By Rajiv Shah
It is surely well-known by now that India’s top people in the power-that-be have been castigating all those who disagree with them as “anti-nationals”. Nothing unusual. If till yesterday only “secular liberals”, and “left-liberals” were declared anti-national, facts, however, appear to have begun surfacing that, now, guns are being trained against those who could be qualified as right liberals, too. Let me be specific.
The other day, a former bureaucrat of the Gujarat government, an IAS official, known for his keen perceptions of the state of the economy, whether India’s or Gujarat’s forwarded to me a video – an interview with Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO of India’s topmost private sector data company, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).
Interviewed by the news portal “The Wire”, long dubbed as “left liberal” by critics, of late Vyas has made a niche for himself by strongly asserting how unemployment rates in the country have been continuously on the rise under Modi. Now, in the video interview he says, joblessness among the educated youth is anywhere between 20 and 25 per cent, highest in decades.
Enough reason for him to be called “anti-national”? Maybe, but first let me try to summarize what all he said.
Vyas says, the situation is particularly bad in Delhi and Haryana (which “houses” India’s top urban centres Gurgaon and Faridabad), where unemployment has reached “around 30 per cent”, adding things have turned nearly as bad in Tamil Nadu. Vyas concurs with a study published by the Azim Premji University about a year ago – which I, like many others, reported in Counterview – that had made somewhat similar claims.
According to Vyas, India experienced high unemployment rate among the urban educated youth also in 1970s, insisting, the rate is high because of thee major reasons: One, the educated youth refuse to do menial jobs as they are “qualified”; two, they are dependent on parents for housing and monetary needs; and three, enough jobs aren’t available in the market that would lure them into taking up jobs they would like to do.
Vyas’ solution for unemployment is: Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, Adanis etc. should come up with huge projects across the country to create jobs
Alongside, Vyas says, the poorer sections of the population – semi-literate and illiterate – are “less unemployed” because they are forced to pick up any job they can do: They would readily push a hand cart or be a street vendor in order to survive. Not without reason, he argues, Bihar has “very low” employment rate.
So far so good. However, the solution he suggests bewildered me. In fact, it was news to me that a top economist and statistician pins all hopes in the big business. He admits, the small and medium sized industries suffered a major setback following the demonetisation move in November 2016, followed by “haphazard” implementation of the goods and services tax (GST).
Vyas notes, while the small and medium industries suffered a collapse, leading to sharp rise in unemployment rates among the urban educated youths, they can’t be expected to revive, hence have little or no future. For, they were not, and will not be, internationally competitive. In fact, they don’t have the inclination or the capacity do be that. So, what should be done? Vyas provides a recipe, to which he regrets the industry or the government aren’t still ready.
Vyas’ “solution” is this: Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, Adanis etc. should come up with huge projects across the country that that would create employment opportunities. Also, the government public sector undertakings (PSUs) should do the needful and move in this direction.
When Mitali Mukherjee, the interviewer, asked him, does he see any such thing happening, Vyas replies in the negative, saying, not at least in the near future. He indicates, big business currently suffers from lack of confidence, and is not ready to invest. First there was imposition of more corporate taxes, then there was tax cut, for instance.
In fact, Vyas contends, the big business has lost the propensity to invest which it had acquired in two years following Narendra Modi taking over reins of power in 2014, after which there was a sudden downslide. I was left wondering: Does this view of Vyas not put him in the category of a confirmed right-wing, conservative, albeit liberal, economist?
As the interview drew to a close, I found Vyas shaken by the way the powers-that-be, or circles close to Modi, appear to view him or persons like him, only because are critical of the way the economy is being run. Referring to massive data manipulation by the Modi government in order to project India as being on the right track, Vyas says, it was Arvind Subramanian’s paper that shook up the government to accept (unwillingly) that something is wrong on the data front.
Vyas says, quoting Subramanian’s paper, all knew that the economy, especially the industry, wasn’t doing well, yet everyone, as if, waited for Subramanian’s paper to declare that the GDP growth was two to two-and-a-half lower than what the Government of India was stating – such was the level of data manipulation.
According to Vyas, following this paper, the government has begun to take things seriously, experts are putting their heads together. Here, I am tempted to quote Vyas. “It’s good that Arvind Subramanian’s paper shook up a little bit”, he says, but does not stop here. He hints how intolerant the government has become nowadays.
Wanting government to stop branding all critics and instead begin listening to what they are saying, this top expert says, “We should not have these polarized positions. Its good if there are engaging positions. We are an argumentative nation. It’s good to be argumentative. It’s good to engage, rather than call critics anti-nationals.”
One is unable to understand why Panagariya quit the government – he has been, and continues to be, outrightly pro-Modi
This was shocking, to say the least. A pro-corporate, neo-liberal economist (other acronyms for him could be liberal, conservative, right-wing) feels even he or his tribe may be called anti-national for his views, which are conceptually the same as those held by the powers-that-be!
Over the last few years, at least three liberal economists quit the government one after another – Raghuram Rajan, who was Reserve Bank of India governor, Arvind Subramanian, who was chief economic adviser to the Government of India, and Arvind Panagariya, who was vice chairman of the Niti Aayog. All of them are known for this centre-right views. Two of them, Rajan and Subramanian, have already been termed anti-national.
I am still unable to understand why Panagariya quit the government – he has been, and continues to be, outrightly pro-Modi. A senior IAS bureaucrat, who has worked in the Government of India, even abroad, for umpteen number of years, told me recently, the reason for Panagariya quitting the government was, again, “intolerance and interference” from circles around Modi.
While Rajan and Subramanian have by now been declared confirmed critics of Modi’s governance, qualifying to be”anti-nationals”, Panagariya, interestingly, also appears to have begun to gently but firmly begun suggesting that there are issued with Modi governance. In an editorial page article in the Times of India, which he tweeted to reach out to a wider audience, he has criticized Modi (of course, without naming him), for refusing to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Panagariya argues, “setting aside politics”, the view that India would lose out to China if it joined RCEP does not stand, as the “economic logic tells us that bilateral deficits and surpluses should not be a matter of concern.”
He says, “There are nearly 200 countries in the world and each of them strives to buy its imports from countries that charge it the lowest prices and sell its exports to countries that offer it the highest prices. It will be a wonder if these myriad transactions result in mutually balanced trade for each pair of countries.”
As for the “fears that China would flood Indian market with cheap imports”, Panagariya says, these are “exaggerated”, because “entry of cheap imports threatens local producers only if the latter remain inefficient and costly”. He insists, “Local producers that respond to competition by adopting new technologies, organising production activity better and cutting costs in other ways survive.”
In fact, Panagariya says, the officialdom must remember, trade liberalisation “is implemented gradually and in a predictable way, as we did during 1991-2007”, adding, “Accelerated growth during the past two decades owes much to trade liberalisation… We must drop our hesitations and act decisively, as we did during 1991-2007.”
So the period 1991-2007 was better than the Modi years? I am left wondering: Would Panagariya now be declared anti-national?