As a veteran journalist, editor, author, former secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and former media advisor to prime minister Manmohan Singh, Sanjaya Baru has closely followed, and been involved in, India’s economic policymaking.
As India grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and its socioeconomic fallout, Baru sits down with Mehraj D Lone to discuss the crisis and how the country can pull out of it. In a wide-ranging conversation, he also talks about his time in government, the Indian state’s capacity to govern, and why the poor and the marginalised have been abandoned in this time of crisis.
Though India’s handling of the pandemic has been “reasonable compared to many other countries”, Baru argues, the “inability of the system as a whole” to address the resultant economic challenges is worrying. India has a “strong leader, weak state” system that is unable to “take care of the health needs of the people, their employment needs, their basic necessities”.
He decries the delay in preparing for the outbreak, suggesting that losing the “10-12 weeks” from January until late March was “a major policy failure on the part of the government”. “The problem with the Modi government has been an excessive sense of self-confidence that we can manage everything. That confidence isn’t reflected in the capability,” he adds.
Baru criticises the government’s handling of the migrant crisis, describing it as an example of the absence of “dialogue between the Centre and the states” despite the prime minister’s frequent exhortations of “cooperative federalism”. “Each state government is behaving like an island,” he says. “And there is no Centre looking at the migrant issue.”
On the recent economic package announced by the government, Baru says an increase in fiscal spending, regardless of magnitude, should be welcomed. “But my basic view as far as the economic solution to the crisis is concerned: how do you restore confidence and credibility of policy?” The problem with this government, in my judgement, is that it has lost credibility,” Baru adds. “When Nirmala Sitharaman is speaking, she no longer carries the weight that a finance minister of the government of India has to carry, for a very good reason.”
The conversation also touches upon Indian federalism, the government’s communication strategies, how decision making in the Manmohan Singh government differed from that in the Modi government, class interests of the ruling establishment, and why India isn’t investing in public health and education.
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