For once, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was on target in its understanding of the economic tangle the Centre has knotted itself in and more importantly, in offering suggestions to untangle the mess emanating largely from the implementation of the Goods and Service Tax (GST) regime. For once, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was off the mark on both the counts.
Modi seemed obsessed with cleaning up the fiscal structures when the problems called for solutions that had little or nothing to do with his fixation over the repatriation of black money stashed away abroad and the "benami sampatti" (ill-gotten wealth) laws. Micro, small and medium entrepreneurs agonised over the procedural glitches GST brought with it and exporters felt threatened from being squeezed out of a competitive market thanks to the huge taxes they were called on to pay. Consumers were again burdened with the additional but substantial hikes in the cost of just about everything during a festive season.
Doubtless, Modi spoke like a quintessential RSS "pracharak" (whole-timer), a role he never disowned or discarded even after the paterfamilias "loaned" him to the BJP.
But when Modi broke his silence on the state of the economy while addressing the Institute of Company Secretaries on October 4, his speech sounded like a tutorial in moral philosophy. He quoted from the Mahabharata and invoked Chanakya to remind the audience that Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, was aware and knowledgeable about religion but chose not to walk the righteous path. Modi also said that the author of the "Arthashastra" had warned that just as a spark could light up and destruct an entire forest, a flawed individual demolished a country's integrity. Therefore, to eliminate the undesirable characters, he had embarked on a "cleanliness" campaign. Chalk talk that might have brightened up faces if the economy's fundamentals were strong and right.
Doubtless, Modi spoke like a quintessential RSS "pracharak" (whole-timer), a role he never disowned or discarded even after the paterfamilias "loaned" him to the BJP. The RSS has always cloaked its political ambitions and agendas in sacred writ that sounds resolute about what's right and wrong in its world view. Earning wealth per se is acceptable. But tweaking the system in "dishonourable" ways to secure wealth is not. The certitude has a veneer of pretence because from its origin, the RSS drew its core support from the traders living in provincial towns who didn't exactly adhere to the rule book when conducting business.
The RSS was obsessive about "cleansing" corruption which is why the high-decibel campaign it carried out on the Bofors gun deal with VP Singh as the face of morality when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister resonated with the urban and semi-urban voters.
However, the RSS "sarsanghachalak" (supremo) Mohanrao Bhagwat figured out that if he had to sound credible in an ambience of near-despair over slackening growth and job losses, he must offset ethics with pragmatism. This is just what Bhagwat did when he addressed the RSS on the occasion of "Vijayadashami" at Nagpur on September 30.
He lauded the government for "controlling" corruption. But in a wake-up call to Modi, he cautioned that an "integrated and holistic policy" would have to factor the needs of "industry, agriculture and environment" as well as protect the interests of medium and small industries, small retailers, farmers and the landless. These are diverse sections but they are not disparate because they are linked by a chain in the economy that threatens to come apart under the weight of demonetisation and now, the GST.
Prodded by Bhagwat and scorched by BJP leader Yashwant Sinha's attack on the mismanagement of the economy, Modi and his Finance minister Arun Jaitley sat up and resorted to damage-control. However, these were not the only inputs shaping their reflexes.
Modi is off to poll-bound Gujarat on October 7. The textile traders and jewellers of his home state are seething over GST and the mandatory use of PAN cards for purchases in excess of Rs two lakh for months. The BJP directed its MPs to address these constituents and assure them of "solutions". In the absence of a concrete response, the traders and jewellers, loyal to the party since 1995, warned they would boycott voting or root for the Congress. More pertinently, after the bellicose Patels recently disrupted BJP president Amit Shah's meetings in Gujarat, Shah was privy to information that they planned to display black flags before the PM.
Shah curtailed his Kerala sojourn and rushed to Delhi to meet Modi and Jaitley before the GST council met. The outcome was a slew of palliatives the government unveiled for the traders and consumers on the eve of Modi's Gujarat visit, hoping to neutralise their opposition.
In the absence of a concrete response, the traders and jewellers, loyal to the party since 1995, warned they would boycott voting or root for the Congress.
Interestingly, amidst this political churn, Modi refused to turn his focus away from the morality of fighting corruption. Just as Arjuna's gaze resolutely remained fixed on the eyes of a bird his teacher Dronacharya had set up while teaching him martial art in the Mahabharata, Modi only saw the virtues of demonetisation.
On October 5, the government issued a press note, stating that 13 banks had supplied information on the financial operations and post-demonetisation transactions of over two lakh companies blackballed by the Registrar of Companies earlier this year. The companies were being scrutinised by the investigators, it said. The move was billed as a "major breakthrough" in the government's "fight" against black money in the hope that the "country and its honest citizens may well look forward to a cleaner tomorrow".
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