Shashi Tharoor with PTR
Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Palanivel Thiagarajan in a chat with Congress MP Shashi Tharoor at the fourth edition of the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters (MBIFL) in Thiruvananthapuram.

PTR in chat with Tharoor: 'Homogenisation push a threat to federalism'

The sustained attempts at homogenisation by the ruling BJP at the Centre pose threat to the federal structure of India and this approach will sooner or later trigger a pushback against such efforts, Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Palanivel Thiagarajan (PTR) said at the fourth edition of the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters (MBIFL), which concluded in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday. In one of the most memorable sessions at the festival, titled ‘Reimagining India: Federalism,’ the minister was in conversation with Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram.

Expectedly, it was a crackling debate, with both PTR and Tharoor raising concerns about the Narendra Modi government pushing Hindi as the main national language. Answering Tharoor’s question if Tamil Nadu was going overboard with opposition to Hindi like their stance on the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), the FM reiterated that the state’s stance against Hindi imposition was not based on blind opposition.

‘Southern states being penalised’

Pointing out the disparity in tax allocation by the central government, as northern states get greater share due to factors like high population, Thiagarajan said southern states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala had achieved developmental targets set by the national governments in areas of population control, but now effectively penalised for that due to the proportional population figures that leave them at a disadvantage.

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“What it effectively says is that English cannot be taught even as a second language in the Hindi speaking states. So, therefore, what they are really saying is that the Hindi heartland will have one language formula and other states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra have a three-language formula: one for ourselves, English to speak to the rest of the world and Hindi to speak to those people who cannot learn English.”

He said such a top-down approach will not survive for long and even BJP state governments have started asking questions about some of the central government’s policies. They are now asking why some developmental programmes, where the funds come from the states, are run as New Delhi’s projects, he said. PTR said even the very definition of a national party has to be re-evaluated as no party will have same policies in every state of India.

Tharoor said the reported discussion by BJP to increase the number of MPs will downgrade further the quality of debates in Parliament as already there is hardly any time for a meaningful discussion. The Congress MP also criticised the budget presented by the Left government in Kerala, saying it had no imaginative move to raise revenue and is continuing to live on borrowed money.

‘Economic disparity has only worsened’

In another session, PTR said that India’s economic disparity has only worsened over the past three decades of liberalisation, but the country can benefit from the present global downturn by leveraging its abundant natural resources in the post-pandemic era. Noting that East Asian countries, particularly South Korea and Japan, are looking forward to investing elsewhere when the world is recovering from COVID-19, he said India can step up its engagements with international finance and reap the benefits. “All this, provided the current economic slump across continents isn’t massive,” he said.

India, as a tropical country, can look forward to exploring opportunities in the renewable energy sector, the minister pointed out. “Tamil Nadu, for instance, has immense scope to generate wind energy. Up north, summers are long and the sun is out for long. Solar energy has great potential,” he said at an hour-long session on ‘The Future of Indian Economy’ at the four-day literary festival.

PTR, who holds a PhD in chemical engineering and is an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management in the USA, noted that India is short of capital and hence looking for investments from abroad. “What our government can focus on today is on ways to attract funds from countries that are anyway looking for places to initiate economic cooperation,” he said. “Such measures can generate jobs at a time when certain data put India’s unemployment as dismal as 30 per cent.”

Need for qualitative growth

Stressing on the need for qualitative growth, PTR said improved figures need not necessarily imply economic development. “Free trade has accelerated India’s economic growth, but inequality too has been on the rise. For instance, the two best-performing states (Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu) had their per capita income just twice more than the state at the bottom. Today, the gap has doubled. Some studies put it as high as five times more than the poorest performer,” he told the audience at the Kanakakkunnu Palace grounds, the venue for the festival.

India’s per capita income, on the eve of liberalisation in the early 1990s, was a shade better than China, but the East Asian giant today has since gone way ahead with the figure “3 per cent to 5 per cent more than ours”.

From 2014 (since the NDA came to power at the Centre), social welfare has been earning lesser administrative priority, Thiagarajan said. “The focus, instead, has been on improving infrastructure, under the belief that this would attract investors and automatically generate employment. One bad result of this is crony capitalism,” he said.

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The country should not go for “radical” shifts in its economic policies. “People want continuity. It will be good if we see more harmony, and not strife, in society,” added the minister, calling for skilling the workforce and improving ease of doing business.

To a question from the gathering at Nishagandhi open-air auditorium, PTR said the “unviability” was increasingly pushing traditional farmers out of agriculture. “We need a nuanced understanding of the primary sector, strengthen micro-irrigation and eliminate the domination of middlemen,” he added.

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