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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 48, November 19, 2011

Would Rahul Effect Kill Manmohanomics?

Monday 21 November 2011, by Diptendra Raychaudhuri

There are people, may be millions, who believe feeding the hungry is less important for our governments than spending money for ‘develop-ment’. This attitude may be described as a reflection of insensitive minds, but many of our politicians brazen it out when push comes to shove.

Sharad Pawar did it when, on the question of providing highly subsidised food to the needy, he said: “The BPL debate is underway and the final decision will be taken by the Planning Commission. According to me, the government is taking a massive burden.” (The Indian Express, The Idea Exchange, October 23, 2011) For him, determination of the number of people below the poverty line is just a debate, maybe like whether Rahul Dravid should be in the team or not. In reality, the number was supposed to be the basis of providing cheap food to the needy, and this act of giving food to the hungry seems to be a burden to one of the leading politicians of our country. He further said: “My estimate after handling the Ministry for seven years is that the food subsidy will be around Rs 1.15-1.20 lakh crores and this will affect the overall economy. I am worried that the subsidy will almost be the same for fuel, around Rs 80,000 crores for fertilisers, and NREGA is another Rs 40,000 crores. If so much is spent on subsidies, what is left for development?”

This is the quintessential mindset that in this country ushered in what is known as Manmoha-nomics. Basically Manmohanomics connotes neo-liberal thoughts as applied to India by Manmohan Singh and his followers. An alien idea, taught by the Western economists essentially to open up the markets of the less developed world so that the developed world can invest there, was lapped up by the sancti-monious Manmohan Singh and many of his followers. The idea called for less state inter-vention in the economy, doing away with subsidy, and opening up as much scope as possible for money-making by the rich. That will make India shine, the votaries of Manmoha-nomics feel.

Under duress, the architects of Manmoha-nomics lay low for last the four years. First, there was a political crisis of living with the Left. Then, the general election was in the offing. And there was depression in the developed world. But recently, hoping that they have successfully overcome all obstacles, the votaries of Manmohanomics got emboldened once again. This is dangerous because we know Manmohan Singh was not inclined to lose his sleep when the share market crashed and millions of people belonging to the middle class lost out a lot. Of course he enacted a resignation drama after-wards, and remained the Finance Minister as well. So, naturally this man will not lose his sleep if the Sahariyas die in Rajasthaan, or if 70 per cent of Indians (who are below the middle class) languish in living hell. He wants to make 10 per cent of India like the US, and does not bother about the rest. He is not interested to make India Brazil or Ghana, the countries which have successfully fought hunger. This is evident from his dilly-dallying on the legislation related to food security. And that is the essence of Manmoha-nomics: talk of development (for 10 to 25 per cent of the people), forget those who are left out (only offer lip-service at regular intervals).

Comeback Efforts of Manmohanomics

IN his avatar as the Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh tried hard for abolishing whatever subsidy on food was available to the poor through the corrupt and ineffective public distribution system. He did not try to make it effective so that cheap food could reach at least half the population of the country who were in dire need of it; he wanted the state to withdraw from all these. Narasimha Rao bridled him from playing havoc with his ideas. Along with that, time and again he had made efforts to do away with whatever little legal protection our labour force has. Again, he introduced a neo-zamindari system by adopting the SEZ policy. He remained indifferent to the plight of the farmers whose land was forcibly being taken in various States. He favoured selling off PSUs (that gave scope of employment to the weakest sections of our population) to the big industries so that they could make huge profit out of it. He has always resisted the idea of reservation for the poorest lot in the private sector. Never had he made any effort to curb corruption in the country, either in government or in the private sector. Recently, he has made arrangements so that the rich do not have to shed 26 per cent of profits from mining (except for coal). He has resisted food security for the poor for the last thirty months though the UPA manifesto promised this act within hundred days of coming to power in 2009.

It is not that Manmohan Singh has not taken important steps to unbridle the hidden potential of our economy. On the contrary, he has done a laudable job on that count. But, all that benefited 10 per cent of the population. At the same go, he has failed to show any real concern for the vast majority of the people who live in poverty and economic insecurity. Whatever steps were taken for the economically weaker sections of people during his tenure as the Prime Minister were at the behest of Sonia Gandhi.

The BJP, during its six-year stint, showed they were totally committed to Manmohanomics. The mantra of globalisation and Manmohanomics became so strong that even a large section of Communists of our country capitulated before it. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, then the CM of Bengal, and a Polit-Bureau member of the CPI-M, said: ‘Globalisation is a must.’ Blinded by the glitz of the unfolding process that was harmful to the majority of the people and also to the majority of nations, even the Indian Communists (who never understand the reality and are famous for acknowledging their ‘mistakes’ decades later) started dancing to the same tune.

