Conjuring a catharsis: On the government’s White Paper on the economy  

The White Paper on the economy is a political diversion 

February 12, 2024 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

The Finance Ministry, in a White Paper on the economy placed in Parliament, has accused the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of 2004-2014, of botching the economy. The Ministry has sought credit for the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s repair and reform job since 2014 for lifting India to the world’s fifth largest economy from one of the ‘Fragile Five’ 10 years ago. It listed 15 “high-profile” UPA “scams”, including coal, 2G spectrum, the Commonwealth Games and even a ₹44 crore misappropriation case in the Jammu & Kashmir cricket board. Hours before this, the Congress released a Black Paper on “10 years of Anyay Kaal (Era of Injustice)”. It highlights this government’s “economic blunders” such as demonetisation (something the White Paper is silent on), the flawed GST regime, the unemployment situation with stagnant wage growth, farmers’ distress, and high inflation despite crude oil prices being lower than in the UPA’s times. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman questioned the UPA’s ‘extra-constitutional’ governance system and Dr. Singh’s failure to undertake reforms that were still pending after the 1991 liberalisation rush, and said this government delivered on those reforms and beyond. She even invoked cases from the 1950s and 1970s to argue that corruption runs in the Congress’s DNA.

The government’s assertion that the White Paper will serve as a record for posterity for India’s youth to know the efforts it took to undo the UPA-era damage and “restore India’s glory”, belies its anxiety that the young may not be adequately convinced about recent years’ outcomes. That may explain the curious absence of real GDP growth and employment rates in the UPA and NDA years from the data-laden paper, which even compares waste volumes processed by urban local bodies. The paper argues the UPA failed to deliver GST and use Aadhaar effectively, but the NDA embraced and delivered on both. That a few BJP States, including Gujarat, had reservations about GST and Aadhaar at the time is a lost nuance. The NDA had a resounding majority twice, but has yet to find a consilient approach to undertake critical pending factor market reforms such as on land (an ordinance approach was abandoned in 2015) and labour (new Codes are yet to kick in), while it had to backtrack on farm sector reforms. The UPA was a rainbow coalition that navigated tricky terrains such as telecom and insurance FDI liberalisation and the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal. India’s reform journey has been marked by successive governments building on past efforts, rather than reversing course, and, in hindsight, many opportunities may be considered missed or bungled. The paper seems to be an attempt to temper voters’ higher expectations from a government with a majority mandate. But a pointed finger leads to three pointing right back. It is no surprise that the White begot Black.

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