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ECONOMIC CRISIS LOOMS

Policy Paralysis

By Shivaji Sarkar

 

Election time is show time. The minuses are swept under the carpet as rhetoric rules the roost. Manifestos are not necessarily about substance or firm promises. These might be real in some cases and away from the reality in most others. In this electoral din, the US withdrawal of zero-duty entry for Indian exports under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) went unnoticed. The Opposition, in disarray, has not been able to rake up pressing issues. For any ruling Party, this is a matter of relief.

Surprising is the silence of business chambers as America’s decision would have a direct impact on Indian exports and balance of payment. This required intense diplomacy but the NDA Government had been rigid despite US warnings since early 2018. The Government could have accepted the US demand for allowing imports of American dairy products. This could have helped Indian businesses

The complexities of Brexit will also impact Indian exports. This is also not being discussed. Pertinently, it is in contrast to the foreign policy stress of Indira Gandhi’s 1971 election manifesto when Indian Ocean littoral states took significant space.

Add to this, industrial production in February grew by only 0.1%.

Politically, economic diplomacy is not easy to explain to the electorate, who are suffering from job losses, inflation despite a low WPI, high bank charges, tolls and the threat of losing their ten-year old vehicles to quixotic NGT rules that allow pollution by factories but not small emissions from a car. Alas, all manifestos have ignored pressing issues and are not even considering ecological issues of building roads and airports indiscriminately.

After several promises in the Congress manifesto, a similar expectation was expected in the BJP manifesto. It, however, is not harping so much on development as it did in 2014. In fact, many past promises of the BJP have been incorporated by the Congress and stress on delivery.

In tune with the campaign, the Saffron Sangh is harping on issues that would boost a nationalistic approach. It dwells on erstwhile Jan Sangh’s Articles 35 A and 370 on Kashmir which panders to religious sentiments, not Lord Ram. And unleashes the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the North East thereby reviving the sentiments of Partition.

The BJP manifesto is light on legal reform whether in terms of legislation, policy proposals or judicial reform. May be the 2014 document had an overdose of it and as it stands the Modi Government has repealed 1200 redundant laws.

In contrast, the Congress proposes 14 new legal reforms. While manifestos of regional Samajawadi-type Parties are hardly readable.

The BJP, like the Congress, targets farmers. It has already transferred Rs 2000 of the Rs 6000 a year to them as promised. Now it assures Rs 25 lakh crores investments in the agri-rural sector. This looks attractive but the mode of raising fund has not been discussed.

Obviously, the Government does not have that kind of money as for the past many years any investment in the farm sector has come through bank credit. The MUDRA and Stand Up India programmes have further added to bank NPAs.

Besides, corporate investment has been minimal. Now banks cannot be further stressed and depositors are in a crisis as their interest accruals have come down while tax components have increased. Sadly, none is bothered about this.

The BJP manifesto stress on turning the country in to a defence production hub is yet to be understood. This will require massive investments but no one discusses the criticality of military productions. Would it also cause problems that the US and many western countries are afflicted with?

In 2014, the BJP had promised abolition or maximum relaxation in income-tax rates. It did so only partially in the 2019 budget by raising the limit to Rs 5 lakhs. But those above it will not get any benefit as taxes would be calculated at the threshold limit of Rs 2.5 lakhs plus standard deduction.

The new manifesto again says that taxes would be relooked into. But like in 2014, the Party had promised to do away with road toll on private vehicles and later reneged, obviously  this has not led to enthusiasm.

The BJP Sankalp Patra is also silent on the stray cattle menace, a product of cow vigilantism, destroying crops in the cow belt. Neither does demonitisation find a mention. Politically, it should have stressed on its benefits.

Somehow, Odisha’s KAALIA scheme has its echo. The BJP has promised taking care of pensions for 60+ farmers, shopkeepers and has already introduced it in the Budget pension for unorganized workers.

True, the welfare schemes are good but its economic costs certainly have not been estimated during poll time. The KAALIA looks good as is MNREGA.

But both have created a system of lazy people who because of these doles shun working. This has lead to an influx of labourers from Jharkhand, West Bengal and neighbouring States to Odisha. In simple terms, it is a double whammy for State economy. It has more outgo and consequently society is also paying as a large part of the State GDP goes out due to import of labour and supporting a class of inactive people.

Clearly, poll time is also the time to discuss critical issues. But the Election Commission has sanitised campaigns to such an extent that Parties are neither approaching voters nor are they discussing problems with them. Thus the process stymies democratic discussion.

That is possibly the reason for a low voter turn-out in the first phase of polls. Voters apparently are feeling cut-off. Family-based Parties bereft of ideology do not create confidence though this seems the alternative. Politically, voters are confused. The common refrain is that nobody is listening to them and nor is anybody talking to them.

Door-to-door contacts are not there. It is an uncertain situation and there is fear and apprehension. More. Social media has not been able to replace personal contacts and dialogue.

Importantly, Parties have to realise that 2019 may spell disaster for social media campaigning.  One lesson that nobody is learning is the failure of Manmohanomics – that ensured pro-corporate profits and jobless growth.

Today the BJP’s  problem emanates from it. Worse, its manifesto has not evolved a new policy. Even if the Party is able to form a Government it exemplifies policy wilderness. Post election this would be the crucial task.

In sum, winning the poll battle is not enough. Welfare economics charms but is devoid of hard realities. Contesting a key election without national policies on jobs, farms, industrial production, low inflation and sound financial institutions might prove to be costly. Post-poll the path has to change. —-INFA

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