As Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his fourth Independence Day speech, The Quint debates whether the claims on the front of foreign policy, internal security and economy are reassuring. You can read the Counter-View by Vinay Sahasrabuddhe here.
The Prime Minister’s speech was like the proverbial curate’s egg; good, in parts. He is a marvelous speaker, with a genuine flair for words, and none of us begrudge him that. It’s what he says with those words, acronyms and alliterations, however, that raises our concerns.
The PM’s speech made national security a priority and indulged in some chest-thumping: “Even the world acknowledged our power after the surgical strikes”.
While the Congress party stands second to none in its support for our Armed Forces, the gap between the rhetoric of the Modi Government and its actual performance in national security is an embarrassment.
Since May 2014, 172 terrorist incidents have occurred (13 major terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir alone), 578 personnel of our brave security forces have been martyred, and 877 civilians have lost their lives in such attacks. The number of incidents of violence has risen successively in the past three years after having shown a declining trend earlier. The surgical strikes, though ably conducted, have been followed by 300 cease-fire violations since; they have had no decisive deterrent effect.
What Effective Action Against Terrorism?
Where is the effective action against terrorism that the PM speaks of?
His government is even unable to protect our own Army camp from assault, as the attacks on Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota successively demonstrated last year. The Campose Committee report on perimeter security was submitted in March 2016 but sat unattended and unimplemented in the Defence Ministry for eight months while two additional attacks followed – yet the only heads that rolled were those of terror’s victims, not Modi government officials.
Many countries are now helping India in the fight against terror.PM Narendra Modi
But it is also true that for the first time in 70 years, India’s time-tested friend, Russia, lifted its embargo on arms sales to Pakistan, is supplying MI-35 helicopters to Pakistan and has entered into military co-operation with that country, including conducting an unprecedented Russia and Pakistan joint military exercise in September 2016.
Some of that took place on territory India claims – Occupied Kashmir – but perhaps Russia no longer cares about Indian sensitivities on that score, since it expressed its full support to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor despite India objecting that it runs through sovereign Indian territory.
The Gaali-Goli-Galey Wordplay
And while we are on Kashmir, it was the subject of one of the PM’s more memorable lines, with his gaali-goli-galey wordplay. But no amount of wordplay can obfuscate the fact that the BJP government, particularly in its BJP-PDP incarnation as the state Government of Jammu and Kashmir, has miserably failed the people.
For more than a year or so, the state has been burning, with violence and stone-pelting in the streets, schools set alight and development at a standstill. More and more youth are joining militancy than in the previous two decades; trade and tourism have all but collapsed.
The terrorists have successfully intimidated voters into staying away from the parliamentary by-elections, which witnessed the lowest percentage of participation ever; Pakistani and ISIS flags have fluttered over the valley, and a Deputy Superintendent of Police as well as an Army lieutenant on leave have been among the victims.
What can the PM find to rejoice in all this?
Communal Incidents Plaguing India
He spoke ritually of violence having no place in free India. “The country will not accept violence in the name of faith,” he said. The country may not accept it, but it’s his own party’s followers who are perpetrating it.
There have been 703 communal incidents last year (a figure that has gone up every year the BJP has been in power). Fifty-eight incidents of mob lynching have occurred in the last 3 years, most by cow vigilantes emboldened by BJP policies and statements to conduct such atrocities in the name of “Gau Raksha”. (Indeed, 92% of all mob assaults in the last ten years have occurred in the three years of BJP rule.)
In the absence of condign punishment – and not just an anodyne phrase by the PM – these will continue since they are seen as being blessed by the powers-that-be in the Sangh Parivar.
“One Nation, Three GSTs, Multiple Tax Slabs”
Let’s turn to economics. The PM declared GST to be a great success:
The world is in awe seeing how we implemented the new tax system at such short notice.PM Narendra Modi
It is undoubtedly a relief that the farrago of central and state sales taxes that had previously bedevilled Indian businesses will almost all be replaced by GST.
