The UPA government is in the last lap of its two-term tenure in governance and its manifest effort to retrieve its past and lost goodwill and glory is now engaging its undivided attention in the face of a plethora of distractions. The biting reality is that the PM with his reputation as a sound economist and pragmatic leader who was able to bring the country from the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s as the Finance Minister under the astute and visionary leadership of Narashima Rao has not helped him to mend matters when he became the Prime Minister in 2004 and in 2009. While the coalition compulsions did prevent him from raising his voice at the astounding array of corruption in his own coalition party leaders in the Council of Ministers, not to speak of his own party leaders, the way his party President and the heir went about preaching their welfare-tinted programmes to keep the vote bank politics in clover only worsened the plight. The fact that the party's aam adhmi mantra has been hijacked by a new party with this nomenclature to fight elections to the Delhi State Assembly and the real aam adhmi across the country is left to feel the pinch of living beyond his/her means with consumer price inflation rising above the roof should in no way redound to the credit of a century-old party with several decades of experience in governance to end its dispensation on such a dismal note.
Curiously, the alternative leadership to the diarchy of the ruling set-up under UPA, thrown up by the principal Opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party, in Narendra Modi seems to be catching up the fancy of a swathe of population pan-India. Having been inured to the indecision, vacillation and utter disregard of public opinion by the UPA leadership, the people by and large are looking up for a leader with panache and programme to fix the system at many levels so that the confidence of the common man is restored. But the economic policy agenda of the BJP is still not spelt out with any perspicacity as the party is immersed in shaping its action and reaction at the political level only, leaving the nitty-gritty of economic issues to be brought into focus as the polls draw closer in the months ahead. But this in no way should detract the BJP from mulling over the present parlous state of the economy and the legacy issues of long-standing nature it should contend with once the elections are over and it sees itself in the vanguard to take guard of the country's economy and polity. People all over the country are now rightly restive about the rising cost of living, lack of productive employment opportunities and the poor administrative machinery that does not help them in any way to their burgeoning civic concerns and livelihood problems.
While both Congress and the BJP believe in basic economic reform to ensure higher economic growth, the lack of any bipartisan cooperation to bring this about for more than two decades since India unleashed the market forces to determine the allocative efficiency of resources, both human and material had brought the country to this pause of skewed economic development. Having exposed people to the glare and lure of material things including cell phone and other trinkets of cosmetic nature, both the parties are now in a cusp as to how to sustain the hard part of delivering sustained growth and development without opening the faucet of freebies and sops. This difficult part needs to be rigorously studied and strategies worked out so that the resentment of the bypassed sections of society does not get into social problems that one witnesses in large cities in the form of climbing crime graph. If both the parties could come out with pragmatic proposals as to how they can bring about harmony in development without causing acrimony to some or many as is the case now, they would win the next elections hands down. Given the narrative of pre-election postures and platitudes with shadow-boxing of rivals being the name of the game among the various political parties that would be part of the coalition governments, it is too much to expect any rational economic policy that could deliver good results to millions without any disruption and distress. The country may amble on in spite of our political leaders persisting in their self-inflicted volley of follies and foibles with the fond hope that the noisy democracy India is deserves to be in permanent disarray and disrepair, policy wonks wryly say.
How else one could explain the missionary zeal with which the Finance Minister Mr. P.Chidambaram sticks to his budgetary remit of keeping fiscal deficit at 4.8 per cent of gross domestics product (GDP) even as the economic slowdown has not been reversed and revenue expectations factored into the book-keeping are way behind the reality now? Fiscal deficit is the difference between total receipts, excluding borrowing and total expenditure, revenue and capital. For a country inured to deficit financing--not printing more currency as was the vogue but pre-empting banking system's lendable resources to be invested in government securities (the type of public borrowings the government periodically goes about) has been the major contributing factor to the relentless rise in prices of essential goods of mass consumption. It is a travesty of public policy that successive governments in the country t seldom had any expenditure management strategy or sustainable avenues for revenues through ingenious ways, other than flogging the dead horse of commodity taxes or salaried people's captive income tax at the source. Instead of thinking out of box to ensure that the coffers of the government are sufficient to finance all its ill-designed welfare programmes, it is wasting its manpower, resources and pool of talents in the evanescent pursuit of petty programmes of no enduring asset creation. Per contra, all its extant welfare programmes would make poor poorer and keep them permanently latched on to the largesse of the State. As the country has a demographic dividend and the young people with aspirations have a better understanding of what is preventing the country from scaling the pinnacle of progress, it is time the ruling dispensation did not leave the coffers empty by refraining from ruinous economic policies that would do lasting damage to the economy. Of all the worst forms of taxation, inflation is the cruelest and its unkindest cut devolves disproportionately on the destitute and those eking out their existence on the margins. If only the government desisted from massive borrowing binges in their haste to cover the hiatus in the budget accounting, the relentless inflation one witnesses and one gets whacked by for no fault of one would indiscriminately afflict us all, as it is so wreaking havoc on all of us.
Even these inept welfare programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) and the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) might face axe to the tune of ` 2000 crore each, while budgetary allocation to the rural road programme stood to be slashed by a whopping ` 9,000 crore by the Ministry of Finance, as reports carried in national dailies suggest. Probably the warning signal hoisted by the rating agency, Standard and Poor's that India could slip from investment to junk grade after the elections if the new government does not appear capable of reversing the slow economic growth might have prompted the authorities to pre-empt even crucial expenditure for development that at least go to meet the basic living expenses of legions of rural people. So the portents are not promising as India is going to elect a new government in a couple of months unless political parties are serious enough to read the writing on the wall, sinking their partisan postures and shedding their comprehensive ignorance of how to run a nation of our size and diversities.
The author is a Delhi-based freelance journalist at email@example.com