Amidst the gloom, beacons of hope

For most Indians, Deepavali or Diwali, is much more than the lighting of lamps, bursting firecrackers or overdosing on sugary confections. It is a festival which unites every Indian, fills our hearts with joy and hope and our homes with light. It is indeed the quintessential Indian festival, since different parts of the country celebrate the festival on the same day and the same way, but for different reasons. If in the North it is believed that Diwali marks the day Rama returned to Ayodhya from exile, in the South, Deepavali signifies the day Krishna slew the demon Narakasura. In the West, it is believed that Vishnu, in his avatar as Vamana, rescued Lakshmi from King Bali. This is the reason why Diwali is celebrated by performing Lakshmi pooja, to propitiate the goddess of wealth and invite her into our homes for another year. Nevertheless, it exemplifies the ‘unity in diversity’that is India, since Jains believe it is the day Lord Mahavir attained Nirvana, while Sikhs commemorate the freeing of Guru Hargobind from the Mughals.

Ours is a civilisational culture. Beliefs, practices and customs transcend time and history and even official might, as the futile attempts in the past to curb firecrackers on account of pollution have shown. So Diwali 2020 will be celebrated the same way it has been for millennia in the past. Nevertheless, it promises to be a unique – and perhaps more sombre – Diwali this year. The looming threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, far from receding, is threatening to return in a bigger and more threatening second wave. Today will be the 236th day since India implemented a lockdown for the first time. The total number of cases, at over 87 lakh as on Friday morning, is heading towards the one-crore mark. There are nearly half- a-million active cases. In the national capital, soaring air pollution has worsened the crisis, with hospitals rapidly running out of beds and ICU capacity. Maharashtra continues to be among the most affected states, with more than 1.6 million cases so far, with active cases in excess of 1.74 lakh.

Overall, 115,197 Indians have already lost their lives, with the second wave of the disease expected only in January-February. As far as the virus is concerned, the worst is far from over.

Increasingly, this also looks true for the economy. The Reserve Bank of India’s recently introduced ‘nowcast’ has confirmed that India has entered into a technical recession, that is, GDP output has shrunk for the second quarter in succession. Using an index of economic activity comprising 27 high frequency monthly data points to predict the immediate near future, the RBI expects the GDP to have contracted by 8.6 per cent in the second quarter. While this is way better than the calamitous drop of nearly 24 per cent in the first quarter, it clearly shows that the economy continues to be in a fragile state, with many sectors continuing to feel severe stress. In this context, it is somewhat jarring, and even worrying, when the powers that be appear to think otherwise.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while announcing the third set of stimulus measures on Thursday, had claimed that rising energy consumption, a positive purchase managers' index and a surging Sensex all signified that the government’s measures were working and the economy had staged a comeback. This is deliberate obfuscation at worst and misplaced optimism at best, since even the sectors which have experienced a rise in demand, such as automobiles and consumer goods, believe that demand may fade along with the festive cheer after the season.

While the latest round of stimulus measures are at least better focused – this round focuses on housing through a mix of increased direct spends on government-funded housing for the poor and a bigger tax break for developers and housebuyers, as well as a retirement fund subsidy to try and incentivise firms to hire more – they still leave critical parts of the economy, like the tiny and micro units and the informal sector, ‘out of network area’. Also, the claim to have upped the stimulus spend to 15 per cent of the GDP appears implausible, since the overall borrowing limit of the government is still capped at Rs 12 lakh crore.

Nevertheless, we Indians are an innately hopeful lot. For us, every time our cricket team plays, we hope for a win. Every time we see a swallow, we decide summer is here. It is this optimism which led voters to back the BJP and Prime Minister Modi once again, despite the state having faced the brunt of the migrant labour crisis. For us, the promise of a better tomorrow outweighs the grimness of today. It is this innate optimism that may well turn out to be self-fulfilling. As we light our lamps and say our prayers today, let us unite as one nation to make this hope a reality. We wish you, dear readers, a happy, safe and prosperous Diwali.

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