Aggression is not an antidote for dealing with arrogance. Resorting to the historic romanticism of rhetoric to disarm one’s detractors is an exercise in escapism. Both were amply evident in the two speeches Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made while speaking on the Presidential address in both the Houses of Parliament. While his words were quite unManmohan-like, his deliveries bore the stamp of Congress culture. Rebutting the Opposition’s acerbic attack on his government, the Prime Minister invoked the words of Roman historian Tacitus who wrote “when men are full of envy, they disparage everything, whether it be good or bad”. Undoubtedly, the Prime Minister was at his best during his 80-minute intervention in Parliament. Some of his colleagues were linking his newly acquired confidence with Rahul Gandhi’s categorical withdrawal as a candidate for the next prime minister, at least for now.
But his speech was coloured and influenced by the mindset of an economist who knew the art of using statistics according to his convenience, and not conviction. He pulled out figures, which made his government smell like roses. He was absolutely correct when he claimed that the UPA has performed better than the NDA. Manmohan was quite justified in charging the Opposition for being jealous of his government. But he forgot that the figures he used tell a different story as well. For example, he claimed that the GDP growth has been much higher during the nine years of the UPA as against just six years of the NDA. But he conveniently forgot that the GDP growth during the NDA’s last year was over 8 per cent. It is now below 5 per cent—40 per cent lower than in 2003-2004. In simple words, it means that the UPA government has failed to create real wealth and productive assets. It has frittered away money on wasteful fancy and politically beneficial schemes. His speech was a well-written lesson for India Inc to follow—to claim huge success by camouflaging failure. It is amazing that the Prime Minister was boasting about the better management of the economy, while forgetting that his government’s market borrowing has risen 10 times—from about `46,000 crore during the last year of the NDA regime to `4. 67 lakh crore in 2012-2013. Interestingly, P Chidambaram during his first stint as finance minister kept a tight control over the fiscal deficit at just `1.26 lakh crore in 2007-2008. But soon after he left, later budget papers tell the story of a spending spree that has led to an almost four-fold increase in the fiscal deficit—from `1.25 lakh crore during 2004-2005 to `5.20 lakh crore
during the last financial year.
The Prime Minister also charged the NDA government with making very little progress in the direction of reforms. But it is an admitted fact that most fiscal and monetary reforms in the areas of FDI and rationalisation of interest rates took place during NDA’s time. Manmohan was absolutely right when he moaned that “we are not seeing this arrogance (of the Opposition) for the first time”. Admittedly, the BJP is still under the false impression that it occupies the seat of power, while in reality, it is in the Opposition. Its leaders target the Prime Minister and UPA leaders for personality faults and not for their performance. However, that doesn’t take away the reality on the ground—that the UPA has under-performed. The ruling party and the Prime Minister have not learnt any lessons from the defeat of the Congress in 1996. Like the NDA did later, the Congress fought the election on the basis of economic reforms, which were conceived by prime minister P V Narasimha Rao and ably implemented by then finance minister Manmohan Singh. But the electorate dismissed those fancy flirtations with Western economic models as a policy to make a few of India’s favoured rich even richer while leaving the poor to exist at mere subsistence level. And the Congress won the minimum number of seats ever since Independence.
The Prime Minister was expected to spell his mission and define the roadmap for his big mission to win a third record term for his party. Manmohan’s claim that the percentage of people living below the poverty line fell by an average of 2 per cent during the UPA regime is certainly not false. But the figures posted on the Planning Commission website make it clear that the UPA’s policies are helping the urban population to move out of poverty much faster than people living in rural areas. The UPA considers those who earn less than `28 per day in rural areas and `32 in urban areas as BPL families. Even by these standards, the percentage of BPL persons in rural areas declined by 20 per cent between 2004 and 2010, while those in urban localities fell by over 20 per cent. Clearly, the UPA’s economic policies were churning out more and more crorepatis in cities. And they are the ones who push and press for economic reform.
The Prime Minister’s intervention was merely a reflection of the nature of the public discourse going on in the country. Debate and dialogue now revolve around the academic affluence of Wharton and not the lethal scarcity of water. Almost all the platforms and forums of debate spend more time on how to resolve GAAR but not on how to provide more ghars (homes) to the homeless. Pakistan and secularism get more time and space in the government and media than paani (water) and sadak (roads). Unless the direction and content of public dialogue and debate is reversed in favour of resolving basic issues, even a soft economist like Manmohan Singh and others like him in politics will continue to adopt artificially aggressive political postures to try and win yet another term in office. But he and his ilk will lose the hearts of those who continue to repose faith in them in spite of unpardonable betrayal.
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