The Congress Party will attempt to ‘neutralise’ the BJP’s Hindutva message ahead of the 2019 elections.
That’s the word from Senior Congress leader and former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor who told BloombergQuint that the strategy if the India’s largest opposition party would be to challenge the BJP’s version of ‘Hinduism’. To that end, Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits while campaigning for the Gujarat assembly elections in December last year was ‘a good approach’, he said.
If only one side is going to temples then they [BJP] would have tried to make a virtue of it and then if both sides have gone, it no longer becomes a serious issue.Shashi Tharoor, Senior Congress Leader
Tharoor admits that religious beliefs of political leaders should not be relevant in a secular democracy, but adds that it has become an ‘inescapable issue’.
it is not a question if imitating them but countering them by saying we are [also] Hindus and our Hinduism is different from yours and now let’s talk about the economy.Shashi Tharoor, Senior Congress Leader
The former Union Minister expects the Narendra Modi-led government to try to score ‘political points’ with its last full Budget ahead of the general elections. “There will be some serious gestures towards the very distressed agricultural sector and noise around job creation,” he said.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
What are you watching out for in this Budget?
It is going to be the last [full] budget before the general elections. So, they will try to score as many political points as possible with the voters out of this budget. I think we will see some serious gestures towards the distressed agricultural sector. There will be noises around job creation because that’s the biggest political issue with young voters. There will be some incentives in investments and we will see more investments coming in, particularly private sector investment and investment in infrastructure and agriculture. And they have to do it and try not to depart too much from the fiscal deficit target that got a reasonable rating from Moody’s last year. So, if Modi is worried about Moody’s then it stands that they are going to go much beyond 3.2 percent which they pledged not to breach, but clearly they will breach this year. These are big ticket items. There will be some surprises which we can’t anticipate. There will be some populist gestures that appeal to voters. On the big picture, these are the kinds of headlines one expects.
What would you see them doing on agriculture?
Some of the problems have created by self-inflicted moves. For example, demonetisation has created a huge liquidity crunch for the agricultural sector. I talked to farmers of Uttar Pradesh after the second week of November and they said that they didn’t have any usable cash to get themselves seeds for winter sowing. There were other kind of shocks like rural credit banks where not allowed to change the old notes for the new ones. Some of these difficulties the government has brought about on itself but we also have some rural issues with regard to rural credit and it seems odd as we have seen two successive good monsoons. Despite the two good monsoons, we have seen increase in farmer suicide and worrying numbers around rural indebtedness. So, they have to do something specific about issues of rural credit and do something to provide a safety net for people so that they don’t feel that suicide is the only way out of debt.
On framing populist budget, isn’t that any political party in power would do?
Absolutely. We all will need to reach out to voters, whoever was in power, and an opposition to use the budget for that purpose. But the problem with this government is the inconsistency in their approach. They have consistently announced targets which are not met. Job creation is the most outrageous example of it. They have also mentioned objectives that they have themselves not taken steps to fulfil. Look at the last three budgets for the expected revenue from privatisation. It would almost be a joke that they have absolutely taken no steps on disinvestment. What little disinvestment which has occurred has largely been of one government entity to another government investor. It hasn’t involved handing things over to the private sector. Part of the confusion is ideological. There are people in the government on the finance side who genuinely believe in certain principles like getting the government out of certain economic activities. And there are people around the PM who seem to believe that the only difference between them and the UPA is that they can run the public sector better. Good luck to them but the confusion between these two approaches is creating an unnecessary disjuncture between the objectives that are mentioned and objectives that are met.
For job creation, you can call it populist or necessary, but we have a crisis in jobs in this country. Let’s be very dramatic about it. We have people who have openly unemployed. The estimation that I have seen from the Indian Employment Report is 13 million. But we also have another 52 million who are under disguised unemployment. People who don’t have work but are keeping themselves occupied. Many women are not counted on labour force because there are not enough opportunities or not registering on employment exchanges or knocking on doors. NITI Aayog has said that unemployment amongst the educated is as high as 20 percent. The official national unemployment rate is 3.5 percent. But the real numbers behind these figures are frightening. There are people internationally who are noticing this. The World Bank, for example, said that 30.8 percent of our population of ages between 15-29, which is the key age for starting a profession and consolidating your work levels, are not in education, employment or training. Which essentially means that they are not only not in jobs, but there is also no prospect of them preparing themselves for jobs in the future. These are alarming figures. They are alarming at all level, for the sake of the country, for the future of the country but also alarming for the ruling party. Will the young people who voted for them last time, because they were promised jobs, vote for them again? I would be very surprised if you can keep communal appeals and Hindutva messaging and expect people who hoped to get jobs and didn’t get them, to be entirely happy that they should vote purely on communal grounds.