When I was preparing my first regular Budget for the year 1998-99 as Finance Minister in the Vajpayee government (1998-2004), the balancing of the Budget and keeping fiscal deficit under control was a major challenge. I was and still am a great believer in maintaining fiscal balance for the simple reason of inter-generational equity. I believe that the present generation has no business going on borrowing freely and burdening future generations with the responsibility of repaying debt. There are also sound economic reasons for it though in this year's Budget, this principle has been thrown out of the window and we are celebrating this irresponsible behaviour. Covid has taken many lives; it seems to have killed some sound economic principles also.
Returning to the theme of fiscal balance, I was advised that one of the ways was to reduce subsidies. A major subsidy in those days was fertiliser subsidy, specially subsidy on urea. I tried to be too clever by half and therefore, in my budget speech I said that I was going to raise the price of urea by rupee one per kilogram. In effect, it was a hefty increase of Rs 40 per bag of 40 kilograms. Naturally, members of parliament across party lines were up in arms and made my life difficult. I was in the Lok Sabha the next day after presenting the Budget when I faced this stiff opposition even from members of my own party. Prime Minister Vajpayee was not present in the House but Advani was. I looked at him somewhat helplessly. He fathomed the mood of the House and advised me to reduce the burden. I stood up and announced that the increase would be reduced by half and restricted to Rs 20. The members were not satisfied with this and the shouting went on. Later, in view of the opposition in Parliament and outside, I had to withdraw this increase completely. It was this episode which led to the media giving me the new name of 'Rollback Sinha', a description that has stuck with me to this day; people still remember it with relish.
Do I regret the decision I took that day? Perhaps not. Governments at both the bureaucratic and political level are made up of ordinary people like you and me. And like all human beings, we also are not infallible. We make mistakes and governments do so too. So, what does one do when one is confronted with a situation created by one's own mistakes? Be rigid and inflexible or, realising that a mistake has been made, correct it and move on? My preference in life has always been the latter option. Of course, one has to be convinced that one has indeed committed a mistake. I am saying this because I do not want the impression to go round that I am a lazy kind of a person, a person without conviction who can be swayed easily. There have been occasions in my life when I have faced a barrage of opposition from within the family and without against a decision I have taken. But if I am convinced that the decision is right, I shall carry on even in the face of the stiffest opposition. What is the relevance of this theory today? I am obviously referring to the three recent farm laws.
There is no doubt that the government has erred in getting these laws passed; first, as ordinances; second, by not referring them to the Standing Committee; third, by rejecting the demand in Rajya Sabha to refer it to a Select Committee; fourth, by opposing the demand for division in that House; fifth, by getting it passed in Rajya Sabha in clear violation of rules; and finally, by not listening to the farmers for whose good all this is being done. This is not statesmanship, it is obstinacy and governments do not function on the basis of the obstinacy of one person. The cost of the nation-wide agitation which is going on against the farm laws has not yet been calculated but there is no doubt that it will be huge. Who should be held responsible for it?
Parliament has its limitations. You can disrupt the functioning of the House. But for how long? It gets worse when one House is allowed to function and the other is not, by the same opposition, as between the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha in the current session. The people can see through the game political parties are playing in parliament. And when parliament fails, the street takes over. Parliament has failed as far as the three farm laws are concerned and therefore the street has taken over. It is not a good sign for our democracy. The government's offer to discuss it clause by clause with the farmers' representatives makes it worse because it impinges on the authority of parliament.
The stand adopted by the contestants on this issue is diametrically opposed to each other's. The farmers want the laws to be repealed; the government has rejected this demand but offered to continue the discussions with them. So, the farmers' agitation has gone on for over 75 days with no end to it in sight.
The problem with a government which has near total control over the media, most of which toes the government's line day in and day out, is that while the people at large stop believing the 'truth' which is being thus dished out, the government becomes a victim of its own lies. The Prime Minister has not held a single press conference in the nearly seven years he has been in office.If he has given one-on-one interviews, it has been to journalists who are ready to prostrate themselves before him, with the questions cleared in advance by the PMO. He has avoided scrutiny completely. He lives in his own cocoon completely cut off from the people.
The only thing the BJP believes in today is victory in elections, at all levels, from the panchayat to parliament. There is no doubt that the party has the best election fighting machine today, better than any party has had in the past. It commands humongous resources, unseen and unheard of in the past. But we also know from history that power and resources are of little use when the people rise. We may have to wait for that to happen but the farmers of India have shown the way.
How do I see future events unfolding? The government will relent only if it realises that it is being damaged electorally. The first major test of that will be the Bengal elections. If it loses that election, it will be big setback especially in view of the hype which it has created around those elections by the BJP itself. If it wins in Bengal, then God save India.
As far as I am concerned, I am happy being "Roll Back Sinha" rather than "Obstinate Yashwant".
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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