It is only a matter of time until a new government will be in place in the capital, and possibly a new face addressing us from the ramparts of the Red Fort on this day, exactly a year from now. It has been four years since the present regime assumed power and with less than a year left for the next general elections, here’s a reality check to see if this regime stands the chance to see the light of a new five year term.
It is hard to recall a government as proactive and resolute in its ambition to be the predominant stakeholder in the overall affairs of the state. Be it the launching of certain new revolutionary, unconventional and radical reforms or by means of both innovative and pre-existent schemes draped in new colours. To the keen observer, these may seem as the government’s efforts made to epitomize a new Avatar of welfare-politics in an era where every class of society demands increased representation, which reiterates the promises made to promote their principal agenda, and to maintain their influence and charisma over both their existing as well as prospective vote-bank.
Despite mixed results, the relentless efforts to bring about change certainly highlight the present government’s intentions. Particularly those involving the massive drive to open Jan Dhan accounts, which was linked to the direct transfer of wealth benefits to the beneficiary by plugging the existing illegal leakage. Reforms like demonetisation were preceded by many schemes for people to declare their black money voluntarily without facing severe penalties. Though economic growth was subdued in the preliminary stage of this reform, currency circulation has stabilized and economic growth is steady at a healthy rate of 7.3%.From my standpoint this reform is simply a temporary measure to review the level of preparedness of government agencies to thwart any emerging threat to India’s economic interests from within and beyond. For a more far reaching effect I would put forward for consideration a more comprehensive strategy to tackle growing threats to our financial economy. A strategy comprising of initiatives to plug loopholes in the existing anti money laundering mechanisms and devise new elaborate and innovative schemes which focus on targeting fraudulent acts and illegal transactions. A good place to start would be by seizing undocumented land and unlawfully appropriated government land.
The establishment of a unified goods and services tax regime is a case of ground-breaking reformation of the indirect tax system. The current tax regime has more tax slabs than envisioned and has been revised on multiple occasions. However, certain grievances have been expressed by small and medium businesses with respect to rise in compliance leading to fall in margins. However, in my view the goods and services tax is perhaps the best answer to a complicated concoction of indirect state and central taxes ranging from the much dreaded excise duties and customs to VAT (value added tax) and service tax. It is indeed an intuitive initiative which shows promise since taxes levied would no longer be concentrated on the finished product. It would be distributed proportionately among the various stages of the whole process all the way from manufacturing to distribution. This would virtually eliminate any chance of foul play on part of middleman and is in my opinion an effective means of tackling tax evasion and other forms of illicit financial flows such as money laundering. Besides the aforementioned means of efficient tax collection, another key economic parameter where there has been visible improvement in the ‘ease of doing business’. Since the incumbent government came into power, India has managed to go up 42 places in the rankings, of which a phenomenal positive growth of 30 places was achieved in this the previous fiscal year itself.
The present government has made significant efforts to radically change the governance mechanism in India. For instance, the changing of the Budget date to the 1st of February ensured the respective departments of the cabinet had additional time to spend the money allocated to them. The tradition of presenting an independent Railway Budget, an annual event of great political opportunism, existing since the colonial era, was done away with. This was necessary to ensure that the concerned portfolio is refrained from being used as a bargaining chip in coalition politics. The replacement of the Planning Commission with the NITI Aayog is essentially a politically motivated move to signal a departure from the work strategy of the erstwhile UPA regime, coupled with the intention of showcasing a redefined image of good governance in order to retain public credibility and relevance in regional affairs.
While economic aspects such as inflation have remained under check, rising oil prices put a constant pressure on the government to cut existing excise duty rates. This could consequently cause a significant blow to tax collection correspondingly leading to even more budgetary constraints. Despite this, better targeting of subsidies, particularly in the agricultural sector, by introducing a revised minimum support price which covers almost all agricultural produce, has been widely viewed as a politically driven move made at a strategic timing of a year. With the general elections right around the corner and an active monsoon session for both houses of parliament this move can be perceived either as a desperate gamble to preserve influence in rural affairs or a piece of masterclass politics played to attain the status of a regime which is favoured nationwide. This stands combined with a steady control over the fiscal deficit. There is visible trend of exports gathering pace, but the government’s inability to regulate high oil import prices may lead to a significant widening of trade and current account deficit. Weak corporate finances, low demand and the Reserve Bank of India’s tough norms have pushed up the bad debt of banks. Even though power generation and distribution has risen, several plants remain idle due to muted demand. In terms of infrastructure development, highway construction is seen as the government’s key achievement -perhaps the only one worthy of a special mention – with pace more than doubling in years.
