When doom seems imminent, mood can cathartically turn from bad to verse. Top Congress leaders’ comments on slowdown remind me of not some economic theory but a poem Shola tha jal-bujha hun hawaaein mujhe na do… Written by the Pakistani poet Ahmad Faraz, it is beautifully sung by Mehdi Hassan. There is a couplet in the poem: Jo zeher pee chuka hun tumhi ne mujhe diya/Ab tum tou zindagi ki duaaein mujhe na do (You only gave me the poison that I have drunk/So, at least you don’t wish me a long life).
At the heart of the crisis is the socialist economy the grand old party burdened the country with in its many terms—both in the pre-liberalization era and in the 10 years (2004-14) when it was in office heading the United Progressive Alliance. Of course, the Narendra Modi government has not done well on the economic front, primarily because of its obsession with statism and the ineptitude first of Arun Jaitley and then, even more so, of Nirmala Sitharaman. The root-cause, however, remains socialism; the ruling dispensation may have proved to be incompetent doctors, but the poison that ails the body-economic was injected by the successive Congress regimes.
Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s impudence is astonishing: “Even after seven months into the fiscal year, the BJP government believes that the problems faced by the economy are cyclical. The government is wrong. It is wrong because it is clueless. It is unable to look for the obvious clues because it is stubborn and mulish in defending its catastrophic mistakes like demonetisation, flawed GST, tax terrorism, regulatory overkill, protectionism, and centralised control of decision-making in the PMO.”
Look who’s talking! And how! Here is the man under whose charge tax terrorism and stifling regulation thrived, and cronyism boomed—and he has the gumption to lecture the government on economy.
Chidambaram accuses the Modi government of being “stubborn and mulish”, but he has never been known as the paragon of humility and virtue. In fact, he is being tried on charges of financial fraud, the charges because of which he had to spend three and a half months in prison. Yet, he pontificates on everything from the GDP to Kashmir with the deportment of a saint. The guy certainly has the cheek.
Chidambaram actually began tax terrorism. In September 2004, the government lost a 15-year-old excise case in the Supreme Court against ITC. The sum involved was over Rs 800 crore. For some reason, he wanted to teach the ITC bosses a lesson. Therefore, disregarding the highest court of the land, he got the pertinent excise notification amended retrospectively to validate the levy of the duty. So much for his regard for the rule of law!
Then there is former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who didn’t say much when he was at the helm of affairs for 10 long, painful years; indeed he didn’t have much say in the important issues of the day. He primarily carried out orders given to him by Sonia Gandhi, who was the empress in that period. It was the upside down version of the Westminster model: the empress ruled without reigning, but that’s another story.
He was so meek that Modi, campaigning against Singh before the 2014 poll, used to call him “Maunmohan” Singh. In the Opposition, however, Singh has been exercising his right to freedom of expression with remarkable vigour. In a recent newspaper article, he wrote, “Bankers are reluctant to make new loans, for fear of retribution. Entrepreneurs are hesitant to put up fresh projects, for fear of failure attributed to ulterior motives. Technology start-ups, an important new engine of economic growth and jobs, seem to live under a shadow of constant surveillance and deep suspicion.”
Correct, but Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah didn’t invent “retribution”; it was used with impunity by the UPA government. The Modi-Shah duo is accused of undermining institutions, but didn’t you yourself undermine the very institution of Prime Minister, Dr Singh? And what did other top Congress leaders, beginning with Indira Gandhi, do? Didn’t they weaken, or try to weaken, every institution? In the heyday of socialism, there was even talk to have “committed judiciary”—that is, all lal salaam type of judges.
Singh and Chidambaram occupied top offices in the country when the worst features of socialism were revived and economic reforms were not just stopped but practically buried. And now they are slamming the government for the troubles the economy is facing.
Of course, Sitharaman’s incompetence is monumental. The real problem, however, is the policy framework that Singh and Chidambaram have left behind—the poison that the body-economic was injected with.
Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a freelance journalist