Congress has released its manifesto. These documents mostly are of academic interest during elections in the world’s largest democracy. Beneath the commendable fact that democracy has permeated to the roots of Indian polity in an Asian neighbourhood hostile to this political system, lies a subversive reality where democratic norms are weak and so are public institutions in upholding those norms.
It is a chronic illness and will be slowly addressed as the nation undergoes a transformative change through the course of its journey. In an interview with news agency Reuters on why money and muscle rule Indian politics, Carnegie senior fellow Milan Vaishnav — who has written a book on this subject — held that “whereas the West built institutions before democratising, India embarked on both journeys simultaneously. Layered on top of this, India boasts tremendous ethnic and religious diversity, which politicians can skillfully manipulate to slice and dice the electorate.”
Therefore, while it is flattering to think that manifestos may mould public opinion and swing the voter on the fringes, such concepts are delusional. Manifestos are vision documents. They are about promises if voted to power. The usefulness of a manifesto, therefore, lies in the success of its implementation. On this metric, the Congress has a poor score despite Rahul Gandhi’s tall claims.
There are countless instances of the UPA government failing to keep promises made by the Congress in 2004 and 2009. On One Rank One Pension, for instance, direct support to farmers or reservations for the poor in general category — the Grand Old Party has gone back on its words enough number of times to make any fresh promises sound meaningless.
So, when Congress’ manifesto begins with party president’s solemn pledge that “I’ve never broken a promise that I’ve made” it is hard to take the document seriously. Even so, the manifesto offers us a glimpse into Congress’ political positioning and the direction in which it wants to take the country’s economy. A dichotomy is immediately evident. The Congress seeks to turn India into a welfare state, but redistribution of income is impossible unless there is a focus on creation of wealth.
Rahul’s ideas remind one of the Fabian socialism of his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru and the socialist experiments of his grandmother Indira Gandhi. Both were responsible for stunting India’s growth story in the mistaken belief that socialism can bring economic development and social equality. History teaches us that it does neither. It kills instead.
So, if the Congress were to really turn India in to a welfare state where largesse will be showered in the form of doles and entitlements, then the animal spirits of the economy need to be unleashed so that economic expansion creates enough wealth for everyone. However, the extreme Left turn that Congress promises to take where privatisation is a taboo word and the shift is decidedly away from a modern market economy (one wonders what Manmohan Singh might be thinking) towards bona fide State-sponsored socialism, such wealth creation will remain a mirage and corruption and cronyism will boom.
From being a mainstream political party with a pan-national footprint, the Congress, it seems from the manifesto, is ceding its Centre-Left space and receding into the far-Left socialist corner notwithstanding the grave lessons of human history. Lest we need reminders about how effectively socialism kills, we may only look at oil-rich Venezuela, once the fourth richest country in the world on per capita basis.
As a New York Post article reminded us in 2017, “Venezuela is a woeful reminder that no country is so rich that it can’t be driven into the ground by revolutionary socialism. People are now literally starving — about three-quarters of the population lost weight last year… A country that has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia is suffering shortages of basic supplies.”
And how did things unfold in Venezuela? The Gandhi scion, who promises to expand the role of the State into a benign fount of cornucopia, vows to give Rs 72,000 crore annually to five crore families, offer more government jobs (2.2 million, no less) to mitigate the jobs crisis, increase the NREGA outlay, shun the role of private sector in healthcare and education, spend more on defence and ratchet up spending in every sphere. If spending is raised on all spheres, the math doesn’t add up. Will that result in higher inflation and a wider fiscal deficit? The Congress promises to be fiscally responsible, but doesn’t clarify how will it pull off the Houdini act.
Perhaps Rahul would do well to consider how former Venezuela president Hugo Chavez started the process of running the country into ground and Nicolas Maduro is finishing the task. Venezuela followed what The New York Times calls the “orthodox socialist script”. Chavez once promised to bring 21st Century socialism in Venezuela by nationalising the country’s vast oil industry to fund — Rahul please pay attention — government welfare programmes.
“Chavez fired thousands of oil employees, executives and workers, replacing them with 80,000 political operatives. When Chavez threatened foreign corporations, they abandoned Venezuela, taking billions of dollars in investment with them,” wrote CNN. The State failed to produce same amount of oil in the same price point, and its economy started imploding.
Under Chavez and then Maduro, government spending kept increasing, minimum wages were repeatedly raised and State-owned cooperatives that numbered roughly 100,000 by 2006 employed more than 700,000 workers. What followed reminds us of the destructive power of socialist principles and its close relationship with corruption.
“Government overspending created catastrophic deficits when oil prices plummeted. Worker co-ops wound up in the hands of incompetent and corrupt political cronies,” wrote Bret Stephens in The New York Times. The government responded by printing more money and triggering hyperinflation that eventually turned Venezuela’s currency into garbage. “Inflation led to price controls, leading to shortages. Shortages led to protests, leading to repression and the destruction of democracy. Thence to widespread starvation, critical medical shortages, an explosion in crime, and a refugee crisis to rival Syria’s.”
Now look at what Congress is promising to do. It will give Rs 72,000 per annum to five crore households: though the fine print doesn’t say how, and there are enough caveats inserted to make the promise look dicey. The Congress also vows to “fill all 4 lakh central government vacancies before March 2020 and to persuade state governments to fill their 20 lakh vacancies. It plans to create an estimated 10 lakh new Seva Mitra positions in every gram panchayat and urban local body.”
It promise a separate ‘kisan budget’, brings rights-based approach to healthcare and double healthcare spending to three percent of GDP by 2023 to 24, increase education outlay, bring a single-rate GST (where Mercedes car and hawai chappals will attract the same tax), give the funds directly to the beneficiaries’ bank accounts while diluting the provisions of Aadhaar. The oxymoronic promises notwithstanding, the sheer adventurism and willingness to play with taxpayers’ money shows the Gandhi scion as a curious mix of misplaced idealism and reckless populism. Let’s hope he is bluffing in the manifesto.
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Updated Date: Apr 03, 2019 21:31:09 IST