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White & Black Paper(s) take Voters for a Ride

MARCH 05, 2024

By Naresh Minocha, Consulting Editor

MODI Government's White Paper on UPA rule (2004-2014) & Congress' counter Black Paper on governance (2014-2024) have enriched murky politics.

Both the documents mark a new high in political cacophony. Black-out of vital facts are a common feature of both the papers.

Both papers have failed to connect each Union Budget with the next one to make sense of missed targets & achievements, unfulfilled or partly honoured promises.

Both papers have failed to cite crucial instances to lend credence to their respective contentions. Both have thus left voters groping in the dark about the truth on different shades of governance during the last 20 years.

Consider first the White Paper. It has a familiar ring of BJP recalling Congress' alleged misdeeds whenever it faces prickly questions on governance deficit.

The White Paper makes one nostalgic about the BJP's chargesheet on Congress-led UPA dated 4th April 2014. It had helped BJP sweep the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, knows the crucial importance of the chargesheet as she was one of the six members of BJP committee that prepared it.

An average citizen thus expected the Government to connect the White Paper with BJP's 2014 chargesheet titled 'A Dark Decade in Governance'. Mute voter also expected the Government to explain the speed and scale of the delay in acting on BJP's eight-page chargesheet captioned 'Damad Shree - The Vadra Get-Rich Quick Model'.

This booklet cited breach of specific sections of certain laws, while posing sharp questions to Mr. Vadra's in-laws, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi. On the back page of this booklet was splashed the warning: "Janata Maaf Nahi Karegi".

When would this slogan prod the Government to take all BJP/ BJP Government's dossier on Congress to logical conclusions? Is it not the constitutional duty of the Government to enforce law of the land against any accused? If that is not possible, then it should formally close them.

The Booklet on Vadra is akin to the one published by BJP on Mr. Sanjay Gandhi in its earlier avtar as Jan Sangh. The nine-page booklet was captioned 'Indira Gandhi aur Bhrastrachar - Maruti Scandal.'

The point is BJP excels in making allegations against the Opposition, especially the Congress, and then avoids speedy action on them. Its strategy is to keep the pot boiling for crafting 'breaking news' on Enforcement Directorate's summons to XYZ from the Opposition at opportune time.

BJP, of course, would deny this and claim that central investigative agencies act independently - a contention that UPA made too when agencies turned heat on BJP leaders.

One needs to create a value-chain of BJP's charges from 2014 to 2024 to understand the biggest scam - the present government's failure to recover lakhs of crores of rupees either looted or lost in the scams. Factor in White Paper's silence on tax arrears that have soared during the last 10 years.

The 2014 chargesheet, for instance, listed 10 scams under a table titled 'A saga of Endless Scams and Corruption'. The highest amount of money allegedly "swindled" is Rs 200,000 crore under ISRO-Devas scam. Is it not the duty of Modi Government to disclose in the White Paper the money it recovered, if any, under the 10 scams?

Similar is the story about black money stashed abroad. According to 2014 chargesheet, 22.5 lakh crore rupees are lying in Switzerland banks. "This is the highest amount lying outside any country, from amongst 180 countries of the world. India is the champion of black money...The Congress-led UPA never showed any serious intent to bring back money stashed in foreign country."

This chargesheet was preceded by two reports of BJP's Task Force (TF) on 'Indian Black Money Abroad In Secret Banks and Tax Havens'. TF's Second Report dated 8th February 2011 "on the steps to be taken by India" to bring back black money should have found mention in White Paper.

PM is fond of repeatedly stating that he would not spare in bringing back the black money stashed abroad. The White Paper should have disclosed why Modiji's speed and scale mantra has not been applied to black money stashed abroad.

Consider now the Black Paper captioned '10 Saal Anyay Kal'. It has failed to recall Mr, Modi's many quotes that can capture shocking change in his stance on black money from his days as Chief Minister to his claims after becoming PM. Congress has made only solitary reference to prevalence of black money in spite of demonetisation. The word 'demonetisation' is conspicuous by its absence in the White Paper. Mind you, PM himself described demonetisation as historic move, while reeling off its benefits in 2017.

Similarly, Congress has not cited specific instances while alleging "All independent institutions of the country - judiciary, election commission, RBI, media etc, critical to maintaining a robust democracy stand compromised and subverted."

Leave aside launching a credible counter-attack on BJP, Congress has even failed to defend the good initiatives that UPA took to reform the governance system.

No wonder Modi Government has seamlessly shifted from transparency to opacity. Unfortunately, Black Paper has miserably failed to mention the emergence and rise of opaque governance.

The first step towards opaque governance was taken in 2015 when Modi Government disbanded globally accepted institutional framework called Performance Monitoring and Evaluation System (PMES) in 2015. UPA had introduced PMES in different ministries, department and their organisations in phases beginning September 2009. PMES provided for issue of Results Framework Documents (RFDs) by every entity after presentation of the Budget. Each annual RFD listed policy-related and other governance activities with specific timelines.

