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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

FM dashes Congress hope to push govt to commit fiscal hara-kiri

The Narendra Modi government has through press meets addressed by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the last few days come out with a slew of economic reforms whose sweep and cover can only be compared to the landmark changes ushered in 1991. That was the year when combined pressure from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank compelled the then FM Manmohan Singh to give up the decades long national obsession with Soviet style planning, the license-quota raj, and the outworn charms of Nehruvian socialism. The makeover was substantial but nowhere near complete.

The proposed reforms in the agricultural sector giving farmers for the first time in history the freedom to grow what they wish in whatever quantity and sell to anyone at a price of their choice cannot but have aroused the envy of the Congress. The decision to accordingly amend the Essential Commodities Act and deregulate the sale of everyday items like cereals, edible oils, oilseeds, potatoes, pulses, and onions to help growers get markedly better prices is nothing short of revolutionary.

Not, however, for the Congress.

Visibly disturbed by the radical move towards an atma-nirbhar Bharat, the party has been relentlessly trying to play down the measures by politicizing the issue of the exodus of migrant labor from big towns in the aftermath of the national lockdown caused by the spread of the Chinese coronavirus. The global pandemic has already killed more than three lac people. The sight of several thousand destitute migrants walking on the national highways lugging their meagre belongings on their heads and shoulders under a scorching sun has been on TV screens in every home. Quite obviously their misery and suffering resulted in a huge public outcry. The accidental death of some has only added to the pain.

The Congress promptly latched on to the crisis by attacking the central government’s alleged lack of preparedness in dealing with the situation. Newspapers flashed photos showing Rahul Gandhi sitting on the pavement conversing on the road with laborers heading to their homes in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Fishing in troubled waters has been his wont despite people’s lack of faith in his political antics. The outcome of the 2019 LS poll confirmed it.

Ms Sitharaman got the chance to put the mindless leader in place on Sunday’s presser while announcing the last tranche of the Rs 20 lac crore fiscal package.  Responding to a question on the Congress’ faux concern for migrants, the FM asked if this was the right time for the princeling to be seen chatting with migrants on the roadside. In fact, had his concern and empathy for the sufferers verged on the genuine, he would have opted to walk them to their destination clutching one or two of their belongings to lighten their load. Or, better still, requisition the Center to dispatch more trains and buses for their travel. Also direct the chief ministers in Congress ruled states to ensure that the laborers were provided facilities during departure and on arrival. The optics generated sought to create an impression that the government was only helping migrants headed to BJP ruled states.

The Congress’ negativity on the government’s economic reforms has been in evidence from day one. Former FM Palaniappan Chidambaram (PC), a master of disingenuity and casuistry, is regularly courted by Delhi’s pseudo-secular commentariat, and his views sought on weighty matters of state. This despite zero credibility and mischief potential. Details of his alleged role in the INX-Media and Aircel-Maxis cases of corruption during his stint as minister have been falling out of the closet.  He was even sent by the CBI court to judicial custody in Tihar jail between August-December last year. That his party still has the gall to parade him on TV is indicative of the Congress’ own trustworthiness.

PC has pooh-poohed the reforms on the plea that the government’s actual cash outgo on the Rs 20 lakh crore package was not more than Rs 4,500 crore. And that till Rs 5000-7000 is put in the hands of each of the migrant laborers, the reforms are an eyewash. His views are entirely in keeping with his party’s dole culture. Free disbursement of cash during elections or crises is an old practice under Congress regimes. It is aimed at fostering the public view that the party cares even as the national treasury is systematically drained in private. PC’s own tenures as FM and HM were riddled with scandals, both fiscal and political. Impoverishing public sector banks to help crony capitalists during his last stint as FM remains his lasting legacy. Quite apart from influencing the Intelligence Branch to generate false documents propping the party’s anti-Hindu agenda.

Those familiar with Congress politics realize the sinister plan behind the desire to push the government into crossing the line of fiscal prudence at a time of national emergency. Implicit is the hope, howsoever misplaced, that if Modi stumbles, and the economy sinks deeper into the quagmire, it would be an opening for the desperate Dynasty to ride back to power.

Putting cash in place of provisions in the hands of the poor during an emergency is usually the perfect recipe for waste. There is no guarantee that the money will not be misspent. The FM clarified that the decision to limit the circulation of cash had been taken after considerable thought. Money had been provided to the most vulnerable sections, but the stress was on providing food, clothing and shelter instead. The infusion of an additional Rs 40,000 crore into MGNREGA would help generate 300 crore man-days of work.

Handing cash to migrants is, in any case, not an easy job given the problem of identification. No records exist on how many even have aadhar cards. States like West Bengal whose clamor for cash is the loudest would ideally have wanted the dough to be handed over to the state government only to be diverted to reap a political harvest.  So divided is the polity that not even a global pandemic and an ascending death toll can bring the Opposition to speak in one voice. Perennially stalking them is the fear of being shoved deeper into political irrelevance. They would rather see the country turn into a basket case and go around with a begging bowl like Pakistan than temporarily join hands to tide over bad times.

The plain truth is that some of the most difficult decisions have been taken since Independence on both the political and economic fronts. The country is being governed by a strong, incorruptible leader of a party which has always placed the national interest above political gain. Not a single scam or scandal has rocked the corridors of power. Much remains to be done under the most trying circumstances.

There is nothing new in the Congress game-plan. Charges that the Modi government has “destroyed” the economy have been hurled time and again in the past six years. Every economic ill or deficiency has been ascribed to demonetization and GST. Negativity, however, has abysmally failed to deliver the desired dividend. Blinded by hate, it does not realize that Bharat has changed for good. It is not the pre-2014 country which will elect an anti-Hindu party to power.

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Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha.


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