Last week’s Bharat Bandh encouraged a small army of aged socialists to appear on national television to speak out against the alleged ‘anti-poor’ policies of Narendra Modi’s government. It was like watching a very old movie from another era. But since these gentlemen control powerful trade unions, they managed to cause some amount of disruption in major cities. Not anywhere close to shutting India down completely, as they had hoped, but enough to remain in the headlines for a whole day. We must hope that this does not make the Prime Minister even more timid about economic reforms than he has already been. We must also hope that he understands quickly that the only way to defeat these leftovers of our socialist past is to prove them wrong. It is a war of economic ideas that they have already lost, but it is not a loss that they have graciously accepted.
The aged socialists who surfaced on the day of the Bharat Bandh charged Narendra Modi with things that he has not yet done. They accused him of changing labour laws and privatising public sector companies, neither of which he has even begun to do. So he may as well go full speed ahead. If hiring and firing workers became easier, it will lead to more jobs being created, not less. And if huge unprofitable government enterprises end up being sold, there will be lots more money to spend on public services so appalling that they shame India daily.
Of these, the image of Dana Majhi carrying his dead wife home from hospital was so haunting and so horrible that it appeared in newspapers and on television screens across the world. In an excellent story on its front page, this newspaper pointed out that Majhi was so desperately poor that he should have benefited from more than a dozen welfare schemes. But they failed to reach him as they fail to reach millions of desperately poor Indians, because they usually end up ‘alleviating’ only the poverty of officials. The Prime Minister himself spoke out against MGNREGA once but then proceeded to continue funding it, despite knowing that it provides dole and not real jobs, and despite knowing that it has long been a source of gigantic corruption.
It is true that if Modi had dared dismantle MGNREGA, there would have been even more socialist hysteria about his ‘anti-poor’ policies, but since he is being charged with this anyway, he should take courage and go ahead. It has been my experience from travelling in rural parts of our poorest states that centralised welfare schemes almost never reach those they are meant for The aged socialists who appeared on national television know this, but they support such schemes anyway because they believe them to be socialist in nature.
Many of these socialist leaders are so old that they have lived through times of great change in the socialist world. They would have seen the Soviet Union disappear, and they would have seen socialist countries in Eastern Europe swap socialism for free markets. They would have seen China invite foreign investors to invest in its economy while dumping Marxist economic ideas in the garbage bin, but they have continued to pretend that none of these things happened. Closer to home they would have seen West Bengal wallow deeper and deeper into the horrible morass of extreme poverty despite three decades of Marxist rule. These are things that they have never discussed publicly.
So what is the Prime Minister afraid of? Why does he not go full steam ahead with doing the things he is already being accused of? I understand that the NITI Aayog has prepared a list of public sector companies that need to be sold before they become even more unprofitable. Why is this list not being acted on? The Government of India owns not just unprofitable companies but vast tracts of unprofitable land in the most expensive parts of our cities. If commercial use were made of this land, there would be enough money to fund all the Prime Minister’s dreams of ‘smart’ cities and model villages.
For Swachh Bharat to become more than just a promise, massive investment is needed in urban waste management and rural sanitation. This has not even begun to happen yet and the problem seems to be a shortage of funds. So why do we see so little attempt to make commercial use of the assets that government owns? Even socialists cannot object to this since it does not violate any of their stated principles.
Senior ministers regularly pat themselves on the back for India being acknowledged today as the fastest growing economy in the world. They would do well to stop doing this, because as Dana Majhi reminded us so painfully, India still has a long, long way to go.