While this may be far lower priority item for Indians busy solving Bollywood conspiracies, it is worth noting that the Indian economy is in big trouble. The GDP shrunk by 23.9% last quarter, a level not completely unexpected but terrible and unprecedented nonetheless. It doesn’t matter if it is coronavirus, God, government policies or a combination of all of these factors that caused it. It’s like a spilt bowl of milk in the kitchen. We can argue all day whether someone kicked it, it fell on its own or the cat spilt it. The point is, there is no more milk in the house, and we need to replenish it. We need to bring our economy back.
- The belief that the last quarter was an anomaly, and there will be a strong bounce-back is too optimistic. I hope it happens this way. However, there is reason to believe it won’t. Demonetisation, a one-off event, lasted a mere two months. It derailed India’s economic growth momentum for years. Similarly, once the GDP contracts so much, it leads to effects such as business shutdowns, job losses, bank loan defaults and loss of confidence. Once something breaks, it doesn’t bounce back. Also, if we continue to hold the fatalistic belief that ‘God created the problem, God will only fix it,’ well, it won’t be fixed. God gave us all a brain, which can be used to figure out solutions to get out of a problem.
- The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Making creative charts to show the US contracted more (untrue, it didn’t. It couldn’t. The US never had such a severe lockdown, and it pumped in trillions of dollars as fiscal stimulus to people) is not going to solve our problem. Frankly, if we celebrated having the strictest, toughest lockdown in the world (‘kamaal kar diya,’ is what many said then), then this loss of GDP is the bill for that. A big bill, indeed. Now, as a developing nation we will maybe realise our limits and not compete with the world’s richest nations that can afford shutdowns a lot more than we can. The high Covid cases also shows such a draconian lockdown was unnecessary. Maybe it came from the Hindu view — give yourself pain and God will be kind. This love for ‘kasht’ is why we had weekend lockdowns, curfews, and other irrational things that had more to do with babus and RWA presidents enjoying controlling people than the disease. It didn’t work.
- Once we acknowledge the problem, we Indians have to look deep within. What do we want? Do we want to be a rich nation? Rich people? A superpower? It won’t come from buying a dozen planes, making ads or making high-pitched nationalist or religious chants. All that is fake, stupid and senseless. It comes from low self-esteem, a chronic problem with Indians. We, the Indians, are desperate to feel validated that we are good enough. Stop, please.
The real deal is becoming a rich country. No poor country is respected in the world, no matter how great its history, how wonderful its traditions, how tasty its food. You want respect for India? Help India get rich.
This means we focus on the economy and condemn any behaviours that harm it. Right now, we do the opposite. For instance, social unrest that comes from Hindu-Muslim issues really upsets business sentiment. Nobody in their right mind will invest in a country where people hate each other. Another issue is the government and its babus’ deep desire to control every business through policy and regulations. Letting go, like they say in yoga, is not something any Indian government understands. Let go. Open the economy up. Like really.
- At an immediate level, the government needs to give a real fiscal stimulus. As a poor nation, we can’t have a big stimulus. But whatever it is, it has to be a real one, not just numbers that grab headlines.
- To make the government act on the economy, it also needs to see the public care for it. Right now, our youth — ironically, the most affected — doesn’t really care. An entire generation will be unemployed or underemployed. White-collar workers will become delivery boys (already happening). Common Indians will become poorer and serve the few rich and elite. That’s right, back to India of the 1980s. Yet, the youth is busy in their phones, lost in their cheap 4G data packs, watching silly videos, playing video games, consuming porn and maybe fighting with people on social media all day. It’s all useless stuff. It’s also highly distracting, from their own personal goals, as well as national issues. Cheap data has been our youth’s bane, where they waste hours watching the circus while the kingdom could burn. The youth needs to shut that phone and rise. Focus on their dreams, their goals, their aspirations and making money, so that it contributes to the Indian economy. They need to keep asking questions — why isn’t there more growth?
- India’s future is in our hands. We can become a poor nation of under-employed clerks and delivery boys fighting with each other, or we can become a rich nation and earn respect in the world. Which side are you on?
- The article was first published at Times of India. Chetan Bhagat is a bestselling author and a popular newspaper columnist.