Poll time bonanza: For whom?

(Photo: PTI)

In the run up to the 2019 polls, more and more promises will be made. But will they be beneficial for the country and its citizens or just an opportunity for parties to score brownie points?

Poll times are good times. Desires see a dream. Rues of bonanza create a perception of benefit. The latest bill on economic criterion for higher caste reservation sounds good though it has many fallacies and may ultimately create more dissatisfaction as the ten percent includes virtually all those who are out of the quota – upper castes, farming castes like Maratha, Patidar, Jats, religious groups Muslim, Christians, Sikhs and who not.

Good! It looks equitable. In reality, it is not. The kitty of 10 percent for the majority of Indians, approximately over 100 crore, is too small and impractical. The eligibility criteria for economic weakness appear to cover almost all. The annual family income should not exceed Rs 8 lakh. The maximum area of agricultural landownership is not to be above 5 acres. The area of house should not be larger than 1,000 sq ft. Some of these criteria are sufficiently liberal to accommodate most households. Together it is complex and depends on bureaucratic discretion. The rationale of deciding backwardness up to Rs 8 lakh of family income is again a contradiction. One pays income tax at Rs 2.5 lakh, meaning he is well off. By the new criteria since he is not, he can have the benefit of reservation.

It may also mean more benefits are coming through the “interim” budget. It may be a hint that long-ignored I-T limit is likely to be raised. It should be raised to at least Rs 10 lakh and if that is done in the budget, the contradiction can be taken care of. There are doubts over rationalization of losing revenue. Over the past three years direct tax collection, mostly from the lower segment of taxpayers, has increased. How much of that the bureaucracy would allow to lose? So actual limit may not be that high.

The recent assembly elections revealed that the traders, industry, entrepreneurs and farmers are shifting their political support to the opposition. The farmers post-poll got loan waivers, even if it does not benefit them. It only reveals the distress is deeper. All other segments may also be given some crumbs through further raising the limit for GST registration and cuts or package for some like the sugar industry. The backlog of payment to sugarcane farmers are increasing and discontent is growing. Despite some piecemeal support in UP, the arrears are mounting. Maharashtra chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has sought Rs 500 crore package.

The crisis is snowballing. According to CMIE, India has lost over one core jobs in 2018. In 2017, 40.79 crore were employed. It reduced to 39.07 crore. The job losses were in all sectors, including the IT. From 2006-07 to 2017, five lakh central PSU jobs were lost. About 1.78 lakh new jobs were given at the centre since 2014. So even if the new bill announces reservation even in private educational institutions, if jobs are contracting, the benefit of reservation would be extremely limited. More so as recruitment by the government, except in police forces, and PSUs have declined. The foreign portfolio investors (FPI) withdrew over Rs 1 lakh crore during 2018. It may be argued that this money is floating but it creates employment else why a nation would allow it.

The nation remembers the BJP 2014 promise of creating one crore jobs every year. Poll promises may not always come true. The political system and parties need to discuss this in holistic manner. One wonders what the new incarnation of Planning Commission, the NITI Ayog, has been doing. It has to be a thinking nation. Political decisions should follow a process of discussion, debate and rationale. Even the insertion of reservation for SC and ST in the Constitution was the result of an intense debate and against the wishes of Dr. BR Ambedkar. Nations can always take vital decisions at political level. But the process must follow a system so as not to have new complexities.

The decision of former Prime Minister VP Singh in unilaterally implementing the Mandal Commission report was irrational. Ironically, the BJP severed relations with him on this issue. Politically, it was devastating for VP Singh himself. It did not pay him the dividend though it caused severe social commotion. The OBCs have made marginal gains. But the competition within the quota is more severe. It is well-known that the better off among the OBCs are beneficiaries.

In the present scenario, it is not difficult to understand that all political parties despite their known opposition shied of for losing brownie points. Such brownies even late Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao through an executive fiat of reservation for upper castes had tried to take. The court struck it down.

The legal standing of the move is yet a grey area.  There is a longstanding Supreme Court verdict that the basic structure of the Constitution does not permit more than 50 percent reservation and tinkering with the constitutional fundamentals. Finance Minister Arun Jatiley says the present bill has amended the Constitution itself to take its care. There are instances when such amendments were also struck down.

The bill itself may cause more poll noises by the parties with OBC or dalit base for higher benefits. The much touted social justice that the bill is stated to address is also doubtful. Each such move of reserving the job pie has led to segmentation of the society and conflicts. It also means higher expenses on law and order. Political parties, in or outside government, need to rethink whether for the sake of poll benefits they would like to create deep social fissures? Economy thrives in an atmosphere of cohesion. Politics of hurry must not overtake the fundamentals of civilization and erode the gains made during millennia.

In the run up to the 2019 polls, more promises are only natural. It should be for more social liberalization and not for ghettoing it or over-governance. It must not be instant benefits. That is the social junk food.

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