Modi still the only game in town for India | Sunday Observer
Second term:

Modi still the only game in town for India

NEW DELHI, May 230. (CNN) - it's been a year since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for a second term after securing a crushing victory, becoming the country's first leader since the 1970s to do so with a clear parliamentary majority.

During his campaign, Modi faced questions about India's mixed economic performance in the previous five years, but he won over voters with promises to shore up national security and by pushing a Hindu nationalist agenda.

In the past six months, he's faced two significant challenges: nationwide protests over a controversial citizenship law, which led to violent attacks on Muslims, and the threat of thousands of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.

His handling of the latter has earned praised at home and abroad. But the biggest test is arguably to come -- reopening the country while keeping its 1.3 billion people safe.

Here are five things we've learned about the Indian leader during the past year. At 8 p.m. on March 24, Modi gave just four hours' notice of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, sending millions of people scrambling for groceries, medicines and other essentials.

Perhaps worst affected were the millions of migrant workers who travel from rural areas to work in cities each year. In the lockdown, work suddenly dried up, leaving many of them stranded without pay. Many were forced to walk vast distances due to the public transport shutdown -- and not all of them made it.

Modi's sudden decision -- accompanied by poor planning and execution -- left local administrations confused over what was and wasn't allowed, such as exemptions for online grocery deliveries amid the halt on all e-commerce operations.

"This is a part of his governing style and it can work during normal times but it's not a good way to operate in a time of crisis where you throw surprises at 1.3 billion people," said Vivek Dehejia, a professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa.

This, of course, was not the first time Modi has made a snap announcement. On November 8, 2016, Modi declared 500 rupee ($7.50) and 1,000 rupee ($15) notes worthless, which made up about 86% of the cash in circulation, in a bid to switch the country to digital payments to stop corruption and tax evasion.

"In each case, there was a four-hour window for people to react and absolute pandemonium broke out," said Dehejia.

The result was massive lines at banks, change was nearly impossible to find, and some businesses resorted to barter, with India's poor and most vulnerable bearing the biggest impact. People in remote places missed the window to exchange years' worth of savings in old currency notes.

"You need to think about the consequences and how this will impact millions of people," said Meghnad S, an associate editor for Newslaundry, an independent online news outlet.

"Good days are coming," was Modi's campaign slogan, as he secured his first term in 2014 on the back of grand plans for the country's economy.

But the lacklustre figures had little bearing on the 2019 election results, which saw Modi return to power with a bigger mandate.

India's unemployment rate hit 8.75% in March, up from 7.03% in May last year -- and is even higher after the coronavirus shutdown.

Furthermore, during his term, his government has committed funds to vanity projects, such as the world's tallest statue or bullet trains, when priorities such as healthcare, infrastructure and sanitation persist.

And with the economic destruction wreaked by the pandemic things are unlikely to improve.

As the country nears the end of a near 10-week lockdown, as of Friday, India had more than 165,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 4,700 deaths.

While Modi's government has announced USD 266 billion in relief packages during the pandemic, Dehejia, from Carleton University, points out that much of what was announced in a week-long series of press conferences by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had already been committed.

"Part of the Modi government brand has been to make these big announcements over things that they've already been doing or what previous governments have done and brand it as a new package ... The amount of new money committed is essentially quite small," he said.

Sitharaman's penultimate press conference highlighting reforms to sectors such as mining, defense and the country's space program raised eyebrows over the relevance of the announcement during the current situation.

"Tone-deaf is the only charitable explanation," said Dehejia. Many felt more should have been invested in the country's creaking healthcare infrastructure, which has been an issue regardless of the party in power.

According to the World Bank, in 2017, India allocated around 3.5% of its GDP towards health. This compares to the United States, which spent 17% of its GDP on healthcare and poorer nations such as Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, which set aside 13.4% and 12% respectively in the same year.

Looking ahead, spending wisely and investing in the right parts of the economy will be crucial -- though experts say Modi has such a strong mandate that he's essentially free to do what he wants.

And India's next election isn't due until 2024.

The bigger issue is the lack of credible opposition. The 2019 election dealt a sharp blow to the India's main opposition Congress party, which won just 52 seats compared to the BJP's 303. To win, a party needs 272 elected seats out of 543.

The result marked the Congress party's second-worst showing ever in a general election.

"A crisis of any kind greatly empowers the incumbent. Whether it's Trump's nightly news conferences or Boris Johnson's or Modi's announcements, that's what's visible to the public and opposition parties struggle to make an impact or appear on the evening news," said Dehejia.

"What is the credible alternative at the national level? Modi's the only game in town for India."