Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP

Which to believe as Indians await a general election in 2019: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words, or his actions? This question is asked repeatedly, observing a significant mismatch between the prime minister’s words and actions.

During his election campaign in 2014, Modi promised to bring back black money from abroad and deposit US$22,000 (1.5 million rupees) into every citizen’s bank account. The government has completed more than four years in office but the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is trying relentlessly to avoid questions on when these 1.5 million rupees will be deposited.

Interestingly, black money parked by Indians in Swiss banks rose by 50% to $1.03 billion in 2017 over the previous year. The surge in Indian money held with Swiss banks comes as a surprise given India’s claim of continuing clampdown on suspected black money stashed abroad, including in banks of Switzerland that used to be known for their famed secrecy walls for years.

Modi’s action on black money received a big jolt when a Right to Information Act (RTI) request revealed that a district cooperative bank, which has Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah as a director, netted the highest deposits of $110 million among such banks of old 500- and 1,000-rupee denominations that were abruptly demonetized on November 8, 2016. District cooperative banks were banned from accepting the scrapped notes after November 14 on the grounds that black money would be laundered through this route. No other bank among the 370 district cooperative banks across the country had received such a big sum in five days.

The RTI reply further revealed that 11 district cooperative banks in Gujarat, all headed by leading members of Modi’s BJP, had together received old notes worth $459 million between November 10 and 14, 2016. This disturbing revelation once again proved former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s observation that demonetization is an organized looting and legalized plunder.

Moreover, it is now confirmed that 98.8% of demonetized currency has come back to the Reserve Bank of India, so not even 0.01% of black money has been extinguished. Judging by RBI data, it’s safe to conclude that demonetization has been a failure of epic proportions.

The Modi government also claimed that demonetization would stop terror funding and create a cashless economy. But terrorist casualties in Kashmir rose by 167% in 2017, while banknotes in circulation are at a 15-year high. Currency in circulation in India stood at 17.78 trillion rupees as of March this year reaching 98.94% of the pre-demonetization level.

Contrary to the prime minister’s claim, Indians think corruption is everywhere. India continues to be among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to the latest report of Transparency International. The Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government passed the Lokpal Act in 2013, and had brought it into force with effect from January 16, 2014.

The Lokpal Act was created by the legislature to set up an office that would probe allegations of corruption by public functionaries. However, the Modi government is delaying appointment of this anti-corruption watchdog, citing insubstantial excuses.

People have started looking at the Modi government as a corrupt establishment, after massive bank fraud to the tune of nearly $5.9 million surfaced and the government’s alleged help to alleged swindlers like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choski to escape from the country after being accused of duping the Indian exchequer.

The unabated rise in bad loans of the Indian banking sector since Modi took over as prime minister in 2014 is a cause for concern for the economy, as the total bad loans, including non-performing assets (NPAs), stood at $145.6 billion and accounted for 12.6% of the total loans in the nationalized banks. Worse, the Modi government has also written off corporate loans to the tune of $31 billion in the last 36 months.

Another corruption case is being prominently discussed all over the country, after two former senior BJP cabinet ministers alleged that a fighter-jet deal made by none other than Prime Minister Modi is questionable. Modi canceled the previous government’s deal to purchase Rafale jets, wherein one fighter cost $78 million, and signed a fresh deal, under which one jet costs $246 million. The statement released in this context says that “the entire transaction is a textbook case of criminal misconduct, of misuse of public office, and of enriching parties at the expense of the national interest and national security.”

Meanwhile, claims by Modi that BJP-ruled states are better for backward castes and minorities have been found to be untrue. The latest government data for 2014-16 reveal that the BJP-ruled states recorded the highest crime rates against scheduled castes. The killing of 27 people (mostly from minority communities) in 15 cases of lynching by frenzied mobs blinded by viral rumors in BJP-ruled states in the past year is in complete contrast to the prime minister’s call for “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikash” (Together with All, Development for All).

The problem of mob lynching has become so bad that India’s highest court had to intervene last week and recommended that Parliament create a new penal provision to punish offenders and stem mob-related violence. “Horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be allowed to become a new norm,” said a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra. “It has to be curbed with an iron hand.”

Contrary to the prime minister’s claim of spending taxpayers’ money judiciously, his government has spent some $500 million on advertising, much of which bears the beaming prime minister’s picture, in the past four years.

The situation in the agriculture sector is so bad that the government has stopped publishing farmers’ suicide rates since 2016. An independent evaluation of the Modi government’s much-touted crop-insurance scheme has shown that insurers gained nearly $1.47 billion in gross profit and settled less than a third of the crop-loss claims filed up to April 2017. The schemes, designed to help farmers, have ended up benefiting the insurance companies, because of high premiums and unpaid claims.

Modi’s U-turns on a number of issues have also irritated Indian voters. While in opposition, Modi carried out a crusade against foreign direct investment in retail. But after coming to power, he opened the retail market to FDI. Modi and his party launched a massive nationwide shutdown when there were increases in gasoline, diesel and LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) prices during 2013-14. However, now global crude-oil prices is available at lower rate since 2014, but domestic fuel prices have skyrocketed to record highs.

India’s “Smart Cities” project, which Modi has championed, has used just 1.8% of the funds released to it ($28 million of a dedicated $1.5 billion).

The Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY), was launched on April 8, 2015, as the flagship scheme for employment generation in India but the reality on ground seems completely different and disturbing. An RTI query has revealed that under this much-touted scheme, more than 93% of the lending was small loans of up to 50,000 rupees ($715). So out of the total of 135 million beneficiaries to whom loans have been disbursed as part of PMMY, 122 million received less than 50,000 rupees to take up entrepreneurial activity. There is serious doubt over the prime minister’s claim of this program creating employment with such small loans.

Commenting on the decreasing value of the rupee against the dollar in 2013 (when the rupee dropped to as low as 58 per dollar), Modi made it a big national issue and said this was due to the corrupt politics of the Congress government. However, as the rupee dropped as low as 70.08 per dollar (an all-time record low), keeping its position as Asia’s worst-performing currency, the Modi government is not able to provide any convincing answer.

The Indian prime minister’s speech is always loud and loaded with drama, action, emotion, data pollution and manipulation, but hardly with any substance. So if you are already disgusted with Narendra Modi, do yoga or wait until 2019!

Sachi Satapathy

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries.

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