Back in those dimly-remembered days of 2014, before “Achhe Din” was a punchline, it was a promise. It was a promise, of course, to India in general: of better days for the country, freed from a government that must have been among the most widely detested since independence. But it also was a promise to Indians in particular: that they would start to do better. We don’t know for certain how many of Narendra Modi’s voters really believed that second promise. But many people think it was those voters – young, angry, determined to seek their fortune – who put him over the top in India’s north and west.
In the three-plus years since, it’s hard to say that Modi has done right by them. That’s clear from the increasingly grim news about job losses, particularly in small and medium enterprises. And whatever numbers we can access on the subject of employment – the estimates from manufacturers’ organisations, or from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy – aren’t hopeful, either. The government has pooh-poohed these numbers. Of course it has. But it doesn’t have any alternatives to present, either. Oh, Arvind Panagariya, before departing NITI Aayog, had promised a more detailed survey of employment. But – whether out of the general slowness of government bureaucracies, or for some more sordid political reason – it doesn’t look like we’ll have those numbers till the 2019 general election is practically upon us. We won’t know exactly how badly Modi has failed to keep his promise.
Recently, the Prime Minister’s new Economic Advisory Council or EAC met for the first time. It produced an ambitious 10-point focus agenda, and while insisting that any slowdown in growth was a blip, it did at least suggest that jobs were beginning to be a problem. Of course, Modi and Amit Shah are already aware of this. The Bharatiya Janata Party president has taken to talking of “job creators” instead of job-seekers. Government ministers are echoing that line – Railway Minister Piyush Goyal came out and said that the fact that companies were cutting jobs was “a very good sign”. This may be a first in the history of the world. I’m not sure any other elected official has ever said that the private sector downsizing is a “good sign”. Goyal’s argument was that “the youth of tomorrow” wants to be a “job creator” and that “more and more people are wanting to be entrepreneurs”. This is puzzling. If more and more people genuinely want to be entrepreneurs, then companies downsizing is still not good news. Those who want to be entrepreneurs can go off peacefully and be entrepreneurs, and if companies weren’t cutting positions, that would leave fewer people in the labour market with more jobs available – meaning higher wages. In fact, people are being forced to become entrepreneurs. It remains to be seen if the BJP’s propaganda machinery is so very expert that it can convince all these people who have been forced to become entrepreneurs that it is, in fact, by their own choice. If they manage that, then I suppose they deserve to win 2019 on chutzpah alone, however many promises they may break.
Still, there’s no doubt that there’s at least some amount of discontent at the state of the economy, and how it has affected people’s personal fortunes. That this has not rebounded on Modi as yet is not just a function of the enormous faith that so many place in the Prime Minister, but also the fact that there is a constant sense that the government is “doing something”. It is, in fact, doing very little on the jobs front – running in circles at best – but it is certainly emitting a lot of noise. The truth is that it has effectively scuppered its own skill development scheme by ducking away from the targets it had itself set for the number of people skilled; and that it has, through its completely senseless demonetisation and its poorly-planned GST rollout, reduced the incentives for any enterprise to take on more personnel and thus create jobs.
If the job-loss narrative is ever to have any political salience at all, then it would need to be wielded by an opposition that knows what it is doing. Corruption under the United Progressive Alliance turned into a big issue because of the skillful manner in which the India Against Corruption campaign was managed, and then through Modi’s constant references in his speeches to the subject. So what is Rahul Gandhi doing about it? He is certainly trying: in Gujarat he spoke frequently about how China created 50,000 jobs a day, but the Modi government created 450. I’m not sure where he got those figures from, but they’re certainly eye-catching – and that matters more than footnotes in politics these days, I suppose. Yet Gandhi isn’t going to manage to focus the anger – because he doesn’t have much of a plan to make things better. He insisted that Modi was focusing on “big companies” whereas the Congress would protect smaller enterprises and cooperatives. “The old Gujarat model under which Amul prospered”, he insisted, was the answer to job losses in 2017. This is not a forward-looking solution, it’s going to enthuse precisely nobody. Nor is it strong on details. You can either be a brilliant communicator with not much substance, like Modi, or you can have a detailed plan to convince people you know what you’re doing. Gandhi is never going to be the former; why hasn’t he tried the latter, at least?
Still, Gandhi’s not in power now, and he may never be in power. The person who is in power, and looks comfortably ensconced in it at that, is Narendra Modi. It’s his thinking on jobs we really need to know about. So far he has dismissed reports of the slowdown as exaggerated. But when will he himself acknowledge that he has failed to live up to his promises? That, for so many people, Achhe Din have just not arrived? Will we have to wait till 2024 for that admission?
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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