In a Delhi drawing room, the day after Mamata Banerjee withdrew her Ministers from the UPA Government, I met a senior politician and asked how long he thought the Government would last. He said, “Till after the Budget Session. Not much longer.” Then, looking around at the gathering of businessmen, diplomats and journalists to make sure everyone was listening, he added, “The only thing that can be said for sure these days is that the Congress is not going to win the next election.” His small audience nodded in agreement.
The next morning I happened to be wandering about Khan Market when I ran into an old colleague from journalism who is now an honourable member of the Rajya Sabha. We stopped to chat. This gentleman’s sympathies lie with the Congress but when I asked him the same question I had asked the politician the night before, he said the same things about the survival of the Government and the unpopularity of the Congress. “They will let the Budget pass,” he said “but after that the election can take place any time… no I don’t think it will survive till 2014 even though no MP wants an early election. And, yes, Congress has become unpopular.”
What I personally find most interesting about the current political uncertainty is that the only thing everyone seems certain of is the Congress’s unpopularity. In long years of covering politics and governance in Delhi I find it hard to remember a time, since after the Emergency in 1977, when Congress has been this unpopular. The Prime Minister tried, when he made a rare address to the nation last week, to be reassuring. And firm about the need for economic reforms to ‘save’ the economy but most people I met remembered only this line from his speech, “Money does not grow on trees.” They mocked him for not having discovered this before he opened the purse strings for Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council to devise anti-poverty programmes like MNREGA.
Would the economy have been in better shape if thousands of crores of rupees had not been spent on programmes that have barely made a difference to poverty levels? Would it have been in better shape if our economist Prime Minister had been allowed to go ahead much earlier with reforms he knew were necessary? The answer to both questions is yes but there is an interesting aspect of the NAC’s interference in Government policies that has mostly gone unnoticed. This is that the interference has not worked to improve her image or Congress’s electoral prospects.
When Sonia gathered around her a caboodle of NGO activists, leftist economists and well-meaning do-gooders, her purpose was to ensure that she was seen as this Government’s Lady Bountiful. She appears to believe as her role model, and mother-in-law, once did that the way to win elections is to be seen to be always on the side of the poorest people in this country, those millions of Indians who live in horrible conditions below a poverty line so low as to be shameful.
In the time of the first Mrs Gandhi huge welfare programmes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme were devised. It boasts of being the biggest child welfare programme in the world but you only need to remember that 50 per cent of Indian children were declared undernourished in a recent survey by Save the Children to know how successful this programme has been. And you only need to remember that 70 per cent of India’s population continues to live on less than Rs 20 a day according to some estimates.
Sonia’s economic contribution to this Government, through her NAC, has been to create the rural employment guarantee scheme, MNREGA, which guarantees 100 days of employment to families below the poverty line at a huge cost to the exchequer. The NAC is filled with people who appear not to have examined the history of similar programmes before devising this one so they have ended up making the same mistakes.
The funds for MNREGA are too centralised to control once distribution starts and there are so many layers of administration involved in implementing the scheme that the inevitable result has been massive corruption. Even in States where the scheme works better there is no reduction in poverty levels because 100 days of employment a year serves mostly to keep people mired in poverty rather than lift them out of it.
The supreme irony of the mess that the Congress finds itself in today is that Sonia, a politician, made important economic decisions and Manmohan Singh, an economist, played at being a real politician. So if today the economic situation in the country is nearly as bad as it was in 1991, as the Prime Minister told us, then the person most to blame is Sonia Gandhi. If last week she ensured that the Congress Working Committee backed the Prime Minister in his latest efforts at economic reform it could be because she can, at last, see the writing on the wall. But, it could be too late to make a difference. If the general election comes next year, as most political pundits think it will, then the beneficial effects to farmers of FDI in retail will not yet be felt. So the opposition parties could make big political capital out of this decision once the campaign begins.
Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet has yet another scheme in the making. It seems almost certain that the Food Bill it has prepared to enable more than half the country to get foodgrains at hugely subsidised rates will pass through Parliament. Which political party in our ‘socialist’ country would dare oppose cheap food for the ‘poor’? Sensible voices that have been warning of disastrous results for the economy have gone unheard.
So whoever forms the Government after the next general election could face an economic situation more dire than PV Narasimha Rao faced in 1991. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh inherited a booming economy in 2004 and in eight years have succeeded in taking it downhill the whole way. Growth rates have dropped, the value of the rupee has fallen precipitously and corruption levels have soared to unimaginable heights. Politically the mood in Delhi is filled with gloom and uncertainty except in Opposition circles where senior leaders can be heard discussing the permutations and configurations of India’s next Government already.