India now has the second highest number of people infected with COVID-19 after overtaking Brazil. The Congress party has seized the opportunity to castigate the government on this front, blaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP government.
Rahul Gandhi tweeted on Monday morning: “Modi Government drags the country into crisis and starts acting like Ostrich instead of finding solutions to the problems. The country is leading every wrong race – be it Coronavirus infection or fall in GDP growth rate.”
What is especially bothersome is the setback that the economy has suffered.
After the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the world was staring at a pandemic of exceptional virility, Prime Minister Modi imposed one of the severest lockdowns anywhere in the world. Mindful of the consequences of this action, he asked for the citizens’ understanding. “Possibly many would be angry with me for being locked in their homes,” he had said, insisting in the same breath that there was “no other way to wage war against the coronavirus”.
This was a blow to India’s largely informal economy. Lockdown restrictions wiped out jobs and businesses. This economic disruption came as a shock to the Prime Minister and his advisors. As GDP figures go, the economy shrank by 23.9 per cent in the second quarter of calendar 2020 compared to the same quarter in 2019 – the steepest decline among countries that make up the Group of 20.
Before the economy was hit by the virus, India’s GDP was around $2.9 trillion, making it the world’s fifth-largest economy — behind the US, China, Japan and Germany. The Prime Minister had unveiled plans to turn India into a $5 trillion economy by 2024.
Reaching the $5 trillion by 2024 had portent political dimensions. The country will hold another general election that year which Modi hopes to win, making him only the second leader after India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru to pull of three successive victories at the hustings.
The game seems to have changed. Economist and analysts argue that the economy is likely to slip further as the pandemic promises to rip through the system. India’s economy has not contracted for two consecutive quarters – the definition of a recession – for the last 40 years. But today, a recession is staring the Prime Minister in the face. Output contracted in eight core industries – including steel, cement, natural gas, petroleum – by double-digit percentages in July 2020 (as compared to the previous year). Consumer spending, private investment and exports have suffered.
What does a recession mean for India? Dire, if one may say – nine out of 10 workers have no job protection and will be uncared for by any safety net (but for a family system already under strain).
The objective of the lockdown was to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. That objective has not been achieved, at least to the extent the Prime Minister and his advisors had hoped. India’s coronavirus caseload is climbing and the country is the world’s No. 2 destination for COVID-19.
This gives the Congress party an opening. Randeep Singh Surjewala chastised the Prime Minister for playing with peacocks and changing clothes for photoshoot while the country is faced with a crisis.
This can muddle the playing ground for the BJP, though, for that to happen, the opposition must set its house in order.
Narendra Modi, however, remains a largely loved figure, especially in the Hindi belt — but time could change that.