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Economic slowdown, coronavirus crisis, social disharmony dangerous trinity for India: Manmohan Singh

PTI     March 6, 2020

India faces "imminent danger" from the trinity of social disharmony, economic slowdown and a global health epidemic, former prime minister Manmohan Singh warned on Friday, asserting that this "potent combination of risks" may not only rupture the soul of India but also diminish its global standing.

In an opinion piece in The Hindu, Singh also warned that "India that we know and cherish is slipping away fast" and the situation is very "grim and morose". Singh also offered his advice to address the challenges, calling it a "three point plan".

He said the government should focus all energies and efforts on containing the COVID-19 threat, withdraw or amend the Citizenship Act and put together a detailed and meticulous fiscal stimulus plan to boost consumption demand and revive the economy.

Singh strongly raised the issue of Delhi riots in his piece, saying communal tensions have been stoked and flames of religious intolerance fanned by unruly sections of the society, including the political class. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must convince the nation, not merely through words but by deeds, that he is cognisant of the dangers the country faces and reassure the nation that he can help "us tide over this as smoothly as we can", Singh said. "University campuses, public places and private homes are bearing the brunt of communal outbursts of violence, reminiscent of the dark periods in India's history," he said.

Warning of the dangers facing the country, he said institutions of law and order have abandoned their 'dharma' to protect citizens. Institutions of justice and the fourth pillar of democracy, the media, have also failed the people, he said. "India faces imminent danger from the trinity of social disharmony, economic slowdown and a global health epidemic.

Social unrest and economic ruin are self-inflicted while the health contagion of COVID-19 disease, caused by the novel coronavirus, is an external shock," he said. "I deeply worry that this potent combination of risks may not only rupture the soul of India but also diminish our global standing as an economic and democratic power in the world," Singh said in his op-ed that began with the words -- "It is with a very heavy heart that I write this".

Singh said it was not his desire to offer a dire prognosis or to exaggerate fears and that he believes it is the solemn duty to speak truth to the people of India. The truth is that the current situation is "very grim and morose", Singh said. "The India that we know and cherish is slipping away fast. Wilfully stoked communal tensions, gross economic mismanagement and an external health shock are threatening to derail India's progress and standing. It is time to confront the harsh reality of the grave risks we face as a nation and address them squarely and sufficiently," he said.

With no checks, the fire of social tensions is rapidly spreading across the nation and threatens to "char the soul of our nation", he warned, adding that it can only be extinguished by the same people that lit it.

"It is both futile and puerile to point to past instances of such violence in India's history to justify the present violence in the country," he said in an apparent reference to the BJP's criticism of the Congress for riots under its rule when the saffron party is questioned on the recent communal violence in Delhi. "Every act of sectarian violence is a blemish on Mahatma Gandhi's India. Just in a matter of few years, India has slid rapidly from being a global showcase of a model of economic development through liberal democratic methods to a strife-ridden majoritarian state in economic despair," he said.

Singh also delved into the economic scenario, asserting that social unrest is having a damaging effect on the current slowdown. At a time when the economy is floundering, the impact of such social unrest will only exacerbate the economic slowdown, he said. "It is now well accepted that the scourge of India's economy currently is the lack of new investment by the private sector.

Investors, industrialists and entrepreneurs are unwilling to undertake new projects and have lost their risk appetite," Singh asserted. "Social disruptions and communal tensions only compound their fears and risk aversion. Social harmony, the bedrock of economic development, is now under peril," he said.

"Lack of investment means lack of jobs and incomes, which, in turn, means lack of consumption and demand in the economy," Singh said. "A lack of demand will only further suppress private investments and this is the vicious cycle that the Indian economy is stuck in".

The former prime minister also highlighted the challenges the country faces in the wake of the coronavirus threat. "Adding to these self-inflicted woes is the real threat of the COVID-19 epidemic that has originated in China. It is still unclear how far this global health hazard will spread and impact the world. But it is very clear that we should be fully prepared and ready to counter it," he said.

Modi must immediately provide details of the contingency plan for the threat of the COVID-19 scare, the former prime minister said. India must act swiftly and announce a mission critical team that will be tasked with addressing the issue, he said, adding that India could adopt some best practices from other nations. "A moment of deep crisis can also be a moment of great opportunity.....we must first rise above divisive ideology, petty politics and respect institutional salience," Singh said.

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