Giving the present NDA regime sole credit for the impressive performance in terms of numbers in certain areas would do injustice to the efforts made by the erstwhile Vajpayee government. It’s been recognised for taking initiative back in the day to establish India in the forefront of technological innovation and social reformation. The much talked about Golden Quadrilateral Scheme, which linked the four metro cities Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai was the brainchild of his government. The Pradhanmantri Gramin Sadak Yojna which is been heavily promoted by the present regime was another grand-vision of the Vajpayee government. It was aimed at easing movement of farm produce, and improving access to healthcare and education by establishing a network of all weather roads that criss-cross villages across India. The mobile revolution started during Vajpayee’s time when the erstwhile NDA government decided to slash call rates and thereby bring in more competition in the telecom industry. Since then, mobile connectivity has taken off in such a manner that it is today the key pillar of the present Central government’s JAM (Jandhan, Aadhaar, Mobile) plan for financial inclusion. Our present government therefore owes a lot to their endeavours, that too at a time of uncertainty.Vajpayee’s achievements did not happen in a conducive atmosphere. Unlike the absolute majority that the present government enjoys today, Vajpayee had steered a coalition government that depended on its NDA partners. Neither was the global economy, nor India’s security threats very friendly. The country was embroiled in an intense confilct with its immediate neighbour to the west, with the government waging war against both Pakistan and its alleged state-sponsored terrorism-machinery in a bid to protect national interests from within and beyond. The war in the Gulf was troubling global markets, spooking oil prices. Notwithstanding all this, by the end of Vajpayee’s term, India’s GDP growth was inching towards double digits, inflation was under control and India was, at least in terms of numbers, shining. Our present government therefore owes a lot to their endeavours, that too at a time of uncertainty.
The present government has been facing constant criticism as domestic investments have not picked up and job growth has remained slow despite initiatives such as ‘Make in India’ and ‘Skill India’ launched by the government. Voters see employment prospects at historic lows. It took an obvious beating post demonetisation and is yet to recover. Consumers in particular have a low opinion about their own income levels and overall purchasing capacity. In the writer’s opinion, they fear that the successes involved with the initial implementation of policies might be short-lived and that swift radical changes to the existing economic framework might end up being a counter-productive approach. This kind of response comes as no surprise as the public has always been hesitant in terms of accepting change. This issue of adaptibility was showcased even when the Indian economy was undergoing a phase of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalisation under the directions of the erstwhile Narasimha Rao government. Back then too, an intuitive and a long-term productive policy was met with large-scale critisicm and a polarised response from the public at large. However, due to the concerted efforts of the UPA regime and the economic genius of the then finance minister, Manmohan Singh, this radical change was brought into motion. And today it is impossible to even imagine a holistic economic growth and social and economic developments without this transition. In the present scenario, it is worthwhile to note that business owners have the most positive outlook on the situation in the last five years. Most businesses expected a decline in profit margins, but the net opinion has improved since the present government came into power. Under the incumbent regime, people in corporate circles have generally stayed optimistic about future prospects, and stock indexes like BSE SENSEX and NIFTY 50 climbing to record high figures in such a limited time frame is a testament to growing investor confidence in unpredictable times when the world’s two biggest economic giants USA and China are engaged in an epic trade war. Such an uncertainty hasn’t dawned upon this world since the time of the Cold War. Our growth rate and economic development has remained undeterred despite, let alone a few areas such as aviation.
There are, nonetheless, numerous critics who claim this to be case of favouritism, with the present regime being constantly accused by both the opposition and several non-state parties of promoting corporate-friendly policies and suppressing the informal sector by encouraging digitization of the economy. They also seemed unimpressed by the numerous significant announcements contained in this year’s budget particularly a healthcare programme called the National Health Protection Scheme (Ayushman Bharat) to cover 10 crore poor families and a proposed 12% contribution by the government to the Employees’ Provident Fund for new employees for the first three years. No reduction in personal income tax rates, and an increase in the cess on income tax from 3% to 4% has invited public disapproval, especially from the members of the middle class, expressing their disdain due to obvious reasons. It is no surprise that in order to keep the rich content and the poor satisfied, the ones in the middle would inevitably face the brunt of the tax collection regime for the sake of national development.
