Three Reasons Why This Year’s Economic Survey Is a Political Document

If ordinary citizens were hoping that this year's survey has an honest stocktaking of the ground reality of the economy, they are in for disappointment.

New Delhi: As is the norm a day before the Union government presents the annual budget in parliament, the Economic Survey for the year 2022-23 was released by the Union Ministry of Finance on Tuesday, January 31.

The document is a summary that outlines the state of the economy in a fiscal year. With the monthly household expense bill on an upswing, with people you know in your respective fields losing jobs post-pandemic and no help arriving till now, one doesn’t need to be an economist to decipher data and graphs to crystalise the view that the economy has been on a rough patch for some time now. Therefore, a common citizen who otherwise leaves the economy to the economists may take a peek at the government’s 2022-23 Economic Survey. Perhaps with the hope that there is an honest stocktaking of the ground reality, helping you get a grip on the state of affairs that directly affects your personal budget, Maybe there is also an expectation that the government would lace it with some degree of optimism and hope for better days.

The survey does throw up ‘optimism and ‘hope’ in oodles, but what comes across after perusing the document that presents the survey “in a nutshell to enable its easier understanding” through “charts, infographics, tables and minimum use of text” is not a paper on the state of the economy but a stridently political one aimed at creating a smokescreen that all is good in ‘New India’.

The survey seems to reiterate what the Narendra Modi government is increasingly pushing for – keeping the 2024 general elections in mind – the dawning of Amrit Kaal or a ‘Golden era’.

What particularly stands out in the document is the attempt to portray the ‘golden era’ of the Modi regime since 2014 as a continuation of the ‘India Shining’ era of the A.B. Vajpayee government.

To better understand this push, take a look at the infographic below that draws a parallel between two fiscal periods – 1998 to 2002 (Vajpayee era), and 2014 to 2022 (Modi era).

Source: Economic Survey 2022-23

It begins with ‘shocks’ that the economy received during those two periods when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power. For the Vajpayee government, the shocks began with the nuclear tests in 1998, which attracted international sanctions. The document underlines the two droughts (in 2000 and 2002) that the period had also witnessed, before mentioning the ‘technology bust’ (dotcom crash of 2000) triggering a period of recession in the US economy, and 9/11’s effects on India. It is another matter that the Vajpayee government had come under fire from the opposition for its slow response to the 2000 drought, which affected western states like Rajasthan and Gujarat. Vajpayee also made a televised appeal for financial help from citizens to address the crisis.

Under the ‘shocks to the economy’ section for the 2014-2022 period (the Modi era), the infographic puts not just the negative effects of the pandemic “followed by inflation” and “global commodity price shock followed by tightening of financial conditions”, but also a “period of banking, non-banking and non-financial corporate sector balance sheet stress.”

While the survey lists structural reforms such as “asset recovery for the banks”, “privatisation” and “interest rate deregulation” as Vajpayee’s efforts to bring the economy on track, the list of reforms undertaken by the Modi regime is a long one. Apart from Goods and Sales Tax (GST), more privatisation of government assets and tax reforms, the vaccine roll-out is also touted as “reform”. Bizarrely, ‘structural reforms’ to improve the economy apparently also include concepts like ‘AatmaNirbahar’ (self-reliance) and ‘unique identity’. Is the ‘unique identity’ launched to bring a structural change to a grim economy a synonym for ‘New India’ or ‘Amrit Kaal’ or both?

That this year’s economic survey is fundamentally a political document that comes in the wake of the Modi government presenting the last full budget before the 2024 elections is evident from this infographic.

One, it handpicks only two periods in recent Indian economic history – the Vajpayee and Modi eras – in a bid to establish a “right-wing economic trajectory”.

Two, it attempts to frame the narrative that ‘Amrit Kaal’ is but a continuation of the ‘India Shining’ phenomenon. Perhaps this narrative is aimed at adding weight to the impression that the BJP as a party is always for ‘national security’ (read the nuke test), even if it comes at the cost of the economy. Does it then help the Modi government to also juxtapose that its ‘nationalist’ agenda is at the top of every decision, even before the economy? If so, it clearly gives the incumbent government an easy exit from the tight spot it has been in for some time now for not doing enough to rectify the dwindling economy.

The third reason why the survey is a political one is the complete ignorance of the times between 2002 and early 2014, which put money in people’s pockets during the Manmohan Singh era. This decision is clearly a no-brainer – set in motion only to underplay what it can’t contest. An indirect reference to that period is made in the ‘Growth Returns’ section, stating that the structural reforms carried out by the BJP government between 1998 and 2002 “paid growth dividends from 2003 onwards”. The economic trajectory of a country, much like foreign affairs, is a continuity; one government’s policies may help or harm the subsequent period but rarely in India does one notice an attempt by any government to compartmentalise one government’s financial decisions as distinct from that of the other based on their political ideology. The Modi government, in doing so with this Economic Survey, has certainly set a new precedent.