Narendra Modi's vision for a $5 trillion economy will see the poor play as big a role as the rich

A day after finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the first budget of Narendra Modi’s second term, the prime minister expounded his economic and political vision for the country in some detail. Speaking to party workers at the launch of a nation-wide membership drive in Varanasi on Saturday, he began on a defensive note, saying, “I am not an economist; I do not know the ABC of economics.”

However, his vision was anything but defensive. Using economic jargon – and simplifying it for the uninitiated – Modi drew up an economic plan that inverts the existing top-down model to a bottom-up movement where all Indians, especially the poor, would be asked to invest in the dream of achieving the target of a $5 billion economy by 2022.

The most striking difference was a visible elevation of the discourse around poverty. Less than six weeks ago, Modi scored a thumping electoral win because of a massive outreach to the poor. The basis of this victory was the free delivery of basic necessities to the poor on a scale never seen before. When Mayawati called him a fake backward caste in an attempt to drive the backward castes away from the BJP, Modi famously retorted that the only caste he recognises is poverty.

On Saturday, however, the courting of the poor took on a completely new texture. While highlighting how he would make the poor the very pivot of his new budget and his economic vision, Modi refrained from promising impossible financial sops to the poor. Instead, he exhorted “every individual, every family, every village, every panchayat, every taluka and every district” to work on increasing their earnings to contribute their mite to the making of a $5 trillion economy by 2022, when the country will complete 75 years of freedom.

 Narendra Modis vision for a  trillion economy will see the poor play as big a role as the rich

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

“You will not get a better life without working for it,” he said, while elaborating on a Sanskrit aphorism, “Even a lion will not get his meal unless he hunts”. This was as clear a statement as any that Modi’s fight against poverty has three key elements:

-There are no freebies for the poor; they have to invest their efforts and hard work to lift themselves up, with the help of the government;
-There will be no endless cycle of helping the poor to keep them poor forever; and
-It is not open-ended commitment like the Congress’ garibi hatao of 1971. It comes with the deadline of the year 2022.

Modi is a big believer in changing mindsets. So his war on poverty would be incomplete if the policy war on poverty were not accompanied with an equally strong psychological attack on it. And this war on mindsets is not new. It is as old as Modi's tryst with governance. As chief minister of Gujarat, he would dissuade government officials from inflating figures of people below the poverty line (BPL), a standard trick used by states to get a bigger share of central allocations.

“Desist yourself from this habit” he would tell his officers and also appeal to people to free themselves from the trap of this “mentality ” and work for building an affluent society. He would often caution that “poverty is a bane, not a virtue that should be glamourised”.

In Varanasi, Modi only reiterated this view. “Poverty is not to be relished any longer. It is not a virtue,” he said while elaborating on the steps the government has undertaken to eliminate it.

He talked about the “size of the cake” and how its enlargement would benefit every individual. “If the size of the cake increases, everyone’s share in it will increase proportionately” a ready example of which is China after pursuing Deng Xiaoping’s aggressive liberalisation for three decades.

The prime minister also referred to a Gujarati saying that explains that “if there is enough water in a well, it would ultimately overflow and replenish the ponds”. He borrowed another liberal market aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” to convey the message that a strong economy would benefit all.

In sum, it may be said that the prime minister is deftly steering the political discourse away from poverty to invoking India’s inherent entrepreneurial strength. Aware of the fact that the pre-election discourse was essentially centred around poverty, freebies and doles, Modi is talking about making “start-ups” the engine of the $5 billion economy.

In his second term, Modi is intent on unleashing India’s economic potential to create opportunities rather than following the beaten path of pandering to the poor through the usual rhetoric and doles. Unlike his first term, in which he was tentative after resistance to his land acquisition (amendment) ordinance and the Opposition’s relentless effort to brand him as “pro-rich”, Modi 2.0, it seems, will be charting a different economic course in which people’s welfare would be integral to pursuing robust growth but populism would be kept at bay.

But the single biggest message is that in Modi’s new India, the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid will have as much role in the ambitious march to a $5 trillion economy as the top. If the first term was about delivering basic necessities to the poor, the second will be about pulling them out of the pit.

Updated Date: Jul 07, 2019 18:52:23 IST