Modi’s critique of ‘Opposition freebies’ unfair, he needs to turn gaze inward
Modi is prime minister at a rare moment – an advantage not enjoyed by Vajpayee. The charismatic founders of each regional party are either dead or too old. Modi stands at the moment of transition in the leaderships of most parties.

Modi’s critique of ‘Opposition freebies’ unfair, he needs to turn gaze inward

The sequence of Modi’s calls against the politics that he has followed since 2014 shows rising anxiety at the AAP’s ‘me-too’ politics

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Despite the risk of earning the Supreme Court’s indignation, it must be put on record that the apex court asked the Centre to seek the Finance Commission’s opinion of whether there was a way to prevent political parties from promising and distributing “irrational freebies” during election campaigns, only after Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged the issue on at least two recent occasions in quick succession. If nothing else, this again underscores Modi’s capacity to set up the framework of debate in the country.

Days after the apex court’s oral comments and questions to Additional Solicitor General KM Nataraj and even senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who was present in the courtroom waiting for another case, Modi once again targeted the ‘culture of subsides’ and asked state governments to pay pending dues to power sector companies engaged in generation and distribution.

Is BJP afraid of AAP’s ‘me-too’ politics?

It should not be overlooked that the Prime Minister’s comment was made in the backdrop of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) announcing to replicate its Delhi model of ‘free electricity’ for low consumption users in poll-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, both being ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But this ploy has obviously not worked. On a visit to Veraval, often considered the gateway to the Somnath temple in poll-bound Gujarat, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, on August 1, announced “employment guarantee” and unemployment allowance for all unemployed youths of Gujarat if elected to power in the upcoming assembly elections.

A week earlier, during a visit to Surat, a city where the AAP emerged as principal opposition to the BJP in the civic body polls of 2021, Kejriwal promised 300 units of free electricity to each household in the state if chosen to power.

Also read: Offering freebies for votes ‘very dangerous’ for country: PM Modi

The sequence of Modi’s calls against the politics that he has followed since 2014 shows rising anxiety at the AAP’s ‘me-too’ politics. While Kejriwal ignored the first instance of Modi calling out populism by targeting “short-cut politics,” the Delhi Chief Minister hit back at the second instance, when the PM accused adversaries of practising “revdi politics,” named after a relatively cheap sweet made from sugar or jaggery and sesame seeds that is extremely popular in swathes of northern India.

Kejriwal tore apart Modi’s jibe and argued that providing free and quality services to citizens, especially the poor, was not a freebie, whereas the Centre extending undue benefits to select corporates and even senior ministers was an instance of the same. The Delhi chief minister thereafter, listed how the poor benefited from its schemes on free school education, medical treatment for the accident hit and electricity and water supplies up to a certain limit.

Where is the political morality?

Modi’s move of asking adversaries to stop making populist announcements – essentially pro-poor promises – while personally retaining his own right to continue running schemes under the label of welfare programmes, which in turn border on being charity or doles, is against the tenets of political morality.

Several of Modi’s schemes, including those that played a significant role in his re-election in 2019, were re-jigged versions of promises made by adversaries. Take the much-vaunted PM Kisan scheme for instance. It is a programme that plays a key part in ameliorating lives of people in rural India.

It was effectively issued as a back-dated cheque after Rahul Gandhi announced in January 2019, his promise to introduce Nyuntam Aay Yojana in the event of the Congress forming the government.

There have been instances when Modi was critical of existing programmes that were started by the previous government, most famously the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), but thereafter went on to politically harness its benefits. On most occasions, these old schemes have been renamed.

Not just financial schemes, but Modi was even critical of Aadhaar when his party was in opposition and he was Gujarat chief minister. But it is now crucial to effective running of the data behemoth that the government is evolved into and essential for all programmatic deliveries of the Centre though the Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM) trinity.

The intention is not to critique each programme. Some of them, for instance Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, that is currently scheduled to run till September 30, ensured that crores of Indians did not die of starvation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Modi must remember that his so-called ‘revdis’ have to handed out during exigencies, but to roll back such programmes, there is need for alternatives.

With the economy struggling and India facing the twin challenges of Current Account and Fiscal Deficits, the argument used by Modi may be directed against him in the event of a likely decision of extending the scheme further.

Cooperative federalism a misnomer for Modi

But there is no denying that globally, political competiveness often leads to making promises for which the state(s) may not have the capacity. While debating the issue, parties cannot follow dual standards, one for itself and the other for rivals. Parties which are also in power cannot expect a monopoly on schemes that are its flagship programmes. Modi has triggered a discussion on freebies but has not abandoned his duplicitous ways.

This is especially true of his slur against state governments for power outstandings. Under Modi’s watch, India’s fiscal federalism has been grossly undermined. Accusations of preferential treatment of states where the BJP runs the government has substantial basis. The Centre has to realise that the emerging debt crisis cannot be tackled from an adversarial position without enlisting partners from within the political terrain.

The problem with Modi is that working together with state governments controlled by opponents is almost a near complete anathema. Co-operative federalism, a catchphrase when he was trying to woo voters in states that were traditionally sceptical of the BJP, has almost entirely disappeared from his vocabulary.

This prevents any effort to draw a line and define what constitutes freebies. The Centre needs to initiate the process for a dialogue with opposition parties and state governments for this. Only then can one have an agreement that while free electricity universally among certain sections may be a bad idea and may require a rethink, quality public health facilities may be permissible.

 Also read: Inflation biting you? The Modinomics solution is stout denial

As one witnessed during COVID-19, most Indian families are just one major ailment away from penury. The Supreme Court has to realise that the cost of overreach is often the Centre getting the opportunity to not do its job. It is not the Finance Commission’s task to prescribe boundaries for poll promises. There has to be a self-regulatory mechanism but this can come only when Modi stops acting like the mainspring of an analog watch of yore which he winds up while on the run from one poll to another.

Probably this is too much to ask from a prime minister who places the individual over institutions. But in the absence of this, debt levels of both the state and centre will reach levels that cannot be sustained. It would be inappropriate to accuse only opposition parties for making promises that cannot be sustained. Even BJP ruled states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar fare no better.

The problem is that a political malady is being sought to be controlled by an economic argument – especially the point on being late on payments to power companies. Indian democracy badly requires the return of consensus-building. Leaders of this regime have to stop pointing accusative only at others and it is also time to turn the gaze inwards.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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