It is when people started worrying about Ramzan and large gatherings that it struck me. Last year as well, people were performing all sorts of calculations about Ramzan. Those were political calculations, related to the 2019 elections. And that’s when I realized!
We are almost one full year into the second term of PM Modi. How time flies…
By now, it is clear that the Wuhan Corona virus is possibly the biggest event of our times. And possibly one of the biggest events in human history. This is our World War 2.
Needless to say, this is an event that will shake up politics around the world. And upset all previous calculations.
When Modi won the 2019 election, it was sort of taken for granted that he is set to be PM for three full terms. Indeed, the vote share difference between BJP and Congress is now almost 20%. It would probably take a generation anyway for a 20% national vote share gap to be bridged. On top of that the BJP is still rising, in Bengal, in Odisha and even some southern states. If anything, this vote share gap would go up, not down!
But what happens when an unforeseen event, unprecedented for generations, shakes everything up?
The Wuhan Corona virus might just be that event.
Right now, India is doing tolerably well, managing to keep its head above the water. But that’s only until the patience of people and stocks of food last. It is widely expected that the lockdown will be relaxed at least somewhat on May 3.
The real challenge only starts now as India tries to put together the shattered economy. People have neither money to invest nor to spend. Small and medium enterprises are probably at the end of their rope already due to the lockdown. As they slowly limp back, there is no question of speedy recovery. Big business simply does not have the ability to hire. You can ask for stimulus. There probably should be one and there will probably be one.
But stimulus money isn’t real. It’s just money from nowhere. By all means, we should try it in desperate times. But there’s no guarantee it will work.
The adverse political fallout of such a crisis is bound to start, sooner or later.
Right now, nobody would blame PM Modi for the pandemic. Obviously, it’s not his fault. As for managing the pandemic, it’s impossible to do get everything right in a situation such as this. But in broad strokes, India has definitely done well. It has stunned (let’s also say saddened) our enemies in global media by keeping our death toll so low. This when the death toll in the US is nearing 60,000, with over one lakh dead in Europe.
The political fallout is not now, it’s probably a year or more down the line.
When a calamity happens, the ruling incumbents usually get a slight bounce in approval ratings. After all, people look to them as saviors. In fact, if Hurricane Sandy had not struck in late 2012, Mitt Romney would probably have defeated President Obama in the election.
The problem is with a calamity such as this Coronavirus, whose impact could last literally for years. Some say it could be an entire decade. The Great Depression of 1929 lasted for an entire decade. There is literally nothing else in human history that this current crisis can be compared to.
Imagine after a year. If the economic engine is at a standstill, people have no jobs, nothing… sooner or later, they will turn against whoever is ruling. Not specifically because they think it’s their fault, but due to outright despair. Even if it means shuffling chairs on the deck of the Titanic. The argument is going to come : well, the current regime isn’t working, so why not try literally anybody else?
Let me give you an example. Remember the European crisis from 2011 and the PIGS countries (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain)? When the crisis struck, Spain was ruled by the leftists. Due to the crisis, the leftist government had to adopt emergency austerity measures which were extremely unpopular. The right wing capitalized on this anger to win a landslide victory. The ruling left suffered the worst defeat for any sitting Spanish government in history.
Could the new government manage the situation? Of course not! The situation was far beyond anyone’s control. In the 2015 election, the sitting government was again wiped out, in another “worst ever in history” defeat! Two elections like that, back to back.
Did people really switch between ideologies that quickly? Did they compare, contrast and draw informed conclusions based on evidence? Of course not! This was pure desperation at work. People had lost control of their lives and so they did the only thing they could still control : change the government.
If the economic crisis continues, the “spin the wheel” argument could make sense to a large number of desperate voters in 2024.
This could well become the threat for Modi sarkar in a year or two. The Corona virus induced depression could continue for a long time. As much as we may wish for a speedy disappearance of Corona and a quick bounce back in the economy, there is no reason to just assume the best will happen. We’re just some bits of DNA on a rock that is hurtling through space which is billions of times bigger. As Carl Sagan would have said, “pale blue dot.” We matter very little in the grand scheme of things. No reason to assume that good things will happen to us, like at the end of most movies.
What could be done to guard against this? Well, we have the example of FDR and his “New Deal.” The New Deal gave jobs to people as part of a massive public works program. This could be the moment when India gets to building world class infrastructure that we have all dreamed of. It is a bet on the future and it could very well go (very badly) wrong. But, without such drastic measures, we’re probably going down anyway. So what’s the harm?
In one sentence, all I am saying is this : the government should take a gamble and spin the wheel on stimulus, before the electorate spins the wheel on the government.