Why Dr Singh's Advice on Slowdown Makes BJP Blood Boil

Sometimes, your enemy can be your best teacher. But you can only learn from your adversary if you are willing to listen to what he is saying and draw lessons from his words of wisdom. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came out with a series of sensible suggestions about how to reverse the slide in the Indian economy.

Instead of reducing corporate taxes, he said, the government should cut indirect taxes. This will help boost demand for goods and services. The present economic crisis is not because of shortage of supply but due to lack of demand. Having been a former RBI Governor himself, Dr Singh advised the Reserve Bank to immediately ask public sector banks to focus on sanctioning loans to small units and start-ups. This will galvanize business activity at the micro level and help reduce unemployment, which is currently the biggest problem facing the country. Manmohan Singh has always been an economist first and never a typical politician. That is why he came out with these—and several other ideas-for-action—during an hour-long question-and-answer session in Bombay in mid-October.

Even though he was in Maharashtra to campaign for Congress party candidates in the ongoing assembly elections, he did not hesitate to give free golden advice to the Fadnavis and Modi governments instead of merely finding fault. It was not as if he did not make several sharp comments about present policies and to criticize certain major blunders like demonetisation. But the soft-spoken Manmohan Singh's garam-masala of disparagement has lots of curative haldi powder along with the red chilly powder that is mandatory for opposition politicians.

Sadly, the ruling party is in no mood to heed any of the knowledgeable former Prime Minister's free words of advice. Firstly, only one or two of the country's top TV news channels had the courage to provide live coverage of what was a very newsworthy event. Even those that did, cut short the telecast abruptly halfway through. That apart, BJP Ministers and spokesmen were quick to issue angry statements to lambast Dr Singh for daring to refer to the economic slowdown. For instance, Minister of Commerce & Industry Piyush Goyal launched a virulent attack that was given more TV time than Manmohan Singh's remarks.

Goyal said: "Dr Manmohan Singh should reflect on his own failures, where he went wrong, why he couldn't maintain a strong economy and why he acted like a puppet of 10 Janpath". The vehemence of the attack indicated that Dr Singh must have touched a raw nerve in the Modi government. It may have been triggered by his response to a question regarding Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's allegation on Tuesday that public sector banks had gone through their "worst phase" under Manmohan Singh and former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan.

Dr Singh said: "I have seen the statement by the Finance Minister. I won't like to comment on what she said but before one can fix the economy, one needs a correct diagnosis of its ailments and their causes. This government is obsessed with trying to fix blame on its opponent. Thus, it is unable to find a solution that will ensure revival of the economy".

He added disarmingly: "When I was in office what happened did happen. There were some weaknesses. But you can't claim that the fault lies with the UPA always. You have been in office for five and a half years. Mainly passing the buck to UPA is not enough. It will not solve the present problems".

Manmohan Singh dealt with many other wide-ranging topics during his Bombay event. Interestingly, the audience was an unusual mix of desperate depositors of PMC Bank, local business leaders as well as journalists. He answered whatever questions were put to him in his characteristic style, making every word meaningful but without raising his voice. A few of his quotes:

"Sadly, the present slowdown and the Government's apathy and incapability are affecting the future and aspirations of millions of our people. The much advertised, 'double-engine model of governance' on which the BJP seeks votes, has utterly failed".
"Industrial slowdown has been impacted by rising Chinese imports. In 5 years, imports have risen by more than Rs.1.22 lakh crore. Chemicals, fertilizers, electronic goods and automobiles manufactured in Maharashtra have seen rising import competition".
"As demand and production have contracted due to economic mismanagement, business sentiments are down across the state and many firms face closure. The Industrial slowdown is coming in India's way to optimally utilize its demographic dividend".
"It is thus no surprise that many of our young men and women are taking up low paying jobs, investors are shifting to other States. Distress prevailing in our rural areas will add to the unemployment problems as migration increases".
"Caught between low income and high debt traps, the suicide rate has doubled. The obsession with low inflation is inflicting misery on our farmers. The Central Government's import export policies are hurting farmers also".
"While we have no control over nature, we can ensure a mitigation of the damage if we are economically sound. Unfortunately, the BJP governments both at the Centre and in Maharashtra have been unwilling to adopt people-oriented policies".
"This government is obsessed with trying to somehow fix blame on its opponents. In the process, it is unable to find solutions that will ensure the revival of the economy particularly strengthening of our banking system".
"It is my sincere belief that we need to go back to these time-tested measures if we are to ensure gainful employment for our young people, farmer welfare and a better standard of living for all the people of Maharashtra".
"Maharashtra has suffered some of the worst effects of the severe economic downturn after demonetisation. Maharashtra's manufacturing growth rate has been declining for three consecutive years. More closure of factories has occurred than ever before".
"I was told about the disappointing situation at Auto Hub, Pune, India's largest auto manufacturing centre. Similar problems are affecting Nashik, Aurangabad, Nagpur and Amravati, which were once active industrial areas".
"Earlier, Maharashtra used to attract talent from across the country. Today, this is no longer the situation, the State is seen as lacking opportunities. In urban areas, every third youth is unemployed. Educated people are facing high rates of unemployment".
"Maharashtra was the first to attract investment. Today, it is the leader in farmer suicides. Despite the promise of doubling agricultural income, the crisis in rural areas of Maharashtra is not expected to decrease".
"Maharashtra levies the highest VAT on petroleum products. The high VAT, added to the Modi government's decision to impose excessive government excise duty, has troubled people despite the low crude oil prices internationally".
"There are many other problems facing Maharashtra today, most of which are man-made. The solution lies in policies which are inclusive and public welfare, which this government is incapable of implementing".
"If the situation of water shortage is not resolved soon, the situation will become worse. People of Maharashtra are already struggling with low availability of clean drinking water and are even resorting to digging dry river beds. The government is showing apathy to the suffering".

It was not a rabble-rousing election speech. It was just a question and answer session. But despite the matter-of-fact manner in which Manmohan Singh conveyed his views, the mixed audience frequently broke into applause. Little wonder BJP leaders are seething—they had realized how lethal his critique was. ooo


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Vol. 52, No. 19, Nov 10 - 16, 2019