Chennai:There could not have been a more appropriate and profound introduction to the former Union Minister of Finance and Home, P Chidambaram’s recently published reflections on a whole gamut of issues plaguing a new India where right-wing Hindu nationalism is rapidly on the rise, than in the words of the former President, Sri Pranab Mukherjee.
“At a time when politics has increasingly become acrimonious, with people ready to abandon argument for innuendo, Chidambaram’s columns reinforce the importance of civility in public discourse and the fact that criticisms must be directed towards policies and not personalities,” writes Pranabda in his Foreword to PC’s work, ‘Speaking Truth To Power, My Alternative View’.
Chidambaram’s foray into mainstream print journalism (this book is a collection of his knowledgeable, clear, distinct and incisive essays in a terse style that none can personally take offence, published as a weekly column during the year 2017), may have been a trifle late though he had been writing in Tamil magazines earlier.
But what seems even more significant of this collection is his stark sense of realism in addressing India’s political, social, economic and development challenges post-reforms in a humane way, which decisively breaks the received view of PC as an intellectually aloof, New Delhi Congress lawyer-politician with electoral roots in Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu.
By all accounts, a rare find of the G.K.Moopanar era in the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee in the mid-1970s, who went on to handle a wide range of subjects since the days of Rajiv Gandhi at the helm and who later played a key role in the economic reforms programme ushered in by Dr Manmohan Singh under P V Narasimha Rao’s Prime Ministerial tenure, Chidambaram’s long stint in government in tussling with complex policy issues and his finesse, speak for themselves in these pages.
Having covered five of his Lok Sabha poll campaigns in Sivaganga as a journalist this is what one saw: Ask ordinary voters in his constituency, they would grumble that PC would do no personal favours; that problems and issues that need solutions would have to be general, affecting significant sections of the population, whether it is getting an old age pension or irregular payment of MGNREGA wages to rural workers, directing the banks as FM to be liberal with higher education loans, or diffusing ATMs in remote corners to widen the process of financial mediation, all these and more will have to pass PC’s test of sound economic logic. Despite pockets of opposition, people respect him even if he loses an election.
This little digression in this book review is to drive home that a systems approach with a touch of empathy, his not-so-widely-known admiration for Dr Ambedkar including as an economist, his cosmopolitan, secular outlook and revulsion to caste, clearly mark the more explicitly reflective phase of Mr. Chidambaram in the public sphere that can be discerned between the lines in this collection of essays.
As one of the ‘original reformers’ within the Congress, there have been days when his political adversaries in Tamil Nadu dubbed him as “our class enemy”; but having worked through the pain of reforms and also after having been the Union Home Minister, Chidambaram reaffirms the virtue of the Middle Path, ideal for a multi-linguistic, multi-cultural society like India.
Thus the best of his persuasive, facts-based argumentative demolitions in this work pertains to the sudden, dramatic demonetisation announced by the Narendra Modi government in November 2016, issues related to the autonomy of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), followed by the “flawed” and hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), though he acknowledges that GST was a UPA idea.
However, a serious lacunae is in the new ‘diarchy’ between the Union and the States the GST framework has created, when in a post-reforms phase the natural course would be to move towards more genuine autonomy for the States, an issue at stake in the long-festering Kashmir problem too.
While the contentious issue of whether economic growth or social equity comes first will continue to be debated in the coming years, Chidambaram is quite clear that the notion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is by itself no recipe for all socio-economic ills. “Ignore Thiruvalluvar at your peril,” he warns, if the diagnosis of the macro-economic situation goes aweful. “The more serious flaw is not identifying the causes of the (economic) deceleration.”
“A careful diagnosis would have revealed that the proximate causes were the sputtering engines of private investment, private consumption and exports,” he points out.
Elsewhere, Chidambaram writes: “However, I must reiterate my firm belief that the best antidote to poverty is economic growth. Thanks to the higher rate of growth since 1991, India’s poverty headcount ratio has halved and the number of poor people in the country has fallen by about a third. Between 2004 and 2014 (the period under UPA), 140 million people were lifted out of poverty. Even the welfare schemes became feasible because tax revenues increased in the years of high economic growth.”
“The elephant in the room is unemployment. Ask the youth,” he says in another essay on the ‘sinking feeling’. Chidambaram’s analysis of the AIADMK fortress breached in post-Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu and the BJP’s influence is politically insightful, but remains incomplete as it is still evolving. However, the larger issue of corruption is much more complex, whether it is Lalu Yadav in Bihar or V.K. Sasikala and “her group” in Tamil Nadu.
Basic structural inequities apart, the rise of the OBCs’ in the 1980s’, followed by the new opportunities economic reforms offered since the 1990s’, have subtly altered the trade-offs in the democratic polity that it may recall sociologists like M N Srinivas to unveil the consequences of ‘post-Sanskritization in post-Independent India’. Politically dominant groups in various States responded to these new situations differently. On the one hand it has led to the rise of ‘Hindutva’ aided by other issues too, while on the other it has seen the emergence of new groups of regional political elites to permit any simple reductionism.
Chidambaram signs off this volume with a timely and eloquent tribute to Mrs Indira Gandhi and regrets how her birth centenary, November 19, 2017, passed off “without a National observance”.
He recalls how the spirit of her 20-point programme “has guided all subsequent governments’ efforts towards poverty alleviation.” It is a touching appreciation of how Indira Gandhi defended the cause of the poor and their right to a life of dignity. This is a volume for all public-spirited citizens to read and reflect.