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Political parties in wastage gear

Political parties in wastage gear

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: March 1, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/159673/Political-parties-in-wastage-gear.html

The most heartening feature of the imminent imposition of the Model Code of Conduct for the General Election is that it will put a temporary halt to the completely wasteful expenditure of the Centre and states on the lavish advertisements that have filling newspapers for the past two months.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against the media benefitting from the Government's astonishing show of generosity. What is galling is the impression of unconcern about the state of the Indian economy that these advertisements are conveying. At a time when the GDP growth is down to 5.3 per cent in the last quarter of 2008 - thereby making a complete mockery of Manmohan Singh's claim of seven per cent growth - it is offensive, to say the least, for taxpayers' money to be literally squandered in this fashion. Most of the dreary and unimaginative advertisements are not going to get the Congress and its coalition partners a single extra vote. Nor are ceremonial inaugurations of projects that are either far from completion or unlikely to ever materialise going to impress too many people. As far as the political communication goes, the net benefit of the media splurge is likely to be zero.

The question which, therefore, naturally arises is: Why is the Government so hellbent on advising the newspaper-reading and TV-watching classes to eat cake? If Constitutional propriety was cited by Pranab Mukherjee as the reason why the Interim Budget skirted any ambitious plan to boost a sagging economy, why wasn't prudence exercised subsequently?

There are a lot of questions the UPA Government needs to answer. If Mukherjee has advised pay-cuts for employees to save jobs and distribute hardship equally, how can he justify the generous pay hikes for Government employees that were announced on February 26? Can there be different sets of norms for different people?

It's not enough to say that this political recklessness is prompted by short-term, electoral calculations. That's stating the obvious. What is more significant is the mindset that generates financial profligacy. There is one view of governance whereby ministers see themselves as custodians of the state treasury - Gandhi used to call it "trusteeship". By this logic, the executive has to be doubly careful in ensuring that the money held in trust in the treasury is wisely spent and never squandered.

The alternative view - and the one that has defined coalition politics -is that Government money has no ma-baap. It exists to indulge those who hold office. They may do with public money what they want, as long as the paperwork is complete.

There are rules governing expenditure but the logic of spending is left to political discretion. Occasionally, years after the money has been recklessly disbursed, the Comptroller and Auditor General asks question and points to the wanton violation of the norms governing trusteeship. It makes news for a day or, if the Opposition is alert, for a fortnight or so. However, there are hardly any instances of a Minister being compelled to return misspent public funds.

The Congress, which began life swearing by the Mahatma's notion of trusteeship, is unquestionably the worst culprit-but not the only one. Over the years, but particularly after Indira Gandhi discovered the virtues of aggressive socialism to win elections, it has treated the public treasury as its personal jagirdari.

There is an astonishing sense of entitlement among Congress leaders which makes it possible for it to actually package the wasteful NREGA as Sonia Gandhi's gift to the rural poor. The assumption is that the Rs 30,000 or so crore which is being spent on creating this dud welfare scheme is the leader's own money. She can, thus, play Lady Bountiful.

It is not known if the NREGA will withstand the election outcome but it is time people start asking Sonia if there is anything tangible to show for the Rs 75,000 crore or so that would have been spent in the past four years. Has the NREGA created any assets for the future or is it a case of the Queen doling out alms to the poor people of a wretched country?

The principle that a Government should be wise with its money and that governance should be both effective and efficient is not popular with politicians who swear by statism. They see the State as a milch cow and they view private industry in the same vein. Before giving the green signal to any scheme there is one simple question they ask:

How does this benefit me personally and politically? Seeking political returns from good governance is understandable but matters are complicated by personal agendas. Politicians suffer from innate job insecurity. They don't know where they will be after the next election. This propels them into seeking "lucrative" ministries, "adjusting" their favourite contractors and making provision for the proverbial rainy day.

This is a mindset that was born in the Congress but has taken hold of other political parties as well. The ugly politician is not a caricature; it corresponds to a sordid reality.

The election is an opportunity for the voters to engage in some spring cleaning. But nothing will work unless those in politics come to perceive themselves as custodians of public treasury and not its privileged beneficiaries. An economic downturn may be as good a time as any to force the realisation. The alternative may well be an India drifting towards bankruptcy.


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