Back to Indira’s socialism

Cong Manifesto

By Shivaji Sarkar

The General election is leading to fresh thinking and a new economy. The road to it looks competitive for placating the voters with direct sops. The Congress has opened up Indira Gandhi’s socialist wonder box. Others may be trying to outmaneuver it.
The issue is not who delivers and who makes it possible. The campaign is attempted to be pitched between Rs 6,000 a year to the farmer that the BJP promised in the Central budget and Rs 6,000 a year to the poor by the Congress – garibi par var, bahattar hazaar – war on poverty, Rs 72000 – to 20 per cent poorest households.
Everything can be delivered. The poor need it too. It costs a mere Rs 3.6 lakh crore according to the Congress but some experts say it is Rs 18 lakh crore – more than the revenue earned. Even that may be possible!
But its answer can be found in Odisha’s KAALIA scheme for farmers and labourers. Today the State is facing severe labour shortage as locals do not go to work, complacent with the dole. Odisha is importing labour from West Bengal and Jharkhand which has pushed it into debt.
Competitive mindless poverty removal is costing the nation in many other ways. The MNREGA also has made people lazy and many get work for cuts despite bank transfer of the “wages”. Its positive is reversal of migration of labour. But at the same time it has led to labour shortage in rural areas. The Congress manifesto says the gram sabhas and urban local bodies are to “employ” youth for regenerating water bodies, but then again the funds would obviously go from the Centre.
The economists who have worked out such freebies are motivated by the concept of distributing wealth. That’s laudable. But a country where economy is slowing down as the ADB has pointed out in its latest report, how would such programmes sustain it particularly as banks are in a tizzy.
The manifesto does not speak for the bank health or the roadmap for creating jobs though asserts it would give jobs. Miracle may happen or not, the new slogan ties to match Modi hai to mumkin hai (if Modi is there it is possible). His bag is yet to be opened.
It has gone back to 1950s in announcing that it would create Ministry of Employment and one crore jobs in villages. The Nehru government had set up employment exchanges (EE) under the Central government in the first Plan and before the second Plan transferred it to State governments. The EE remained non-functional!
It is nice to promise 33 per cent jobs to women, but in a scenario where the economy is in a tizzy, doing that is not easy. The route suggested is to employ 22 lakh persons in government jobs. If it can be done, it may change a narrative and it should also be seen as a failure of Manmohanomics, which had promoted privatisation.
The Congress is smart. It has pushed the NDA government to follow its economic policies and forced it to face jobless low-growth syndrome. The private industries except some large ones are gasping.
The new back to government policy, if it can enchant the young voters, can change the electoral dynamics. Will the BJP also attempt a similar move? That means the Left may be diminishing in political scenario, their socialist ideals followed by Indira Gandhi are back. It also means the major political parties are in a quandary. Is India unsure of the path?
Indeed welfare has become a major plank – be it Rashtriya suraksha bima, Ayushman bharat or now the Congress doubling of government spending on healthcare rather than insurance. So will the government be able to do that? Theoretically, it is fine but again how to work out the logistics.
The manifesto has brought education at centre stage through investment of 6 per cent of GDP and free education up to class 12. The roadmap to higher education that is crumbling due to lack of social funding is unclear. The Congress and the BJP are at an even plain.
But some of the sensible decisions are in replacing electoral bonds with national election fund, restoring Planning Commission, withdraw citizenship bill, scrap Angel tax, fee for government examinations and posts, law on sedition and ending AFSPA that gives draconian powers to the uniformed forces.
Simply put, it is keen on deviating from the debate on nationalism–rashtravad. The sedition law – Sec 124A- is a colonial law and should have been scrapped long back and whether AFSPA has helped or harmed nobody is sure. The bonds are stated to be opaque. Whether it’s so or not, how the new poll fund would be different has also to be explained.
The restriction of Aadhar to welfare schemes may help many people whose bank accounts have been swindled. It may end the confusion that prevails in banking and many other sectors. Plus, it is not clear how restoration of special category status to North East would make a difference except for political rhetoric.
There is a great disappoint. The Congress manifesto does not speak a word about high income-tax, atrocious levels of highway and other tolls and bank charges. If Congress and BJP have the same policy, it would be a wonder that the voter would choose the Congress.
The Grand old party has promised a one-rate GST including on fuels. That is a way to lure the business class which stood by the BJP even after demonetisation. But there are hints that since all these promises, if the party wants to implement in sincerity, may be a disaster for the economy and the common man’s pocket. The revenue kitty is small. New taxes and levies would inevitable to bridge the gap.
Congress experts are hinting at that too. So the Left-leaning budget has to gain capital and the obvious way is to burden the people with more levies. Despite some disillusionment with the BJP, this can benefit the Congress rival, which has cut income tax and post-poll is likely to redo the tax arithmetic for higher slabs.
The biggest question is whether this would make difference to the Congress fortune. But the latest ED charges on the Agusta middleman may also have repercussion on the party. Would the gains of the manifesto be shadowed by Agusta? Graft remains an issue for the past few years. It may not be an easy job for the Congress but it would like to come out of it charging that these are political manipulations by the government.
The voter would presumably have the last laugh. That apart the manifesto does not unfold the map for rejuvenating the economy. Sops may charm voters but if economy does not move up it can end up in disillusionment. — INFA