Why don’t BJP, Left challenge the UPA with a shadow Budget?
By Shankkar Aiyar
03rd March 2013 07:13 AM
Politics is, above all, a contest of ideas and imagination. In India, though, the ruling front and the Opposition seem to run on empty and play for broke. Every budget is followed by a predictable routine of sloganeering and vacuous rhetoric. Ambiguity defines identity and ideology. Parties posture on what they are against, not what they stand for. Politics, particularly post-budget presentation, seems merely an argument industry.
Budget 2013 was deemed to be the most important budget since 1991, given the crisis in the economy. The expectation was that Finance Minister P Chidambaram—the author of the 1997 Dream Budget —would announce ‘big bang reforms’ and craft a Silver Linings Playbook for the dysfunctional political economy. It was not. The Congress continues to be haunted by the ghost of the 1990s’ Antony Committee set up to examine if reforms were anti-poor. The resultant doctrine—pro-reforms is anti-votes—dictates its economic thinking. Given the lack of fiscal headroom and political elbowroom, Chidambaram simply repackaged government finances to stall the junk rating of the economy. And prevent the junk rating of his party.
Predictably, the Opposition described the budget as ‘anti-people’. The principal thesis was that the budget was ‘unimaginative’. Well, one can’t accuse the Opposition of being imaginative either. Political criticism cannot just be a representative articulation of disaggregated rant. For decades now political leaders have come to believe that the road to power is lit by rhetoric—about problems and promises. Truth is, the voters are looking for solutions and outcomes. Why doesn’t the BJP—and the Left and other parties like the SP and BSP—present a shadow budget and challenge the UPA?
Surely, it can’t be for lack of talent. Yashwant Sinha, currently the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, was finance minister in the post-Pokhran II crisis years. He is a subscriber of fiscal austerity and knows crisis management. Jaswant Singh was the finance minister who put money back in the hands of the voters through interest rate cuts and tax rebates to drive consumption and growth. Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and others could surely contribute. Ergo—why not present an alternate view of how to manage the economy?
Instead of rushing to state what is not there in the budget, what if Sinha uses the one hour to present an alternate budget? The numbers are known and the issues well debated. India needs to deliver empowering intervention without leakage, promote investment and deliver growth. India spent `7 .10 lakh core on the social sectors, yet its ranking in human development and the indices are abysmal. Why not borrow from the best practices across the country? Why not borrow from Tamil Nadu’s success in universal food security? Why not deploy what Madhya Pradesh has done in agriculture? Can the land acquisition formula of Gujarat—successfully deployed in the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor—enable Indian corporates to invest in India instead of abroad? Why not look at what the Raman Singh regime has done right in delivery of services and in raising per capita income ostensibly from `11,000 in 2003 to `52,000? Since the general elections are not too far away, this could well be the snapshot manifesto.
There are certainly enough puzzles in the budget that the Opposition could focus on. They could start with how a $2-trillion economy has only 42,800 people with incomes of over `1 crore. The containment of fiscal deficit and revenue projections, for instance, are based on a forecast that the economy which grew at 4.5 per cent last quarter will grow at between 6.1 and 6.7 per cent next year. Raghuram Rajan and his team expect the economy, where private final consumption expenditure has slid from 8 per cent to 2.9 per cent, to improve its performance by 25 per cent with no visible steroids. This, when the government is on its last leg; issues dogging investment are yet to be resolved; and global economy yet in a fog. There are also a few IEDs in the text of the budget. The proposal for re-pricing gas will result in higher price of CNG, power, fertiliser and steel, and higher subsidies. The provision for the new Food Security Bill is clearly inadequate. The gaps in provisioning suggest that the UPA probably intends an earlier than 2014 poll.
Like the BJP, the Left too has been harsh on the budget. Why don’t the Left parties challenge the UPA? They too have a talent pool. There is Gurudas Dasgupta, who has been a member in many committees, and a trained economist in Sitaram Yechury. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati have ruled Uttar Pradesh. Nitish Kumar has ostensibly set Bihar back on track. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik knows the challenges of deprivation. Surely they could come together and present a shadow budget.
The constant and not-so-coherent carping about what is not there is no different from the way Congress campaigns in Opposition-ruled states during Assembly polls; talking only about problems without necessarily being obliged to offer solutions. Why don’t the BJP, the Left or the other opposition parties innovate? Surely, democracy cannot be grounded in knowledge-proof politics. What could be better for voters than to know where each party stands and make an informed choice!
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change
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