trillion GDP by 2022. With the GDP in 2017 at US $.2600, even if India’s grows at ‘twin digits’,  the achievement of US $.5000 trillion by 2022 is a virtual impossibility. Experts must stop spinning such wild theories.

Nonetheless, the only silver lining is in the technology field particularly the Space Technology.  Kudos goes to the scientists of Space Department for their superb achievements – the real Shining Department.  All others pale into insignificance before its achievements particularly the HAL, DRDO Labs and other public sector organizations whose products have not yet attained competitive parity with others on the international field. Cyber security and hacking will assume strategic significance.

Next, there is lip service done on the “Real Modernization of all Security Forces” that includes various services of the armed forces, the Central Para Military Forces, Central Armed Police Forces structurally streamlined and integrated, doctrines advanced and logistically supported. No CDS; No Integrated Theatre Commands; and logistics downsizing. Decision makers remain oblivious to three lessons of mankind: “t is not the size of the dog that counts; but the size of the fight in the dog that counts”; “It is not the quantity that counts; but the quality that counts”; and “Security forces overstretch trap beyond economic sustaining capability of the nation ultimately results in collapse of nations.”

Finally, the institutional framework based on the bureaucracy, judiciary and even the media wants to retain its status quo ante with least political interference. They refuse to accept their status of atrophy responsible for failure of delivery at the implementation or grass roots level.  No to reforms!

In sum, 2019 promises to be yet another year full of sensational crises events and developments in all fields. The only solace is that the “Great Indian Society” will continue to absorb proliferation of shocks in all fields and indomitably traverse on its course caught in the tempest and remain afloat despite the “Blindmen and Bungling political leaders and bureaucrats” at the helm of affairs.

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