Sunday, March 04, 2007

The 2.5% rate of Growth

Byline by M J Akbar: The 2.5% Rate of Growth

The BJP is in serious danger of declaring victory in the quarterfinals. There
is already a strut in the air that has not been seen since the barely-remembered Venkaiah Naidu was predicting that the party might even get 300 seats, so strong did he see the wave in its favour. We all saw how that wavelet stopped far short of Delhi: the BJP could not even win in the capital, its traditional bastion.

There is good news for the BJP, but good is a comparative word. The NDA began to ebb when the BJP started to lose the urban vote. Its revival has started exactly where its decline began, in the cities. Mumbai went back to Shiv Sena and BJP in the municipal elections; and the urban seats in Punjab, where there was a massive pro-BJP swing, have brought Parkash Singh Badal to power. But this is only the starting point of the end-game in the current phase of the power struggle. Yes, the pace of the game will become faster, and in the month between the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and the elections for the President of India (whose electoral college includes MLAs) it could become frenetic.

There is good news for those Congressmen also — a substantial section which exhausts its frustration by muttering under the breath — who are convinced that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent the "Hindu" vote back to the BJP by appeasing Muslims. Not to worry, my friends: all this talk about helping Muslims was only lip service. When the time came to deliver in the budget, the Prime Minister had nothing to offer. We’ve seen the pattern before; Dr Singh’s government has repeated it. Other deprived sections like the Dalits and Backwards get concrete benefits; Indian minorities get enquiry commissions. Dr Singh’s historic contribution to Indian Muslims is the Sachar Commission report. I hope he will do them a favour now, and stop talking about this report, particularly since his sincerity once fuelled high expectations. Lip service can be a very cruel form of betrayal.

Dr Singh once suggested that 15% of expenditure should be allotted to welfare and economic empowerment schemes for Muslims, since they constitute a little less that 15% of the population. So what happened when the honourable finance minister presented the Budget to the Lok Sabha?

Let us check out paragraph 36 of the Budget speech. "Last year, I made a modest contribution of Rs 16.47 crore to the equity of the National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation." The finance minister admits that it was modest; we should be thankful for small mercies. This year, the war drums were sounded, so how did he respond? "Following the Sachar Committee report, NMDFC would be required to expand its reach and intensify its efforts." So,a meagre Rs 63 crore is added to the share capital. The next paragraph notes that there are a number of districts with a concentration of minorities, but does not specify how many, for that might be both revealing and embarrassing. What is the provision? Rs 108 crore. It is so small the money may not be visible by the time it reaches the district headquarters. Add to this scholarships worth Rs 210.60 crore for all "minority communities".

There are around 150 million Muslims in India, and about 50 million Sikhs and Christians. The total allocation for them is less than Rs 320 crore. The annual expenditure of the Union government is Rs 680,521 crore. Do the math. Send your answers to the Prime Minister. He lives in Delhi and the post office should find him quite easily.For a comparison, read paragraph 33: the allocation for schemes benefiting only Scheduled Castes and Tribes is Rs 3,271 crore, and for schemes in which they will get at least 20% benefit, the sum is Rs 17,691 crore. In addition there are scholarships worth Rs 790 crore for the children of these communities. These SC/ST communities need all the help they can, so funds for minorities do not have to come out of their budgets. There is enough money elsewhere. But there is no will to help the minorities.

This thin gruel did not come without prodding. In an extraordinary gesture,the Prime Minister actually wrote to his finance minister late last year suggesting that the findings of the Sachar report should be taken into consideration. It took a reminder from the Prime Minister’s principal secretary and a formal letter from the Marxist MP Brinda Karat to persuade the finance minister to read what his leader had said. He might as well have ignored it completely. As the budget reveals, the letter produced a molehill instead of a mountain. If a Prime Minister cannot get his finance minister to read his letters, he can’t be much of a Prime Minister, can he?

The Budget is as dismissive of the poor as it is of minorities. There is a kind
of implicit contempt for have-nots: if they don’t like what they see, they can lump it.

The penultimate paragraph of the speech lists the balance sheet after three years in power. "The UPA government has delivered on the promise of savings and investment… It has delivered on the promise of growth…" But, "it will deliver on the promise of making growth more inclusive". When it comes to including the poor in the benefits of growth, the verb moves into the future tense. When shall this "will" come? There are no timelines indicated. But there is a formula: "given the right mix of policies, the poor will benefit from growth that is driven by savings and investment and that is more inclusive". Have we got the right mix of policies yet?

Dr Manmohan Singh first chanted the growth mantra in 1991, fifteen Budgets ago. Its proponents believe that the poor will benefit from a "trickle down" effect. For a decade and half it has been just that: the gush has gone in the direction of bank-balance Indians, savers, investors and share marketers. The poor have been condemned to a trickle from a municipal tap. Government propagandists keep churning out the statistic that the growth rate has crossed 9%; no one talks about the fact that the growth rate in agriculture is only 2.5%.

This is the central reality. A part of India may be growing at 20%, but most of India is growing at the rate of 3%.

This might work in a dictatorship like China, but democracy demands a different dialectic. One critical problem of the UPA government is that the Prime Minister and his finance minister speak from a dictionary that is music to the confederations of industry and unintelligible to the poor. A Budget is not just a description of the national economy; it is also a critical means test of its politics. Theoretically, Dr Singh has two Budgets left under his stewardship, unless one of the laws of Indian democracy catches up with him: if you are not in control of events, events will be in control of you.

The defeat of the Congress in Punjab is remarkable for one reason. The first Sikh Prime Minister of India could not persuade the Sikh voter to stay with the Congress. This is a tribute to the voter’s maturity, for she (women polled in higher numbers in Punjab than men) is no longer swayed by the false sentiment of accidental identity. She measures her vote on the scales of her vegetable shop. She is the judge and the jury, and she is hearing the evidence.

Only one thing is certain: the time between quarter finals and finals will pass in a rush.

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