In a recently published article, Congress leader Manish Tewari opined why Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi “must” lose the 2019 elections. Yes, the word used by him was “must”. It seems that the vicissitudes of democracy has not made Congress leaders more cautious of public opinion. For someone who was blamed by his own party colleagues of running away from the Chandigarh battlefield in 2014 Lok Sabha election, it was odd that the choice of word was “must lose”.
The primary contention of Tewari in his article is that PM Modi has been bad for social cohesion, economy and institutions. Everyone in politics is entitled to his or her opinion, but should not project one’s opinion onto a full electorate. Indeed the electorate may view the three areas touched upon by Tewari quite differently from what he has chosen to.
The reality remains that India’s economic growth has actually been significant since the Modi government assumed office. From Fragile Five to the fastest growing major economy of the world in under four years with the legacy of the sins committed by the Congress, is no easy feat. Blips aside, the macroeconomic control under this regime has been significantly higher when compared to what happened in the decade prior. The deficit is in check, the inflation is routinely undershot Reserve Bank of India (RBI) estimates, and the gross domestic product (GDP) growth has been robust. This is high quality economic growth.
India has climbed to the 77th rank in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business report from 142nd when the government assumed office. Targeting specific procedural reforms, India has made significant gains on cutting red tape and improved efficiency of paying taxes, led by the goods and services tax (GST) implementation. Successive reforms such as GST and demonetisation have further led to more formalisation of the economy and removing inefficiencies, while also expanding tax base. Tax compliance has increased with a record high 6.86 crore direct tax returns being filed in FY18 and GST collections crossing 1 lakh crore mark in October 2018. India’s tax to GDP ratio at around 12 per cent has never been higher in the history of the country.
On the back of these reforms, the Indian economy clocked a GDP growth rate of 8.2 per cent in Q1 of FY19.
Agriculture sector budget allocations have also seen significant increases. The FY19 budget set a record 11 lakh crore credit to be disbursed to farmers. The government declared a hike in minimum support price (MSP) of Kharif crops to 150 per cent of the cost of production and Rabi crops saw a MSP hike up to 21 per cent. The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana has covered 13.77 crore farmers till date. More than 16 crore soil health cards have been distributed. More than 1.2 crore farmers have registered under the e-NAM trading platform. Agriculture grew at 5.3 per cent in Q1 of FY19. Additionally, states like Maharashtra have completely deregulated selling agriculture produce, a significant reform bound to show results over time.
Tewari has raised the issue of oil prices. This is unfortunate because the Modi government is actually working to rectify the ills of the oil pricing led fiscal indiscipline from the Manmohan Singh days. In spite of crude oil prices touching $95 in 2007, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government artificially kept prices low at Rs. 39 per litre. This loss faced by the Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) was financed by the citizens themselves through oil bonds. This borrowing became a future liability which the Modi government was saddled with. Oil bonds to the tune of 1.3 lakh crore had to be repaid, which necessitated market linking of petrol and diesel prices. In fact, the Modi government has ensured OMCs are largely immune from price shocks, thus ushering in an era of responsible energy management.
Another pet issue of the Congress has been the Indian Rupee (INR) exchange rate against the American Dollar (USD). They’re conveniently picking up data to suit their agenda. The rupee collapsed from Rs 39 to Rs 68.86 between 2004 and September 2013, when the RBI intervened to save the falling INR. From that low, the baseline inherited a few months later by the Modi government along with foreign currency deposits raised by RBI, the INR has moved to about 73 levels - not a big change, and reflective of global trade, inflation, and fund flow realities.
There is too much being made of institutional compromise under the Modi government. An elected sovereign government is voted in to manage all aspects of and all organs of the governance. The Modi government agreed to give RBI an inflation management mandate, which it had sought all along, but has missed the targets routinely. The RBI complains of centralisation, but does not want to let go of public debt management function. The RBI does not bring fast enough changes in payments regulations, but labels government attempt to liberalise the sector a hit on its independence. Institutions don’t exist in vacuum - and they do not hold sovereign status.
Tewari mentions the issues with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The Modi government, in fact, let the usual CBI hierarchy play out for promotions. But CBI is not an independent agency to decide on its own what it would investigate. In fact, security agencies under the Modi government have done a phenomenal job of managing national security. With a flurry of terrorist attacks including the ghastly 26/11, the Congress era resulted in a spurt in Naxal activity and insurgency in North East. During the Modi government, the Naxal districts have reduced from 126 to 90, with just over 50 districts severely hit. The North East was never more peaceful, and is being developed as a gateway to South East Asia. The nation hasn’t forgotten the heroic surgical strike conducted on 29 September 2016 against Pakistan sponsored terrorism.
While the previous Congress government dragged its feet over a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam to tackle illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the NRC was implemented by the Modi government.
Foreign policy under the previous Congress government was also in bad shape. The Modi government has taken a firm stance dealing with China and Pakistan. The government has tried to regain lost ground in Sri Lanka and Maldives. The relationship with Bangladesh is being strengthened to get access to new road, air, and water corridors. The USA under Donald Trump has been far less unpredictable for India compared to other nations. India’s trade ties with Afghanistan and Iran have been preserved and improved. The independence of relations with Israel and Middle East countries has been managed well. Russian defence deals continue to be engaged with. India has actively managed its interest, finely juggling foreign policy contradictions.
All of this has happened while the Modi government works on improving quality of life for all citizens, without any differentiation or distinction. Under PM Awas Yojana, more than 1 crore houses have been constructed. 9.3 crore toilets have been constructed under Swachh Bharat. Saubhagya scheme has ensured electricity for nearly 2 crore homes. Ujjwala Yojana gave clean cooking gas to 5.7 crore women. The health insurance under Ayushman Bharat programme now covers 10 crore households. Financial inclusion has been achieved under Jan Dhan scheme with nearly 33 crore accounts. A whopping 434 schemes are covered under direct benefit transfer (DBT), preventing corruption. Every programme on tangible benefits is non-discriminatory - where does the question of social cohesion being disturbed arise?
To use a favourite Manish Tewari phrase, the holistic view of the national interest taken by the Modi government is unparalleled.
So what “must” happen in 2019? The answer is simple - democracy must be strengthened, individual voter choice must be respected, and the arrogance of foisting a verdict on voters must be called out.
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