Saturday 18 May 2019

Garibi Hatao through Minimum Government (Sunday Guardian)

By M D Nalapat
PM should ensure policy changes for empowerment of the individual in India.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi won more Lok Sabha seats in 1984 than any party had, or has after that election. Narendra Modi won more seats in 2014 than the BJP ever had, securing a single party majority for the first time since Rajiv’s first election as Prime Minister. Will Prime Minister Modi repeat that feat this month, the way Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru used to, although of course there was no further national electoral test of his popularity after the 1962 debacle on the Himalayan frontier? This was a military defeat that was partly made up by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s decision in 1965 to cross the International Border and attack Pakistan, rather than stand by and watch the detaching of all of Kashmir from the Union of India. We do not know what course Nehru himself would have adopted, had he, and not Shastri, been in charge in 1965. It cannot be forgotten that he belonged to a Congress Party leadership that in 1947 accepted Partition without protest despite having ceaselessly opposed such vivisection for decades. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did little to retaliate after GHQ Rawalpindi made Mumbai endure three days of terror in 2008, yet won the 2009 Lok Sabha election for his party as he was regarded by voters as a better choice than the BJP alternative, L.K. Advani. What would have been the fate of the BJP had someone other than Modi been the standard bearer in 2014? Most likely, the party would have got around two hundred Lok Sabha seats, and the Congress Party about a hundred, thereby ensuring the formation of a United Front government with perhaps a non-Congress leader as its titular head. This would have been the 2014 scenario had Modi not been leading the way, but in 2019, once again it is Modi fronting the BJP campaign. After five years leading the government, will Modi manage a repeat performance by again securing a parliamentary majority, or will the BJP’s tally descend to 200 Lok Sabha seats, thereby giving the opportunity for other parties to form an alternative government that was denied to them by Modi’s 2014 wave? Amit Shah has not hidden his preference for ensuring the same level of control over the Centre and the states as the Congress Party under Nehru had during his 17 years in office. Fortunately for Shah, lingering memories of past glory have ensured that the Congress Party continues to push for AICC president Rahul Gandhi to become the next Prime Minister of India, when a declaration that the Congress Party would not insist on the Prime Ministership but would be open to handing it over to a regional party leader, could have pushed the Congress 2019 tally up by thirty more Lok Sabha seats. Several who would have voted for the party have changed their minds in the booth, owing to worry that their votes may lead to an administratively untested Rahul getting sworn in as Prime Minister.
Although those around Prime Minister Modi seem to believe that every action taken by his government is a work of genius, including such self-goals as demonetisation, the fact is that only the inability of the opposition parties to excite the mood of the electorate has kept BJP hopes alive for a Lok Sabha tally of 220-240, the tally needed to ensure a second term for Narendra Modi. The Prime Minister shrewdly leapt over 2019 and designated 2022 as the year when he will fulfil the promises made by him in 2014. For this to happen, he implies, voters need to give him a second term. As a first, Modi was swift in publicly condemning a party candidate for praising Nathuram Godse, whose action did great harm to the Hindu community. Godse’s murder of the Mahatma gave the perfect excuse for those in sympathy with British-era attitudes to continue since Independence with colonial policies that discriminated against Hindus, such as state control of their principal places of worship. Within the governing elite, there has even been an inability to understand the injustice involved in the three holiest Hindu places of worship remaining out of bounds to believers in the majority faith in a country explicitly divided on the basis of religion. Aatish Taseer, who writes with a fluency matching that of his mother, has correctly compared Varanasi to Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca. However, he omitted to mention that Gyan Vapi, the spiritual core of that ancient city, has for centuries been wholly out of bounds to the Hindu community, as is the Krishna janmasthan, not to mention the unending manner in which resolution of the future of Lord Ram’s birthplace is dragging on. And on. And on. Just as England accepted a Christopher Hitchens, India should not balk at an Aatish Taseer. But he errs in his dystopian view of today’s India. There may be a scatter of individuals who attack those who consume a particular form of meat, just as there are individuals in parts of Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu who erupt in anger at the sight of a Hindu festival procession. But overall, India is a country that is being changed in its chemistry, especially by the smartphone and the internet. If only our politicians would step aside and allow the spread of entrepreneurship, individual freedom, the English language and technologies such as 5G, this country will enter a high growth path rather than the Middle Income Trap economist Rathin Roy warns about. Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat, with his party and a legislative majority backing him, had about 30% of the total stock of authority in the state. As Prime Minister of India, he does not have more than 15% of the total stock of overall national authority. He has to share authority with the states, with other countries, with rival parties and with the private sector, besides civil society overall. The Prime Minister should ensure the government accepts and not resists the policy changes needed to ensure the steady empowerment of the individual in India. He should seek to accelerate this process, rather than try and recover 1950s and 1960s era control by the bureaucracy that was lost through reforms during the 1990s. Igniting a higher growth rate in India is easy. As Narasimha Rao showed in industrial policy during 1992-93, what is needed is not more of the same policy or adding new policy, but ensuring less—much less—of existing policies. The still insufficient changes made under Modi’s direction to the woefully dystopian GST designed by North Block are an example of what needs to get done across the regulatory and policy spectrum. The PM should cut away at tax rates and regulations, and walk away from the notion peddled by the civil servants that cluster around him that government has all the solutions, and so should retain as much of the income of the citizen and control over the population as the British had. Should the Prime Minister act in such a manner, by 2024 India will no longer be limping painfully at 6% but speeding forward at double that rate of growth, a performance that needs to be maintained for an entire generation if the 1971 promise of “Garibi Hatao” is to be fulfilled.

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