But, Manmohan Singh has not yet been able to do what the captains of industry in this country wanted him to do. And so, in the last few months, India Inc. started shouting hoarse about slowdown of the reform process. Immediately the government started responding, giving a broad hint that the whole thing was got-up like cricket matches. And then Montek Singh Ahluwalia and others took over the field. The first casualty was the proposal for giving out 26 per cent of profit in mining for the locals. It was brought down to 26 per cent of royalty (except for coal). Then came the fascinating proposal from the Planning Commission that sought to make social security restricted to people who earn Rs 33 in the cities and Rs 27 in the rural areas per day per head or less. This time the intellectuals and common men (through the net, where the architects of this proposal were even dubbed as ‘fun-loving sadists’) reacted heavily against such height of insensitivity, and the Government of Manmohan Singh had to retract. But still Team Manmohan was making every attempt to thwart the broadbasing of food security. They are also planning, according to knowledgeable sources, a slew of measures to uplift the morale of the industry at the cost of the poor people (like the further opening of retail). After all, they are the men who opened the doors for neo-industrial zamindari (SEZ) in the rural areas, and they can contemplate many such things.

That is not all. Even during his foreign trip, the PM clearly indicated (on November 4) that the general trend is towards decontrol, except for products which directly involve people’s interests. But, as we know, he and his team are eyeing other petro-products which include diesel and kerosene. Not to be surprised, he holds an unenviable record, in a democracy like ours, of being a Prime Minister who has never been elected by the people. It matters little to him whether the poor and lower-middle class suffer for his pro-rich policies. For him, the ‘Market’ is God, and not people of the country.

The Rahul Effect

WHEN no politician of India showed any concern for the poor, it was Sonia Gandhi who came forward and formed a National Advisory Council. The BJP leaders mocked at this Council—obviously off-the-record—as an adda of the Naxalite intellectuals. This Council came under attack for other reasons also, and as the ‘office- of-profit’ controversy threatened to besmirch her image, Sonia Gandhi resigned from Parlia-ment and got elected again. The Council disappeared. However, whatever work they did translated into (after overcoming the resistance of the votaries of Manmohanomics in the govern-ment) the hundred days’ work scheme (now MGNREGA), right to the minor forest produce and so on. It ensured the defeat of the BJP whose leaders never had any time to think of such schemes that would make the lives of tens of millions of poor slightly better. As the UPA came back to power in 2009, the NAC too was revived. It has made significant contributions in drafting two legislations: one on food security and the other on land acquisition and compensation. The votaries of Manmohanomics, who may be alter-natively called Team Manmohan, have to some extent blunted the land acquisition and compen-sation legislation. They were too interested to sabotage the food guarantee Bill as well. However, it is reliably learn that under Sonia Gandhi’s instruction the Bill will make provisions so that 46 per cent of the population get highly subsi-dised food and another 24 per cent somewhat subsidised food. If implemented properly, it will go a long, long way in making India a civilised country (the essential condition of being civilised is having concern for the deprived, which entails constant efforts to ensure decent life to all).

It was assumed that Rahul Gandhi will follow his mother’s footsteps. But when the right to forest produce was being legislated, a young MP was concerned about the rights of the tigers, and wrote a letter to the PM. It delayed the imple-mentation of that legislation, as the name of that MP is Rahul Gandhi. But then, we found him in Niyamgiri, assuring the tribal lot that he would be their soldier in Delhi. We were more prone to discard it as political gimmick though Vedanta had to suffer heavily because of him. Then, we found the man again on the dusty roads and ramshackle huts of the villagers in UP, mainly in and around NOIDA. He was trying to protect the interests of the farmers. It seemed he was following the footsteps of Mamata Banerjee (remember Nandigram and Singur). But now, it seems he has embarked upon a journey the road for which lies close by the abodes of the forgotten people of this country. It is a path that is simultaneously dangerous and lucrative for a politician. And so we heard from him what in the age of Manmohanomics sounded like blasphemy:

“But that does not mean that our success is inevitable. Globalisation excludes as much as it includes. There are millions left out of the process, millions who do not benefit from globalisation and millions more who are damaged by its asymmetric application of power. The local networks that protected them no longer exist. The worker from Kerala who extracts the oil that is the life force of the car, cannot afford to drive it home to his children. Every time you turn your key in the ignition, you are sucking oil out of that well in Saudi Arabia. If there is no oil in that well, you don’t have a car—and the man who extracts the oil can no longer feed his children. The farmer in Vidarbha drinks pesticide as global cotton prices tumble. The little tribal boy walks past a housing colony built on top of his home never to set foot in it again.