Each department was required to prepare its annual RFD before the start of financial year, specifying its vision, objectives and major policy and programme targets. RFD also had the format through which different indicative timelines for achievement of targets are evaluated in terms of percentage score ranging from 100% (for excellent) to 60% (poor). It helped citizens understand the governance efficiency of each and every department. If a proposed policy remained listed in a ministry's RFD year after year, one could dub it as policy paralysis. In the absence of RFD, it becomes extremely difficult for citizens to find instance of policy paralysis that spilled over from UPA to NDA regime.

The second key step towards opacity was taken in 2017-18 when separate outcome budget (OB) of each ministry and each department was merged into a single consolidated document.

Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Finance strongly disapproved consolidation of OBs. In a report presented during March 2018, PSC observed: "This (consolidation) has resulted in this important document becoming rather sketchy for each Ministry/Department without necessary details indicating the year-wise progress in implementation of various schemes/projects. It also does not give the year wise comparisons of performance, targets and achievements of the money spent/utilised/not utilised etc. for last 3 years. It only provides the name of the scheme, funds ear-marked, the purpose and the projections for next year. However, whether the money spent last year for a purpose has been spent and has actually achieved the objectives is not reflected."

The Report continued: "The Committee thus find that the outcome Budget so presented neither serves the intended purpose nor is transparent in so far as performance of the Government is concerned. The Committee would therefore recommend that the earlier practice of presenting the outcome Budget separately for each Ministry/Department along with the respective Detailed Demands for Grants may be restored for better appreciation of the implementation of various governmental schemes and projects."

The third initiative in opaque governance was merger of Railways Budget with the Union Budget in 2017-18. The Black Paper has blacked out this big-bang step towards opacity.

The Budget manual, issued during November 2022, has flaunted benefit of merger as "A formal and public presentation of railway budget created pressure for large public announcements on introduction of new trains and new projects without detailed analysis of their need or financial viability."

Post merger, Finance Ministry scrutinizes railways' estimates mid-year "without getting into unbridled public announcements," the manual adds.

This stance confirms Estimates Committee's apprehension voiced in 2016 when merger was at proposal stage.

The Committee felt that "merger of railway budget with general budget might curtail the time available for discussion on the state of railways and undesirability of such result as it is a platform to put forward the expectations of the general public by Members of Parliament (MPs)."

Yet another initiative towards opacity was restricted access to CAG reports on defence from mid-2017. CAG was asked to not upload on its website these reports due to perceived threat to national security. The academics and citizens have thus been deprived of the right to know multiple flaws in defence expenditure and security preparedness.

It is still not too late for the Congress to create value chain of 10 years of budgeting & governance to transform black paper from document largely, general charges to ones that are specific ones.

Both papers have avoided linking record for June 2014-January 2024 with specific promises made in the 2014 & 2019 BJP manifesto, leave aside its vision documents and previous manifestos. Both have overlooked promises made by Mr. Modi in his letters to the citizen. Both have avoided enumerating promises unleashed by Mr. Modi through his tide of speeches over the period. This includes "my to do-list" solemnly presented by him to the joint sitting of US Congress in 2016!

The Black Paper looks shoddy in absence of valuable quotes from Mr. Modi's speeches and FM's budget speeches. It has made no mention of missed action points and targets specified in 'Strategy for New India @ 75'. Niti Aayog published this report in November 2018 with foreword penned and signed by Mr. Modi.

Both papers have failed to link each budget with corresponding annual CAG report on financial and fiscal management. A careful, sequential reading would show gradual degradation in fiscal responsibility and would take the gas of out of white paper (read balloon for impact).

The Finance Ministry has gleefully cited an obscure analyst of Morgan Stanley labelling five emerging economies including India as 'fragile five' in September 2013. As put by White Paper, "The economic mismanagement choked the growth potential and India became a fragile" economy.

Fragility is a complex issue and has to be assessed on basis of lot of parameters. Global risk reports annually published separately by few institutions give an idea of fragility faced by different countries.

Why both papers failed to quote Fragile States Index (FSI) 2023 report? A separate report on India captures changes in the country's fragility & rank over 10 years. As put by FSI report, "2023's Fragile States Index clearly demonstrates that fragility still matters and is not easily contained. Worryingly, this year's events undermined the facile notion that fragility is a threat that only spreads from poor countries. Instead, contagion went the other way round as war in Europe led to inflation, fuel riots, and food insecurity in vulnerable countries around the world. Further, we learned that the Great Powers, whether that be China, Russia, or Western democracies, may be more fragile than we think."

Both papers have also failed to refer to corresponding, annual country reports of International Monetary Fund (IMF) on India and their three annual flagship reports - world economic outlook, global financial stability report and Fiscal Monitor. The same concern can be voiced over similar oversight of reports of World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB).

It is worth observing that neither IMF, nor WB nor ADB branded India as one of the fragile five in their 2014 reports. The Finance Ministry should have thus avoided running down India in White Paper as the truth is that hardly any country could avoid the impact of global risks, both during UPA & NDA tenures. The truth is that both regimes bore the brunt of global turmoil by compromising fiscal responsibility and by breaching prudential borrowing limits.

One can write a dozen thesis each on performance of UPA and NDA regimes to take the gas out of power politics.

The least that is expected from a responsible Opposition is a solid homework. Let it begin with a white paper on budgets presented by Modi Government. It can come out with stunning facts.

 


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