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By S. Sethuraman


For a chastened Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who could just manage to keep Gujarat for BJP by striking a parochial chord and thereafter claiming an “emotional victory”, 2018 would be full of challenges on all fronts, political, social, and in reshaping our foreign policy in a world order under dismantling with the revival of cold wars among military giants.


His acclaimed ‘reforms’ are struck in marshes, bar the loud claims, the economy is limping, and politically he will brace himself for more poll fights in 2018 in both BJP-ruled states and Karnataka, where incumbent Congress is well-poised to counter a BJP assault.


The Modi strategy of seeking and winning votes, no doubt, with hollow claims to development has come to wear thin. Gujarat has no model to replicate anywhere. His “boldest” (authoritarian) move in demonetisation, without adequate preparation and care for the poor, proved the biggest failure in its stated objective.


The hunt for black money goes on relentlessly in various forms, with nothing significant yet to emerge on its dimensions. It only serves a convenient cover to hide under-performance in vast areas of real economy and social wellbeing of people at large, which his note ban disrupted massively.


In the Modi order of governance, jobs or alleviation of rural distress take a low precedence, if at all. Now that the so-called reform policies have failed to produce credible outcomes, the last year’s budget (2018/19) before the national poll in 2019 will be a desperate exercise to recapture a high ground, amid fears of loss of its current overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha.


There is a dramatic change in political equations, and for the Modi-Shah strategy, a “Congress-mukt Bharat” it had pined for can be ruled out for the present. Instead, a resurgent Congress is ready to take the battle to the national level. India’s oldest freedom party is getting reawakened after the Gujarat debacle for the ruling BJP, with the new Congress president Rahul Gandhi, showing his mettle to contain BJP to below 100 (against its coveted target of 150 in the 182-member Assembly).


It will not be smooth sailing, however, to forge a grand national alliance against BJP in 2019 but the outlook is more promising than in 2014, when the Congress had lost respectability with BJP accusations of corruption and ‘policy paralysis’ and managed to hold on to a mere 44 seats. This had much to do with Modi’s campaign rhetoric full of calumny against the “corrupt” Congress at the head of UPA II Government (2009-14)


A plus point for the Congress-led UPA now is the trial court verdict that the 2G (telecom) scam, held up so much against its regime, was more imaginary, lacking substance and the acquittal of all the 17 accused, including A Raja, (DMK), minister of telecommunications, in the UPA government. The court said in its order “a huge scam was seen by everyone where there was none”.


The then CAG Vinod Rai has also drawn flak for making an estimate of Rs.1.76 lakh crore due to the alleged scam.


With injured innocence, the Congress leadership has arraigned BJP for its “lies and falsehoods” against the government of the day, which perhaps might have influenced the 2014 poll outcome. BJP has certainly lost some ground, and what would happen next, whether the government would go in appeal etc remained to be seen.


But Rahul Gandhi has his tasks cut out, to build the party at the ground level effectively and launch itself with a well-balanced programme of reforms, jobs and rural regeneration. r Rahul must be able to score notable gains not only holding on to Karnataka, the only Congress-ruled major state at present, but also work hard to win Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to reclaim its national status.


Rahul Gandhi, his well-wishers expect, would bring to the forefront a new generation of young leaders in each state set to go to polls before 2019 and also tie up alliances, where inevitable, more imaginatively. All this would lend greater credibility in the efforts to forge a strong broad-based alliance committed to secularism, tolerance, fundamental rights and inclusive growth and development leading to jobs for aspirant youth and promoting all-round welfare, rural and urban.


India’s current dispensation has already shown itself in majoritarian assertions and resorting to ‘strong-arm’ tactics the way ‘Aadhaar’ is being enforced in every walk of life, almost ‘cradle to grave’. This reveals the Modi government’s determination to bring about a regimented society whittling down citizens’ privacy. All actions so far have made no secret of the Modi government tending to view every citizen a possible criminal, who has to prove his innocence.


The way the government’s tax and investigative agencies are being deployed to achieve its purposes serve to give the appearance of a Modi government determined to become more authoritarian. There is no doubt the government has been moving in a high-handed fashion in making policies and the manner of enforcement.


Now that threat to functioning of democracy with rights of citizens not ensured or assured has come to the fore, it is time for all liberal forces to come together and assert the true values of nation-builders embodied in our Constitution. One hope now is that government, in the post-Gujarat era, would begin to move more cautiously, involve itself in wider consultations, before undertaking any major legislation, and would abstain from exercising recourse to blunt majority voting.


Fiscal 2019, for which the budget would be presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for the terminal (pre-poll) year on February 1 next, would be more populist in tone with allocations enlarged for infrastructure, in the expectation of creating a significant addition to labour force. It is also expected to be more farmer-centric and probably revise direct tax structure for Jaitley to get closer to his earlier promise of tax reduction in corporate tax.


A major area in the budget would be to bring out a more simplified GST structure and eased ways for compliance. Jaitley has to overcome the sharp criticisms of the launch of GST in a hurry last July, seen as “primitive” and of failed expectations of lowering of prices, higher revenues and a rise in GDP. A reformed and better-balanced GST (in rates), with a possible rise in the threshold, is considered by economists as desirable for equity and for facilitating easier transactions at all levels. (IPA Service)

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