“Let’s move to migration for a minute. Migration is converting India from a static, village-based society into a mobile urban one. Today’s migration is tremendous and dynamic, but it is a process that leaves people bereft of justice and of rights. It is a process that involves young fathers sleeping on footpaths in new cities. A process accompanied by voiceless women being sold silently in the shadows.” (From a speech at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contem-porary Studies on October 18, 2011)

So, probably, the scope of doubting this man’s commitment to the deprived and underprivileged is shrinking. It is still open whether he would follow a path corresponding to what he has said when he will be at the helm of affairs. But, undoubtedly, what he said is an open challenge to Manmohanomics. It is a real game-changer. Many in the Congress had seen it coming, and had started to position themselves accordingly. And now, with Rahul’s increasing assertion, the omerta (code of silence so that important people do not talk about an important public issue) that the votaries of Manmohonomics successfully established is being broken. Sonia Gandhi compelled the government to take a lot of pro-poor measures, but she packaged it more on the shape of political expediency. Her son, however, has provided a general connotation now. Speaking about the poorest lot is no more a taboo. Questions related to poverty that went out of fashion may soon come back to the discussion table.

Once again it should be stressed that the question is still open whether the Rahul Effect will bring an end to Manmohanomics. However, interesting developments are taking place due to the Rahul Effect.

Signs of Demise of Manmohanomics

VERY recently, Jairam Ramesh, the Union Rural Development Minister, spoke of land reforms and even proposed revision of land ceiling limits. That was on September 12, when he also said ‘absentee landlords’ should own only half the quantum of land permitted under the ceiling Acts. We know this man tried hard to push his land acquisition and compensation Bill through the Cabinet, and achieved about 75 per cent success. What he has proposed now may never be implemented, but even a Cabinet Minister saying these things is significant.

More significant is what P. Chidambaram said at the end of September. On September 27, he proposed taxing the rich more in his address on ‘Inclusive Growth: A Challenging Opportunity’ organised by the All India Management Asso-ciation (AIMA) in Delhi. Echoing what Barack Obama (unveiling a plan to tax the rich said on September 19) and the European leaders are doing, the present Home Minister stressed on the need to tax the rich to defend the expected aggregate decline of resources. More interestingly, he stated clearly that resources are needed to fund the welfare programmes. This is what he said: “For ensuring inclusive growth, we need sustained availability of resources. Non-debt revenue should be increased; therefore, the rich must be prepared to pay more tax. Consequently, the government shall be liable and accountable to the taxpayers on the way the money is being spent.” It clearly shows that it is not only the younger generation in the Cabinet (including Ajay Maken who is trying to bridle the profligate cricket body of the country), but even Chidambaram is feeling the Rahul Effect.

It is not expected that Manmohan Singh will allow his Finance Minister to tax the rich more. But the suggestion, prominently displayed in the media, will stay. And probably this is an indication of the decline of Manmohanomics.

What Ramesh or Chidambaram said is not ‘Leftist’ in character though in our country many will treat them that way. Any civilised capitalist country in a similar situation would have done this long ago, and more than six decades would not have gone almost waste. A system that had remained indifferent to the plight of the vast majority of people can be dubbed only as ‘insensitive’. And again, whatever little was achieved has been destroyed by the extreme Rightist governance from 1992-93 to 2004-05. Afterwards under the aegis of Sonia Gandhi, certain important decisions were taken for state intervention in the economy to protect the poor.

The moot point is that now the government is divided between the staunch supporters of Manmohanics (who are considering certain Rightist steps at the moment to revive the growth rocket as desired by the captains of industry) and those who have felt the Rahul Effect and started acting accordingly. Sonia Gandhi has tried to persuade the votaries of Manmohanomics to take certain steps, but Rahul Gandhi has taken a direct approach and started challenging the basic ideology of Manmoha-nomics (that is, principles of globalisation, liberalisation as applied in India). Again, it was Sonia Gandhi who had put Manmohan at the helm, and thus is a partner in his deeds. Though Rahul had defended Manmohan on various occasions, he has started fighting him also, albeit indirectly. His speech at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies on October 18 stands testimony to it.

As Rahul is the future of the Congress, it can be assumed that he will soon establish his control over the party. No one is sure whether even then he will stand for what he has said now. If he does, it may usher in an age when the country will not serve the rich at the cost of the poor. The rich has many ways to become richer, and there cannot be any objection to it if it takes place in a society where for every citizen a strong social security network exists. There is, however, a great confusion among even our pro-people politicians about who are to be served first. One of them, Mamata Banerjee, has recently threatened pull-out from the government in protest of the recent hike of petrol prices. But, petrol is such a product that its price does not affect 70 per cent of the population. Tampering with and delay in the proposed food security legislation does. But she has never put pressure for that legislation.

Still, we should have to strive for a better and civilised India, where concern for the poor and underprivileged dominates the mind of the people in general and the decision-makers in particular. At the moment, the real decision-makers at the government level are not ready to share this concern. If Rahul Gandhi lives up to his words we may see the beginning of change, for the Rahul Effect can kill Manmoha-nomics and usher in a ray of hope for the poor and underprivileged. However, the question is open whether he will really do it.

Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a journalist by profession and the author of the novel, A Naxal Story. His e-mail address is: dip10dra@yahoo.co.in

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