By Mohan Guruswamy 


New Delhi, 20 August 2003

The NDA government did little to answer the charges leveled by the opposition, covering 5 years of their rule. In the end the no confidence motion turned out to be an exercise in futility. Mohan Guruswamy gives us all the details in this telling piece.


“Let Them Eat Cake!”

By Mohan Guruswamy


With the outcome foregone, the two-day debate on the no-confidence motion could have still been noteworthy if it had any content in it. Unfortunately it had little of substance in it. Sonia Gandhi’s speech was well written. The Prime Minister’s was listless. LK Advani’s was irrelevant. Jaipal Reddy’s speech focusing mostly on George Fernandes was little more than invective packaged in language that only he can conjure up. George’s defense of himself was unconvincing. Mulayam Singh Yadav was his usual self, while Somnath Chatterjee induced somnolence.

Only the Congress backbencher, Satyavrat Chaturvedi did justice to his brief moment under the spotlight by making a superb speech that damned the government for its many failures with barbed facts from a full quiver. Sushma Swaraj’s reply that followed was inadequate, hollow, shrill and verged on being insensitive.

Chaturvedi stuck to the nitty gritty. Unlike his leader, he had no need to show that he was now improved. Unlike the Prime Minister, he had no need to show that he was in fine fettle, physically and intellectually. Unlike the Deputy Prime Minister, he had no need to rely on an Amitabh Bachchan’s testimonial, which in itself can be of dubious value given that he has endorsed so many lemons recently. Unlike Jaipal Reddy, he had no need to show off his English as he spoke in Hindi. Unlike Mulayam Singh Yadav, he didn’t have to resort to abuse as he had the facts that mattered at his command. Unlike Sushma Swaraj, he did not have to be shrill and dilatory. The facts were hard and he flung them at the treasury benches with unerring aim.

The BJP led government had promised an economic growth rate of 8% when what it achieved was less than 4.4%. The average GDP growth for the post liberalization Congress era (1992–97) was a good 6.7%, whereas for the five years that followed (1997–2002) it dropped down to 5.5%. In 2002–03 it was just 4.4%.

No wonder Sonia Gandhi termed dreams of 8% GDP growth as “Mungeri Lal ke sapne!” The agricultural sector has been hit even more. The Congress saw it grow at 4.7%, while in the following five years it had averaged a mere 1.8%, and then went down to –3.1% last year. Industry growth of 7.6% fell to 4.5%, but was up last year to 6.1%. The only sector that had shown a growth in the post Congress period has been Services, which grew to 8.1% from 7.5%. But even this gain has been mostly due to the 14% growth of spending on the bureaucracy, which now accounts for 6.6% of the national income. Chaturvedi’s blows therefore struck where it hurt most.

During the same period the total public debt has grown from about 66.5% of GDP to 80% of GDP in 2001–02. The GDP that year was Rs.2, 296,000 crores. But that doesn’t in itself tell the full story. The Debt/GDP ratio kept declining from 1992–93 and touched its lowest in 1996–97 to 65.1% and has climbed each year to surpass the high water mark of 76.5% in 1992–93. Quite clearly financial management suffered.

The brunt of this mismanagement burden was borne as usual by the people with the least say in our affairs. According to our poverty standards, which are based on per capita consumer expenditure to provide an average intake of 2400 calories in rural areas and 2100 calories in urban areas, no less than 28.6% of the population lives below the poverty line. But in reality the poverty line in India is actually a hunger line, which means those living below this food expenditure level are actually going hungry each day. In other words nearly 300 million Indians go to bed hungry each night. If the more widely accepted international standard of poverty, an income of US$1.0 per day or Rs.47.0 per day is applied, no less than 40% of Indians are impoverished. Chaturvedi turned the knife hard when he added that many thousands still die of starvation in India.

Chaturvedi then taunted the government on its promise to build 2 million homes each year, improve and create jobs for the millions who crowd the job market each year. Quite expectedly the promise of building houses turned out to be quite hollow. Not only hollow but also lop-sided. But Sushma Swaraj was quite approving of what was achieved by HUDCO, the very same PSU that picked a cell phone tab of several lakhs for her friend Ananth Kumar. She said that HUDCO invested over Rs.13,000 crores during the tenure of the Vajpayee government, while all that was achieved by HUDCO in the previous years was about Rs.10, 000 crores. This may be true, but nowhere near 10 million houses were built. Even Sushma only claimed half as many.

The charge that was being made was that promises were not kept, not that the Congress did better! But what is worse is the skew towards urban areas. As opposed to 6798 schemes for the urban areas with an outlay of Rs.9672.5 crores, the rural areas only got 2062 schemes with an outlay of Rs.4064 crores. But this is not all. HUDCO invested another Rs.19,000 crores on 1004 urban infrastructure schemes such as flyovers, mass transit systems and loans to various state government agencies. I don’t suppose that even Sushma needs reminding that 70% of India still lives in rural areas. And a government that promised to spend 60% of all Plan funds on rural areas, ostensibly recognizing their deplorable condition, should have done better?

On the jobs front the performance of the NDA government has been quite pathetic. The total number of jobs in the organized sector witnessed a contraction each and every year of its existence. In the past five years about 2 million jobs were lost. No less than 43 million young people are registered with employment exchanges all over the country. In a country where almost 320 million are below the age of 30, the creation of jobs becomes the most important national priority. Clearly the NDA government’s performance is not just wanting in economic terms, but has serious potential national security implications. Presumably recognizing the importance of having a skilled work force, the BJP led government promised to spend over 6% of GDP on education. Far from reaching this, the spending actually has fallen to 2.9% of GDP or Rs.75, 389 crores last year. This has declined from 3.1% of GDP the year before.

What did Sushma Swaraj say in reply? She just did not touch the issues raised by Chaturvedi. To her, the major achievements of the NDA government, other than that it survived, is that there are no waiting lists for telephone and domestic gas connections. She claimed quite truthfully that till 1998 there were only 1.86 crore telephone connections and in just five years the NDA government added 3 crores more. When she reminded the house that MP’s had no longer to dispense with coupons for out of turn gas connections, I am sure that many would have wistfully remembered the good old days when coupons meant cash. She was next to ecstatic over the uplinking facilities provided to as many as 77 TV channels. But she didn’t reply to the questions posed by Chaturvedi. She seemed to be saying we gave some of the hungry, cake to eat instead?

Rousseau in his “Confessions” tells of a great princess who, on being informed that the country people had no bread replied, “Let them eat cake!” This statement is often, and incorrectly attributed to Marie Antoinette, wife of the French ruler Louis XVI. Nevertheless Marie Antoinette was a frivolous and callous person who came to be disliked by the French people. On October 16, 1793 she was taken in an open cart, and publicly guillotined while Parisians cheered. Ever the royal, she apologized to the hangman for having stepped on his foot: “Pardon me Monsieur, I did not mean it!” Of course she didn’t mean it. Neither did Sushma!

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