November 19, 2017, passed without a national observance. It was a sad reflection on our sense of history. It was a silent comment on the supposed neutrality of the State. It was a shame. That day was the 100th birth anniversary of Indira Gandhi, India’s third and sixth Prime Minister. She was loved by many and hated by a significant number, but never ignored as long as she was alive. Every Prime Minister has successes and failures. Both successes and failures have to be assessed in the backdrop of the time and the context in which they happened and the challenges that the country and the Prime Minister faced at that time. When Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966 —
- two wars (1962 and 1965) had drained the country of its resources;
- there was an acute shortage of food grains and the country was dangerously dependent on food aid under PL 480;
- the Congress party’s organisation was very weak (and during the subsequent 24-month period the party would lose the elections in eight states).
Winning the Support of the Poor
After the unsatisfactory election result of 1967, it was Indira Gandhi, among all the leaders of the Congress, who correctly identified that the poor had deserted the Congress. The Congress had to win back the support of the poor. Indira Gandhi showed the way by putting forward a solid agenda that was entirely consistent with the then-prevailing ideology — socialism — of the Congress. Indira Gandhi sent a 10-point programme to the Congress Working Committee. Some of the points do not accord with the liberal market economy of the present day, but I believe that the programme was justified, at that time, both economically and politically. Some points are relevant even today — eg provision of minimum needs, rural works programme and land reforms. The poor, who were on the periphery of the consciousness of political parties, were brought on the agenda and placed at the centre of the agenda.
Later, in the 20-point programme, Indira Gandhi addressed the concerns of the poor in a forthright manner by including clean drinking water, healthcare, education, social justice for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, opportunities for women, environment protection etc. Although the specific programmes have been restructured many times thereafter, the spirit of the 20-point programme has guided all subsequent governments’ efforts towards poverty alleviation.
Poor Pushed to Periphery
Indira Gandhi’s concerted attack on poverty yielded dividends. The poverty ratio declined by nearly 10 percentage points to 44% in 1984. The poor regarded Indira Gandhi as their protector and benefactor, and do so even today. Successive Congress governments, and even the NDA government of Mr A B Vajpayee, tried to keep the poor at the centre of their agenda. Alas, no longer. The Central government and several state governments have once again pushed the poor to the periphery. Allocations to education and healthcare, as a proportion of total expenditure, have been slashed. The MGNREGA was deplored as a “monument to the failure of the UPA government”. In 2014-15 and 2015-16 paltry increases were made in the Minimum Support Prices for farm produce, thus adding to the distress among agriculturists. Bank credit is denied to small and medium enterprises. Above all, no worthwhile effort has been made in the last three years to create the jobs required for the 1.2 crore youth who enter the job market every year.
How the Poor are Cheated
Clever slogans have replaced the pro-poor agenda. Our cities are barely livable, yet we will spend huge amounts of money on so-called Smart Cities under a programme that will impact only a small fraction of the total area of the selected city. We will spend Rs 100,000 crore of borrowed money on a bullet train while large parts of the railway infrastructure, like suburban trains and footbridges that are used by the poor, are crumbling or are outdated. Chasing the dubious goal of a cashless economy we will demonetise 86% of the currency, but callously brush aside the misery and ruin heaped upon millions of people. We will provide vast sums of money to Start-up India and Stand-up India, but turn a blind eye to thousands of small businesses that have perished, taking down with them many thousand jobs.
We will implement the insolvency law with an iron hand but will consign to the dustbin the National Food Security Act. We will spend crores of rupees to promote yoga as the way to a healthier life but we will deny the meagre pension of Rs Rs 1,000 per month to old or destitute persons and let them die. (In Tamil Nadu alone there are 27,06,758 applications for pension that have been bundled up because the state government pleads it has no money.) Where is the place for the poor in the bid to win the approval of Moody’s, PEW Research and the World Bank? A rank of 100 in the Ease of Doing Business list is a matter of satisfaction. A rank of 100 in the Hunger list is a matter of shame. The people should never let any government forget that nearly 22% of India’s population is still poor and they also have the right to a life of dignity — a truth that Indira Gandhi had acknowledged and defended in her lifetime.