The Congress party is working towards spearheading a united opposition protest next week against NDA government’s economic management. Jairam Ramesh, Rajya Sabha member of Congress, elaborates on the party’s position to Subodh Ghildiyal:
Why has Congress decided to protest nationwide about the economic slowdown?
It’s a national issue. It dominated the elections in Haryana and Maharashtra. It’s uppermost in the minds of traders, businessmen and youth who are facing a jobs famine. And it is not just a blip but a structural slowdown. It is acute farmers’ distress. It is the jhatkas that Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps giving the economy – demonetisation in 2016 from which the economy is reeling and then a hastily and badly implemented GST. And now, RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a proposed free trade deal between Asean and its six partners including China and India) is looming large on the horizon. It is just going to be the last straw on the camel’s back as far as economy is concerned. The industrial economy is facing structural problems. These protests are meant to highlight the livelihoods issue. PM Modi and Amit Shah are using Article 370, nationalism, chest-thumping and NRC (National Register of Citizens) as diversionary tactics.
Isn’t Congress being opportunistic on RCEP?
We are not initiators of RCEP. The Asean free trade agreement was signed during UPA but there is a text and a context. The context of RCEP is disastrous. When economy is growing at 7.5-8%, having a trade agreement is one thing. But at a time when the economy is reeling from the double shock of demonetisation and GST, RCEP is a cruel joke. The context is wrong. There are also problems with the text – people are worried about steel imports, textiles, dairy. It is not a question of going back on what we believe in. Of course, India needs to integrate with the world economy. Of course, Asia will be the most dynamic region over the next 30 years and India has to be part of it. But right now, the biggest priority is to have confidence building measures for the Indian industry, trade, farmers. RCEP is a confidence destroying measure.
Isn’t the Congress position on privatisation a U-turn?
This is not planned privatisation; this is panic privatisation. A clueless government is pressing the panic button. We are now privatising profit-making strategic industries. We are privatising companies like CONCOR, we are proposing to privatise BPCL, a core strategic sector. Look at the history of privatisation by Vajpayee government. IPCL was privatised. Who bought it? Reliance. It did not lead to efficiency and competition. It just led to creation of a monopoly.
What are we doing privatisation for? A case could be made that there are areas where government need not be in. But privatising railways and petroleum industries? These are core sectors. This is not privatisation. This is selling the country. This is Bharat Becho.
Is Congress against privatisation now?
Government is doing it because tax revenues are not increasing and growth is falling. This is a wrong time to do privatisation. Because you are going to sell family silver at throwaway prices. You don’t privatise to raise revenue. You do it to increase competition, to improve efficiency. We are dead against privatisatising core sector enterprises – power, petroleum and banks. UPA never privatised. We disinvested.
It suggests Congress is writing a new economic manifesto in opposition.
Our economic policy has always been that you need a strong, efficient, viable public sector, and you also require to increase investment in social sectors. You need faster economic growth but it should be fiscally and ecologically sustainable. When you go to Gurgaon and see auto component factories struggling, these are not acts of God or of nature. These are direct consequences of government policy.
Will recent economic measures reverse the slowdown?
These are homeopathic measures. When government saw negative reaction to the budget, they started reaching out to more people. Corporate tax was cut. It will have no impact in the short run. In the long run, may be, it will create low-tax environment for companies. But that may take 5-10 years. Who knows? The real problem in the economy is of demand. None of the four engines are firing. Consumption is dead, investment is dead and export engine is dead. The only engine on which government is firing is the nationalism engine. But nationalism engine does not give economic growth.
Can Congress arouse public sentiment on economic issues when the dominant discourse has been nationalism?
Nationalism without economic growth is meaningless. We don’t need certificates of nationalism from Modi or Shah or from ideologies that did not take part in the freedom struggle. Maharashtra and Haryana elections show that people have other issues on their mind – livelihood, jobs, caste. It shows that toxic nationalism agenda of a one-man show and two-man army has not worked.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.