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How UPA lost the economic plot

Wednesday, 19 February 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: DNA
We take a stock of opportunities lost during the ten-year rule of the Congress-led government.

Finance minister P Chidambaram, in his interim budget on Monday, patted his own back by counting the achievements of the UPA government on the economy and infrastructure fronts and left it for the history to be the judge of the last ten years.

In the ten years, beginning 2004, during which he shared North Block with former finance minister and the current President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian economy saw good times initially.

But soon after the India story simply started fading, and from a growth of 8% the country is now staring at a sub-5% growth in 2013-14.

The UPA government's ten years have indeed been a roller-coaster ride for the economy.

In 2003-04, when the Bharatiya Janta Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government handed over the reins to the UPA which had Chidambaram as the first finance minister, the economy was growing at 8% and the fiscal deficit was at 4.3% of the gross domestic product.

Now when the UPA government's second term is coming to an end and the country is gearing up for elections, the fiscal position is in a complete disarray.

The GDP growth is likely to be 4.9% -- almost 40% less than a decade back. And the fiscal deficit is 4.8%, against 4.3% in the terminal year of the NDA's rule.

Interestingly, the initial years of the UPA-I were great with the economy looking up and remaining above 9% for the three consecutive years between fiscals 2006 and 2008.

Summing up his government's performance, Chidambaram in his budget speech said, "Ten years ago, the central government's expenditure on education was Rs 10,145 crore, this year we allocated Rs 79,451 crore. Ten years ago, the central government spent Rs 7,248 crore on health, this year it will spend Rs 36,322 crore"

However, the present situation is raising doubts on the numbers bandied about.

The Left parties, which provided outside support to the Congress in UPA-I, do not believe in this argument. CPI leader D Raja told dna, "The finance minister can go on like this. But you have to look at things in the context of the GDP. These expenditures have to form a significant part of the GDP spend. You have to look at the revised estimates, which are significantly down." Raja said it is the lack of a common minimum programme and coalition of various political parties simply to share power that has ruined the prospects of the country during the UPA-II regime.

Experts argue that the government lost opportunity in the first few years of the UPA-I. Rajiv Kumar, senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, told dna, "In one sentence, it is a case of lost opportunity. The Congress-led UPA inherited an economy which was booming. Instead of building upon it by necessary reforms, they have simply lived off it. The Congress has led us down by assuming that the Indian economy was on a pilot mode. Owing to good fiscal situation, the first five years was the time to introduce the second-generation reforms, such as petrol price deregulation, privatisation of Air India, reforms in the agriculture sector, among others."

Kumar argues that these measures still remain a priority and the next government should address them as soon as the fiscal house is in order.

Economist Bibek Debroy said UPA-I did not do any damage.

"Economy was growing. The high point was the government did not do any damage. While during UPA-II, a lot of damage was done. The government took growth for granted in the second term and indulged in public expenditure, which widened the deficit. This was a case of gross mismanagement with the economy."

Debroy said decentralisation and devolution agenda, procedural clearances and fiscal consolidation should be the three priorities for the next government.

Even though global recession hit towards the end of 2008, Indian economy recovered soon, but the leadership chose to hide behind the platitudes and kept toying with the idea of reforms even though the subsequent years saw good growth.

By this time, Chidambaram was asked to take over the reins of the home ministry from Shivraj Patil, in the wake of the terror attack on Taj Palace hotel in Mumbai. Stalwart Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee took over the finance ministry.

Mukherjee's tenure as finance minister in UPA-II was also full of controversies. Mukherjee remained in office between December 2008 and August 2012. So in the last ten years, while Chidambaram had been at the helm of North Block for a total of six-and-a-half years, Mukherjee has steered the country's finance for three-and-a-half years.

To bail out the economy from the economic slowdown, finance minister Pranab Mukherkee announced stimulus packages one after another for the industry between December 2008 and January 2009. About the testing times of 2008, former finance minister Yashwant Sinha told dna, "The stimulus package was fine, but the government should have announced the roadmap for the withdrawal of the package also. GDP grew, but as a by product, inflation also went through the roof, because there was immense cash in the economy via the stimulus."

Growth picked up in the first two years after the announcement of the packages at went up to 9.3% in FY11. But immediately after UPA-II came to power in June 2009, inflation, particularly food price inflation, started burning a hole in the pockets of the consumers.

Mukherjee, meanwhile, was of the opinion that the subsidy burden on the economy should come down. While presenting his budget in March 2012, Mukherjee announced that the government will bring down the subsidies to 1.7% of the GDP in three years.

However, the bombshell that sent a chill running down the spine of the corporate world was retroactive taxation. His retroactive tax proposal would have required corporates such Vodafone shell out Rs 13,000 crore to the government. The decision marred investment climate, and sent a wrong message to the global investor community. Vodafone matter is still pending with the government.

Incidentally, the government decided to send Mukherjee to the Rashtrapati Bhawan and P Chidambaram came back to North Block as the new finance minister. He started afresh on the Direct Taxes Code Bill – which attempts to change the Income Tax Act and widen the base, and the Goods and Services Tax. Both are still pending. Explaining the deadlock between the Centre and State, former chairperson of the panel of state finance minister on GST Sushil Modi told dna, "GST is a Constitution amendment Bill. It requires two-third majority in Parliament. Once the GST is implemented the state governments will have to face some revenue loss. They need an assurance that the Centre will compensate for the amount forgone by the state governments. However, the Centre lost its credibility by not giving the due to the states after a 2% reduction in the central sales tax after 2010. Now there is a Rs 50,000 crore payable to the states. That has held the Bill."

Modi said that during the discussions on GST Congress governments of states would not raise voice against the Centre, and BJP-ruled states like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh raised these issues and which is why he gave a political colour to the GST matter in his budget speech.

Chidambaram has also courted controversies on the economy which he inherited from Mukherjee. At the height of the rupee crisis in August last year, Chidambaram was asked to explain in Parliament why the rupee had been in a free fall (the Indian currency tumbled from Rs 61.44 on August 14 to Rs 68.80 on August 28 against the US dollar), why the current account deficit had been widening (CAD is likely to overshoot the estimated $70 billion this fiscal) and why markets were sinking (Sensex lost 1,371 points from August 14-29).

"There are not just external factors, there are also domestic factors," Chidambaram told the Rajya Sabha last week. "One of the domestic factors is that we allowed fiscal deficit to be breached and we allowed current account deficit to swell because of certain decisions that we took during the period 2009 to 2011."

The eleventh hour reforms finally came in July last year in the form of relaxing the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in a dozen sectors. It was essentially a knee-jerk reaction by the government in response to the currency fears post the US Fed indication on the tapering of the quantitative easing. The worst was inevitable and the rupee went into a tailspin against the dollar in August last year, leading to curbs on gold imports.

Now, it would be for the new government to clear the mess.

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