Another cause for concern arises when we bring up the question of social development in the most linguistically, and culturally diverse country on earth. Human rights have remained a topic in contention since the time of pre-independence and is more relevant to our society today than ever. The rise in demonization of certain communities, especially on the basis of their caste, religion and political beliefs presents a looming threat to our national interests. Systemic abuse of human rights by both state and non-state actors remains widespread, and on several occasions the government remains helpless and at times ignorant towards the anguish faced by these marginalised communities and their subjugation through intense mob-violence and hate crimes. There have been consistent claims and allegations made against the present regime of subverting social freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, of assembly, of association and protest and also that of press and media, of which the latter has been clarified as a measure to keep a check on ‘fake’ news and media and prevent the misrepresentation of facts and information. There are a few influential people who have gone to the extent of claiming that democracy is in danger which in the very sense of the phrase, amounts to an overly exaggerated observation in with respect to purview of the state. It sounds absurd to say the least, in light of the fact that these comments were made in public spotlight and if these so-called intellectuals so much as cared about the views that they so openly expressed, they would have thought over twice before expressing them in the public domain or perhaps even refrained from doing so. There have however been cases of subversion of free speech and expression even resulting in death of individuals including but not limited to journalists, writers, and social activists which needs to be appropriately addressed but doesn’t necessitate redundant demands for large-scale public dissent and associated anarchism in an established social order. It is disappointing to note that the present government has made little efforts to address these issues besides condemning them, which has also been the case with previous regimes, who in a bid to secure their respective vote-banks, turned a blind eye to most of the ill-happenings in the so-called modern-day Indian society. The current crime-fighting mechanisms are characterized by a slow response to crime occurrences. Our law enforcement agencies act as a damage control unit rather than a body involved with active crime prevention. While the proactive stance against organised crime has delivered results over the years, it is also essential to address the issue of the alarming increase in the rate of unorganised crime, especially against women. There is a critical need to incorporate new productive adjustments to the operating protocol of these agencies in order to effectively limit occurrences of unorganised crime instead of lying in wait of a complaint to be registered. The government needs to take initiative in this respect.
The very beauty of this nation, that is its wide-ranging diversity, sometimes becomes the biggest challenge for the political administrators since each region represents its own set of social issues, many of which are pervasive to that region only and a few cases of social stigma commonly prevalent in every corner of the country. Our constitution guarantees us equality of status and opportunity in principle but the present government has, in a manner similar to past political regimes failed to properly address the issues concerning the same. The reasons for the same range from the lack of political will, to the fear of facing widespread public discontent and mass disapproval from various sections of society particularly those who will most affected by such reforms. Reservation has had limited effect in the upliftment of the socially and economically backward classes (SEBCs) who continue to face repression and subjugation at the hands of certain members of the so called upper castes, while there are quite a few who are descendants of these SEBCs on paper but are comparably well off economically and take undue advantage of certain benefits accorded to them by virtue of their reservation status; which raises several questions in relation to the effectiveness of such a policy in upholding the principles of the constitution. Nevertheless, it continues to exist and is often used as political tool by successive governments at both and centre in order to advance their political ambitions. Though the present government hasn’t overtly expressed significant interest in following suit, due to the standing fact that reservations are a double-edged sword. Opportunism and manipulation coupled with skilful lobbying and incessant demands for increased representation by several communities, including religious minorities-most of which are not necessarily either socially or culturally backwards, have induced a state of perpetual disorder in state affairs and has put the government in a huge dilemma with respect to its future policy making, keeping in mind the interest of the voters. On several occasions though, members of the ruling alliance have also participated in reservation politics and further aggravated the situation.
It appears as though this endless saga will play on for eternity or as long as this nation exists as a democracy, whichever comes prior to the other. In the words of Plato-“Mankind will never see an end of trouble until lovers of wisdom come to hold political power, or the holders of power become lovers of wisdom.” Since neither of two scenarios seem likely in the current context of Indian politics, the only choice that we as citizens should exercise is to make our own choices. Even the ones who avoid getting involved in this process need to deliberate upon the fact that just because they don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean that politics won’t take an interest in them. It is imperative to note that those who consider themselves too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber. We as responsible citizens therefore should take initiative by being an active part of the process and urge our elected leaders to be a statesman first and then a politician, because while a politician thinks of the next election, a statesman thinks of the next generation. The upcoming elections represent a lot of new opportunities and even bigger possibilities. Even if there appears to be apparent lack of a real choice, we must support the one which would better suit our interests. There are certain areas where the performance of the NDA regime has been dismal to say the least. Even after prudently scrutinising the performance and corresponding public perception and response to the implemented policies, the perplexity involved with India’s ever-vibrant demographics would deter us from making speculations that would undoubtedly be contested by other schools of thought. The ruling party, for the sake of sustaining its relevance in the current power equation that governs the existence of the Indian state, could seek inspiration from words that are synchronous with its primary agenda, which is to nullify the influence of its traditional rival and possibly secure public opinion in its favour-“If ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con’ what is the opposite of ‘progress’?” Food for thought.