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Govt. may have to present second Budget to deal with COVID-19 aftermath, says Jairam Ramesh

With pandemic, everything has been turned upside down, according to the senior Congress leader.

April 06, 2020 01:45 pm | Updated 01:54 pm IST

Jairam Ramesh

Jairam Ramesh

A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to Opposition leaders including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said Mr. Modi should have taken the initiative earlier. In an exclusive interview with The Hindu , Mr. Ramesh also said that the government will now have to completely rework the Budget numbers to deal with the aftermath of the lockdown .

The Congress Working Committee pledged ‘unstinted support’ to the government, but some of your colleagues have called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a showman and a ‘ Photo-Op PM .’ Is there confusion among leaders about their approach to the government?

Absolutely not. There is neither confusion nor contradiction. The Congress’s support to the Union government, as it leads the national campaign to deal with this truly unprecedented situation, has been and will continue to be unstinting and unqualified. The Congress leadership has written to the Prime Minister giving a number of very constructive suggestions, especially to deal with the consequences of the lockdown. The Congress Chief Ministers too have done the same. The CWC resolution too is in the spirit of constructive engagement. But the fact remains that it took the Prime Minister 13 days to have a conversation with the Congress president and leaders of other political parties. He should have done this on the night of March 22 itself.

Also read:Left slams PM on steps to counter COVID-19 outbreak

Also read:Chidambaram says coronavirus ‘does not respect moral armaments’

The manner in which Parliament was allowed to continue till the Kamal Nath government fell in Bhopal was absolutely cynical. The Prime Minister has not seen it fit to respond to the suggestions made by the Congress leadership and CMs. Even so, I think this is not the time for political grandstanding and one upmanship by anyone, even though our Prime Minister has done so by needlessly undercutting the existing Prime Minister’s Relief Fund by setting up a parallel PM-CARES, as if nobody else cares, and his taali bajao, diya jalao call that subverts the very spirit of a scientific temper and is a distraction, even though it may well have a cultural resonance. And don’t forget that in the midst of the crisis, the government notified the Central Vista Redevelopment project in the nation’s capital — the Prime Minister’s dream project — which will cost over ₹20,000 crore, estimated conservatively, and which shows a shockingly callous sense of priorities at such a time of national distress.

In a democracy of our size (1.3 billion people), it is difficult to keep people under a lockdown for three weeks. Would you not acknowledge that Mr. Modi has managed to do this with reasonable success?

It is the people of our country who have to be congratulated, if congratulations are due. This is no time for congratulations or self-promotion by anybody. Just see the economic and social havoc the unplanned and sudden lockdown has caused across the country and just see the millions upon millions of livelihoods lost all of a sudden. What I personally find completely disgusting is that the government can spend time, energy and money evacuating Indians from abroad but is insensitive to the plight of migrant workers within the country. This will have very adverse long-term consequences and may even lead to stigmatisation. Internal remittances are about a sixth of external remittances but, given the socio-economic background of the migrants, have great local-level impacts. This is bound to be dislocated.

But mass exodus of migrant workers from places like Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra also happened under the watch of the State governments. In some of these States, you either rule or are in alliance. Can one blame only the Centre?

I think the primary responsibility was that of the Union government, but let us not spend time apportioning blame. It is a shameful blot on our collective conscience. The system moved, if at all, only after harrowingly painful and depressing images appeared in sections of the media. Relief moved, but only after a while and even now it is niggardly.

You have criticised the lockdown by saying that many decisions of the Modi government follow an “Act First, Think Later” approach. What could the government have done differently?

It is First Act, Second Think (FAST), actually, an acronym that should appeal to the PM’s acronym-coining team. Actually it should be First Announce, Second Think. Think about demonetisation . Think of the rushed manner in which GST was pushed through . Think of the numerous clarifications that had to be issued before the shutting off of lights on Sunday at 9 pm for nine minutes. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the economy was sputtering and we were in growth recession. Now, of course, the Prime Minister has the perfect excuse to evade his responsibility for continuously declining GDP growth.

Former party chief Rahul Gandhi talked about an Indian model to fighting the corona pandemic. What is this Indian model?

I think what he must have meant is that around 90% of employment in India is in the unorganised sector, that migrant workers are the mainstay of economies in a number of States, that this was also the time for procurement, that density of habitation and population impose limitations on social distancing as the primary instrument of combating the pandemic, that a very large section of our population is composed of daily wage earners and so on, that we are not a command and control society and so on.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi talked about cash transfers to Jan Dhan accounts, advance payments to MGNREGA workers, agriculture workers and relief for the middle class. But unless the government kick-starts the industrial sector and revives growth, don’t you think these measures will be grossly inadequate to bring the economy back on track? Do you think the Budget estimates will now have to revised completely?

The Budget, when presented on February 1, was based on a whole set of unrealistic assumptions — on tax revenues, on disinvestment revenues, on investment and consumption recovery, etc. This had been pointed out even then. Now, of course, everything has been turned upside down. There may well be a need for another Budget, in July perhaps. And of course, the much-derided, the much-ridiculed public investment will be key to the extent and speed of recovery.

I agree with [Nobel laureate] Abhijit Banerjee that now is not the time to make a fetish of the fiscal deficit. Now the over-riding priority is all-round economic recovery and direct cash transfers. I do not think that recovery will be quick but this is an opportunity for massive reform like what happened in July 1991. That reform rolled back the state, which was the need of the times. Now the state may well have to re-enter, which is the need of these times. All the well-known opponents and critics of public investment have suddenly discovered its value and virtues. But public investment with old public systems of delivery will just not do. It will have to be vastly restructured and reformed public systems of delivery. I hope the Prime Minister engages with all political leaders meaningfully on this issue. I don’t think he will but there is no bar to hoping as yet in this country.

In many ways, experts argue, the world will change the way it conducts business. What changes do you foresee for us as a country?

There is absolutely no doubt that we are entering a whole new era, both domestically and globally. The world has literally been shaken and dealt a severe shock, which cannot be measured only in terms of mortality numbers or even morbidity numbers. The shock is fundamentally sociological. This is not just a public health crisis but a crisis that is far deeper, the nature and ramifications of which we need to understand more fully. No country will emerge unscathed. I can only hope that the political class in our country rises to the challenge. Given the mandate he received a year back, the Prime Minister has a special responsibility in reaching out and creating a new and more collegial and conducive political environment — an environment that existed in the 1950s, for instance. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving up this Aham Brahma Asmi attitude and approach to governance.

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