But instead of the promised “One Nation, One Tax” the government has introduced three GSTs (IGST, CGST and SGST) as well as seven slabs of GST – “One Nation, Three GSTs, Multiple Tax Slabs”.
These multiple tax rates on different products will almost certainly lead to tax evasion, bribery and corruption of tax officials, and arbitrage between categories.
The way in which different kinds of milk products, for example, attract four different tax rates, and pastries have a different rate if they have chocolate icing, is a recipe for chaos, fudging, or worse.
The Congress party had asked for an 18% ceiling on GST, but the Government, in its greed for revenue, has adopted a maximum GST rate of 28%. This extortionate rate, instead of being imposed only on a few luxury items, applies to as much as 30 percent of all goods, and will certainly promote tax evasion.
Businesses will also seek to have their goods assessed at the lowest possible tax rate, and if they don’t get their way, the viability of their ventures might require them to go to court.
GST could generate thousands of lawsuits in an already backlogged system, with 24 million pending cases choking the Indian judicial process. Of these, 100,000 already relate to indirect tax appeals, tying down some $23 billion in lost tax revenue.
But the problem with GST doesn’t end with its complexity. It also requires firms to file at least three online tax returns a month (37 a year) into the GST Network (GSTN), a massive IT system, the backbone of GST, intended to process three to five billion invoices a month.
About eight million taxable businesses have so far registered with GSTN, but the haste with which GST was rolled out raises legitimate concerns about whether the software for the new system is ready. There was little time to test it. Reports show that the system is not ready; it has crashed repeatedly.
Many traders from across the country went on strike in protest over having to comply with GST, most out of fear that they would be badly affected. Most small business owners, as well as traders and shopkeepers, are not computer-enabled and have to scramble to acquire computer literacy and register online on GSTN.
The confusing tax rates, the excessive documentation, 37 online tax returns a year and anxiety over the implementation of compliance requirements has prompted fears of a negative impact on livelihoods.
The self-employed informal sector, a major contributor to India’s economy, was already badly wounded by demonetisation just a few months ago. GST could turn out to be a second body-blow, this time potentially fatal.
What the PM Could Have Addressed
This gap between rhetoric and reality is the besetting flaw in all the PM’s pronouncements. There were several more examples of this:
- Talk of good governance belied by the tragic deaths of 90 children in a government hospital in Gorakhpur as a result of negligence, inefficiency, corruption or all three;
- Youth being celebrated by the PM as “bhagya vidhatas” but employment opportunities for them shrinking; after record lows in job creation, worsened by the negative impact of demonetisation, the government speaks of youth becoming job-givers rather than job-seekers, a cruel joke for a young man who has nothing; the PM boasts of creating 2 crore (200 lakh) jobs but his own government’s figures show just over 1 lakh created a year, or 0.5% of the target;
- PM claims more than 14,000 un-electrified villages have been electrified, but how many houses in those villages have? Reports indicate more than 90% of the homes in the so-called electrified villages have no access to the connectivity the government boasts of. Only 8% of electrified villages have all houses connected;
- The PM says farmer incomes will be doubled by 2022 but they have actually been dropping under his watch and farmer suicides have increased dramatically and tragically;
- And the PM claimed to have unearthed black money worth ₹1.25 lakh crore in 3 years (2014-17); but in the previous two years (2012-14) the UPA Government unearthed ₹1.31 lakh crore. Were his results worth the disruption of the economy that accompanied demonetisation?
Who Does the PM Want to ‘Bring Together’?
Finally, the Prime Minister speaks of “Bharat Jodo”. But who does he want to “jodo”, or bring together?
Not, apparently, the minorities, who are being marginalised and left feeling more insecure than ever, as the outgoing Vice-President warned. Pious bromides about national unity will not wash when those propounding them have a vested interest in national disunity, which they exploit politically.
The Independence Day speech is a great opportunity for our national leader to use his undoubted rhetorical power to exhort the nation to do better, and to heal the wounds that some elements in his own camp have inflicted on the body politic.
Sadly, he preferred to deliver a campaign speech. National healing, apparently, is not this government’s priority. Nor indeed, is reality.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)