Key COVID-19 message for Modi from Rahul-Rajan chat: Build global consensus, listen to experts, save lives and livelihoods - LiveNow24x7: Latest News, breaking news, 24/7 news,live news

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Thursday, 30 April 2020

Key COVID-19 message for Modi from Rahul-Rajan chat: Build global consensus, listen to experts, save lives and livelihoods

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi's video conversation with economist Raghuram Rajan should be seen as no more than a tactic to up the ante on the NDA government to lift the lockdown. That is not easy because it might be a "damned-if-I-do and damned-if-I-don't" situation for Modi. The underlying dilemma is a tricky one: How do you choose between potentially saving millions of lives and ensuring on-ground livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people?

How do you manage an economic crisis wrapped in a public health emergency amid a demographic transition in which hungry migrant workers are stranded in hordes on highways and huddled in anonymous village transits while fear stalks the cities?

In that sense, the dawn of May Day for the prime minister is a perfect storm, an especially bad situation caused by a combination of unfavourable circumstances. Both the former Reserve Bank of India governor, who left that chair in Ballard Estate under controversial circumstances with Modi in power, and the Congress leader humiliated by Modi's re-election last year, have little to lose for themselves.

Modi, on the other hand, will be judged by history as having done too much or too little on either side.

We cannot yet guess the decisions ahead or their outcomes easily, but this much can be said: This is not the same leader who brazenly defended his move to demonetise high-value currency notes in 2016. What we have instead is a prime minister who has traded a smile for a gamchha mask, and is happy to listen more and talk less in a meeting of chief ministers even as he consults epidemic experts; in this, Modi has come a long way.

But the nation, sadly, has not.

What we can do is to look, as they say in cricket, for a gap between slip and gully. The answers might lie in the minutiae. All pointers are towards going for a systematic de-escalation from a curfew-style lockdown to one where a calibrated economic package might save the day for India's economy. The latest decision to carefully allow migrant workers to return homes is a small but significant step in the direction. However, it cannot be denied that carries with it the risk of spreading a mystery flu in a nation of 1.3 billion citizens.

There are miles to go for both the RBI and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, because the task before them is also to go with the flow of market-oriented economic thinking that favours fiscal discipline even as they try to juggle things on interest rates, taxes and regulations to unfreeze the economy with a spending boost. Rajan thinks India needs Rs 65,000 crore to help the poor under the circumstances. That is more than 30 percent of India's gross domestic product at current prices. Let that sink in. The current year's official target is at 3.5 percent.

Credit rater Fitch said recently in a post-COVID-19 report that the deficit might shoot up to 6.2 percent as revenues sink and spending to save lives goes up. It is pertinent to note that Rajan believes India can "afford" the big splurge to save lives and livelihoods. India, and indeed the global economy, cannot be fighting a public health-led crisis while listening to textbook number-crunchers, whether they are from credit rating agencies, the World Bank, or Wall Street. It is time to call their bluff in matters of public policy.

Perhaps the smart thing for the Modi government and its fiscal lieutenants to do would have been to tell the good professor from Chicago who once was the IMF's chief economist: "Do use your incredible reputation and charming ways to tell the likes of Fitch to abandon fiscal fundamentalism and not look at deficit numbers with conventional disdain."

That would be turning the tables on a political chessboard. Or trying to play a political googly with a cover drive.

What however really matters is not political rhetoric or wit-matching. What matters is that the poor, the ostensible beneficiaries of crisis-time shadow-boxing, feel about the situation on the ground. What the government needs to do is to listen more to independent experts in the healthcare administration and the civil services, tone down its temptation to play politics and leave things to the administrative steel frame that has more institutional memory in handling crises than politicians are willing to admit.

Epidemiologists are our new generals. Doctors are our new soldiers. IAS officers are our new Cabinet ministers. Or should be treated effectively as such.

Fortunately for Modi, several of the chief ministers to whom he has been listening of late, are smarter than some people in his own Cabinet. It is time for him to listen more to them and build a mood of cooperation that reflects ground realities.

It would also be wise if he convenes an all-party meeting so that whatever measures that follow the end of this ongoing lockdown are part of a widely-accepted gameplan. It is a warlike situation. COVID-19 is an invisible conqueror. It is time to put on face masks to fight the virus and shed the ideological and egotistical ones that might hurt national consensus.

The author tweets @madversity

April 30, 2020 at 01:09PM

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