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Opinion

Trolling India's Modi has been Rihanna's biggest hit yet

Singer's tweet in support of #FarmersProtests has shaken New Delhi

| India
Activists from United Hindu Front burn an effigy depicting Rihanna and Greta Thunberg in New Delhi on Feb. 4: pro-government protests have been on a scale that might make even Donald Trump jealous.   © Reuters

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

Popstar Rihanna is a one-woman hit machine. Yet her latest, and arguably most impactful, lyric was anything but music to the ears of Narendra Modi -- and a jolt to the nerves of the strongman's government.

The Barbados-born singer tweeted support for #FarmersProtests making Indian Prime Minister Modi's life miserable. Farmers are enraged by legislation they argue will boost the role of giant corporations in a sector that employs nearly 700 million people.

Modi hoped that the tens of thousands of demonstrators dug in for months on the outskirts of New Delhi would give up. Like a catchy pop song that gets the blood pumping, Rihanna's tweet reinvigorated the fight with six words: "Why aren't we talking about this?" It catalyzed a viral chain of subsequent tweets at the worst possible moment for Modi's flailing reform program.

Modi boosters call that bunk. Who cares what some coddled, western "celebrities and others" think? Yet the epic overreaction by Modi's government missed the beat -- and demonstrates how it lost the broader economic plot.

Team Modi also is aggrieved by Twitter incoming from Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmentalist Modi supporters are burning in effigy on New Delhi streets. His government should look in the mirror instead and internalize why Rihanna, Thunberg and others have the social-media world dancing to their tune.

India's agricultural industry is emblematic of the notorious inequality that plagues Asia's third-biggest economy. The chart-topping dust-up shows how Modi talks a better game of modernizing the economy than he brings to the pitch.

For all the tough-guy theatricals and nationalistic energy, Modi's 2,453 days in power have been big on bluster and spin, but rather weak on moves to level playing fields to create more inclusive growth.

The new agricultural laws enraging farmers might, on the surface, cheer investors hungry for bold change. Modi, after all, has gotten grief for putting economic stimulus and modest tweaks ahead of progress on India's third-rail issues -- labor, land and tax reforms. Agriculture has long been such an issue.

Instead, Modi's moves to limit Internet and phone access are worthy of rebuke -- and alarm for global investors, human-rights groups and credit-rating companies. Modi seems to have forgotten that India is a democracy. The anti-democratic downward spiral on Modi's watch continues apace.

In September, Modi's government figured the pandemic gave it cover to ram the farm legislation through parliament via voice vote. The politicians also seemed to think they could avoid the time-consuming effort required to explain the bill's intent, as well as its purported benefits, in a sector that makes up nearly 15% of India's $2.9 trillion economy.

That takes a certain brand of arrogance, one now boomeranging back. Ordinarily, Modi agreeing to throttle back -- a serious rarity for his government -- and defer the law for 18 months might have succeeded in dispersing the protesters. Not this time.

In the meantime, Modi's hard-line digital army is going after the real menace. Not poverty, dysfunction or intolerance, but Rihanna. Google is abuzz with searches like "Is Rihanna Muslim?" and "Is Rihanna Pakistani?" Pro-government protests have been on a scale that might make even Donald Trump jealous. Wow, did Rihanna hit a nerve with Modi's inner circle?

Modi would have greater success taking his big parliamentary majority out for a ride. Why not explain and sell the farm legislation and make concessions? Why not add measures to provide farmers with some downside protection?

What is missing is a safety net. It sounds grand that Modi is leaning toward capitalist efficiency. But ending long-standing farm-pricing guarantees will spectacularly disrupt an economy growing at the slowest rate in generations.

Farmers take part in a three-hour road blockade as part of protests against farm laws on a highway on the outskirts of New Delhi on Feb. 6: what is missing is a safety net.   © Reuters

This law must be phased in slowly and methodically. New Delhi must augment it with policies to increase the productivity of labor and land and upgrade water and fertilizer policies. Lawmakers must up incentives for private-sector investment. They must improve infrastructure and storage technology to curb food inflation. They must devise a basic income scheme and programs to retrain farmers seeking career changes.

Otherwise, Modi's "reforms" might just increase the odds that India is mired in its lower-middle-income trap for years to come. India's roughly $2,000 per capita income is already hitting powerful COVID-19 headwinds. Shaking up a core industry in chaotic ways would have its own fallout.

Modi already botched some major policy moves. Case in point: a 2016 stunt to pull all high denomination notes out of circulation. That shock move, aimed at stemming corruption, hit farmers hard. Shoddy implementation of a national goods-and-services tax did real damage, too.

Since then, Modi has largely outsourced economic management to the Reserve Bank of India. That includes shopping around for a governor -- Modi is already onto his third RBI chief -- willing to turn the liquidity spigot "up to 11," as Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel would say.

Modi's latest fiscal plan fits with this stimulus-over-structural-change theme. Earlier this month, Modi's team detailed a budget, the second in seven months, of the greatest-hits variety: wider deficit targets, but few specifics on creating jobs, improving infrastructure or fixing a stumbling financial sector.

India is free to ignore the random political intrusion by celebrities living a world away. It will be a very different story when the messenger is a credit-rating company coming at New Delhi with a junk rating. Talk about missing a beat.

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