Migrant labourers go back to work for the Kochi Metro construction project April 24, 2020(AFP)
Migrant labourers go back to work for the Kochi Metro construction project April 24, 2020(AFP)

The PM must support workers, encourage rural economy, revive industry | Opinion

Modi has both domestic credibility and international goodwill. But the pandemic will be his biggest test
By Shashi Shekhar
UPDATED ON JUN 01, 2020 09:50 AM IST

Unprecedented crises such as the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pose huge challenges not just to the socio-economic fabric of the country but also to the quality of leadership. At moments like this, it is important that the central leadership in India is able to work in collaboration with states as well as global leaders. To Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s credit, he has built up strong ties with world leaders, especially United States (US) President Donald Trump. On February 25, Modi hosted Trump and his family at Hyderabad House for lunch. In a reflection of the warmth and the cordiality that marked the event, talks between the two leaders and delegations went on for so long that US embassy officials had to step in to remind the guests that they had to leave for the next destination.

Among those present were top industrialists and dignitaries from both countries. Even when others began to leave, albeit reluctantly, Modi and Trump continued their discussions. Many noted that this sort of warm relationship between an Indian PM and a US President was rare, in fact, unprecedented.

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But, there were already dark clouds on the horizon. A few kilometres from Hyderabad House, the government was struggling to control a terrifying communal riot that had got India much negative press across the world and tarnished its image to some extent. To add to this violence was the fact that a grave economic crisis was upon us. And then, Covid-19 began its lethal spread across the world, creating what is one of the biggest tragedies the world has faced in the past century.

This then is the time for Modi to take hard, perhaps even unpopular, decisions. He is often compared with the imperious Indira Gandhi. There are some similarities between the two leaders. Gandhi had total control of her party and the government, and so does Modi. She could take hard decisions and so does he. She was able to win over friends on the international circuit and he has been able to do so too. Both were backed by a commanding poll mandate.

Over the last six years, Modi has been firm in executing his decisions,. He started his second term with controversial decisions on issues such as the triple talaq law, striking down Article 370, and introducing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. He had just begun on big ticket economic reforms when the pandemic swept through the country. Now, the question is whether he will be able to handle this successfully and get the economy back on track.

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Millions of migrant workers have returned home. They have no jobs, no food security and little hope for the future at the moment. He has to instil confidence in them, kickstart the rural economy and oversee a revival of the industrial sector. All this requires enormous leadership skills.

The fifth phase of the lockdown has begun. The earlier lockdowns have not been able to stop the pandemic, but they have brought time to mitigate its effects. A number of financial institutions have predicted that the economy will contract, and Reserve Bank of India’s governor seems to be of the same opinion.

Let us look to the past to see if there are lessons for the future. In 1965 when India was attacked by Pakistan, then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri formulated viable agricultural policies. He evaluated central planning and price control policies. In August 1965, he told Parliament that the government would lift many economic restrictions. He even wanted to devalue the currency, but his finance minister TT Krishnamachari stood in the way. But, unfortunately, Shastri passed away after this. His successor Indira Gandhi continued with his policies; she devalued the rupee in 1966. She pushed ahead with bank nationalisation and the abolition of privy purses.

The green revolution and the increase in industrialisation are the products of that era. All this helped her to deal with the drought of 1967. Again in 1979, during the Janata Party regime, GDP contracted. When Gandhi came back to power in 1980, she brought in a new industrial policy but also formed committees for trade and financial reforms. The role of the private sector was enlarged, though the government couched this in socialist jargon.

Testing times bring out the best and boldest in leaders. Modi does not have a family lineage like Indira Gandhi did, nor is he an accidental PM like PV Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh. Like his predecessors, he will have to navigate his way around many crises, the most severe of which confronts us today. He is not one to shy away from taking difficult decisions. Now, the PM has written a letter to his countrymen, with an appeal to unite. Trust generated by dialogue with common man was always his strength, now he is going to fight this battle with it.

Shashi Shekhar is the editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal
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