Having painted himself into an economic corner, the Prime Minister attempted a political escape route when the functioning of his government was subjected to incisive attack in the Rajya Sabha on Friday. There may have been applause from the treasury benches as he sought to shift the onus for the prevailing mess to the Opposition, but that would hardly resonate with the investors, business houses and industrial enterprises whose backing he so desperately needs. It was evident he was “hurting” before the Elders exercised their singular privilege of extracting clarifications on a ministerial statement.
With the outgoing Governor of the Reserve Bank having pointed to the government&’s incompetence leading to the appalling economic situation, just as Ratan Tata had done, Mr Manmohan Singh knew that the reputation he had earned in his initial stint in government was in tatters; and like the present finance minister opted to play the blame-game. If Chidambaram had made a veiled attack on Pranab-da, Mr Singh&’s alibi was that the continued disruption of Parliament (something which the BJP now realises had been so overdone that it brought diminishing returns) was responsible for shattering investor confidence, both domestic and international.
That sowing a political wind reaped something of a whirlwind is of small consequence: the Prime Minister wound up doing precisely what he had accused the BJP of doing ~ sending out signals that the Indian economy was so politically-palsied that it was no place to “do business”. His asking if any other Prime Minister in the world had been called a cheat in Parliament, and the counter query if any other Prime Minister had bought votes to defeat a no-confidence motion did tickle some inexpensive fancies: would it impress the stock market upon which he pins so much faith? And who in the business community would buy his line that there were adequate corruption-control mechanisms in place, so no need for the Opposition to make that an “issue”?
If the initial statement he made in both Houses was insipid, his replies to pointed economic queries in the Rajya Sabha were loaded with promissory, hackneyed, rhetoric. Some might have recalled that when the Harshad Mehta-led securities scam was raging he had claimed he was not losing any sleep ~ and they would wonder if the collapse of the rupee (among other things) has not roused him from his slumber. There was nothing inspirational or reassuring about his essay. Yes, to the delight of the treasury, he was uncharacteristically combative (if only he was as aggressive in running the government), and traded political charges quite forcefully. Maybe he should memorise his lines, and save them for delivery from an electoral platform a few months down the road ~ provided his party “fields” him.
Dole for jobless
It would be a gross understatement to call it half-baked. Even the basics of the latest welfare handout in West Bengal ~ a monthly dole of Rs 1500 to every unemployed person ~ are yet be worked out as the government sets about approving the budgetary scheme as a follow-up to Thursday&’s announcement on incentives for industry that isn’t. This is another pie in the sky, one that follows up the state-sponsored tamasha in Haldia and Mumbai.
Five months after the state budget, even the cost of the dole for the jobless is yet to be worked out as the number of targeted beneficiaries remains indeterminate. A rough-and ready estimate by the labour department puts the figure at Rs 180 crore, implying that in the remaining months of this fiscal the outgo would be a tidy Rs 90 crore.
As with the food security benevolence of the national government, the resource generation has been left delightfully vague. With the Chief Minister intent on distributing cheques on 3 October ~ clothed as a puja gift ~ and the labour department slow-footed in drawing up the list of beneficiaries, this is another welfare handout that could flounder on the rock of official ineptitude.
Since March, when the state&’s finance minister mooted the proposal, the government has ignored three crucial parameters ~ the family income that can serve as a cut-off, the criteria for selection of beneficiaries, and whether the mode of filing the applications will be generally suitable. In keeping with technological compulsions, the applications will have to be filed with the government&’s employment portal. The system is still far from error-proof: as reported in this newspaper, the portal doesn’t function, not to mention a website that can provide information to those in search of jobs.
Even in terms of internet access, the urban areas have an edge over the rural given the uneven extension of technology and irregular power supply in the villages. In the net, the government as much as the job-seeker in the rural/backward areas will have to endure the digital divide.
Almost every facet of the scheme, scheduled to be launched very shortly, remains unaddressed. The jobless can’t afford to be the victims of another government tamasha in the company of the corporate class. And may we request the finance minister to check on bills for goods and services ~ including advertisements ~ lying unpaid for years at Writers’ before reaching for his cheque book?