A statutory central government agency, functioning under the aegis of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation (MoSPI), seems to have caused the Union government and the party that runs it no end of embarrassment. The reactions of senior government functionaries have been pretty much of a piece with a style that has become emblematic of this dispensation.
A subcommittee of the National Statistical Commission (NSC), an autonomous body, has released a report with a dataset relating to annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates going back to the last years of the Narasimha Rao government. The precise figures that have set off a minor storm show that the annual growth rate during the tenure of the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA-I) was 8.89 percent; and, under the second, and often considered economically disastrous, UPA (UPA-II) government 7.39 percent. In the four years under the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, this figure has clocked in at 7.2 percent .
The report and the data are not yet official. For that to happen, they will have to be vetted and validated by the NSC. But government functionaries have gone into overdrive to discredit these findings, while the Congress party is obviously making a point about economic management. After the UPA-II government was exculpated in the 2-G spectrum allocation, these figures have obviously given it many talking points.
Let’s examine the reactions to the report and the data, which were released on Friday, 17 August, 2018. The very next day, Rajiv Kumar, the deputy chairperson of the Niti Aayog, and Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic advisor to the union finance ministry, stepped up to the plate.
The burden of Kumar’s song was that high growth had been funded by ‘untenable fiscal deficit and reckless expansion of commercial bank credit’, which led to a dramatic economic collapse in the last three years of the UPA-II’s tenure in government.
For the record, the relevant figures were 7.05, 5.42 and 6.05. In the next four years, under the BJP, the figures have improved to 7.2, 8.1, 7.1 and 6.5. Kumar has offered no explanation for the ‘dramatic’ collapse in the growth figures for 2017-18. He doesn’t really have to.
Sanyal referenced high inflation and Kumar also chipped in with the rupee depreciation crisis of 2013, the latter seemingly without any sense of the ironical at a point of time that the rupee appears to be in freefall. At any rate, neither of these technocrats have addressed multiple failures of the current government, which is understandable given that some of these have happened under their watch.
On Sunday, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, due to resume duties soon, resorted to his favoured choice of weaponry, his blog, to attack the Congress party. The burden of his song was that the Congress party’s claim of delivering the highest economic growth ignored the fact that it was premised on the performance of the Vajpayee government and had been accompanied by high fiscal and current account deficits. He also repeated most of what Kumar and Sanyal had said a day earlier, but added that the UPA-I regime had benefited from ‘global tailwinds’.
This is not the time to enter into an extensive debate on economic performance, except to say that the current dispensation’s record has been less than exemplary, with its politically driven demonetisation policy and its botched implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, which is still under periodic revision.
Why I say these reactions are emblematic of the current dispensation is that they highlight what it has been doing practically from the beginning. First, is the obsessive desire to ‘spin’. This is done by cherry-picking data and facts. The second is the no less obsessive predilection for self-congratulation and the devaluation of everything anyone else has ever done.
Look at the current debate. Jaitley mentioned the ‘global tailwinds’ that facilitated growth under UPA-I. He mentioned neither the global recession of 2008, which cast a long shadow into the next few years, as a factor inhibiting growth in the UPA-II tenure, nor the slump in global oil prices that gave the BJP government the golden opportunity to cut various deficits and improve economic management. None of the three mentioned in this article, obviously, made a single reference to the multiple failures of the current regime, including the rupee crisis, which is very much with us, here and now.
Jaitley also suggested that the Manmohan Singh government succeeded because it built on the headwinds generated by the BJP government in 1998-2004. To be fair, he also mentioned ‘incremental reforms from 1991 to 2004’, but the brunt of the argument was that Atal Bihari Vajpayee left a legacy, which made it possible for the UPA-I government to make a success of economic management. Coupled with this claim is the almost invariable invocation of the failures of past Congress governments whenever the question of this government’s failures come up.
If the BJP and its government toned down its propensity for self-congratulation, attempts to claim unearned credit and relentless efforts to run down everyone else, while acquiring a smidgeon of the art of being graceful, it would make the current dispensation somewhat less tiresome.
Updated Date: Aug 20, 2018 16:51 PM