Bye Annus Horribilis

Updated: Dec 22 2002, 05:30am hrs
The year 2002 is drawing to a close. Looking back, it was a horrible year, and it has left me quite despondent. There have been horrible years in the past decade, but none that ended with so many question marks about the future of the country.

Actually, it need not have been so bad. In purely economic terms, the worst period was the second half of 2000-01. Every indicator was headed south, and the year recorded a gross domestic product growth rate of 4 per cent. Miraculously, there was a recovery. Just look at the growth rates for the four quarters of 2001-02.

I cannot immediately recall another year in which all three sectors registered increasing growth rates in the four quarters of a fiscal year. It was a gift from the gods.

Fiscal 2002-03 should, therefore, have been launched with a bang. All indicators were moving north, and at that point of time, no one could have foreseen a bad South-West monsoon. It was a glorious opportunity. Parliament should have opened with a confident speech from the President. The budget should have unveiled more reform measures. The Prime Minister should have inducted new and young - blood into his Cabinet. Chief ministers should have been exhorted to pay greater attention to implementation and issues of governance. Sadly, nothing of that kind happened.

Instead, Mr Yashwant Sinha presented a disastrous budget. His proposals hit savings, hit investments and hit the hard-working (and tax-paying) salaried middle class. On the same day, a horrendous crime was committed at Godhra in Gujarat. That act of madness was seized upon to unleash more and pre-meditated madness; and a cunning swayamsevak sowed the seeds of revenge and coldly calculated the harvest of hate that he would reap by the end of the year. The Prime Minister and home minister fought for political space, the home minister raised the decibel level of his Pakistan-bashing and emerged a clear winner. Bharatiya Janata Partys allies, always insecure, scrambled to take new political positions. The Pota became the favourite talisman (as if it would deliver us from all evil). Disinvestment became everyones favourite whipping boy. At the level of the states, there were endless quarrels with the Cauvery taking the top slot.

The gods did not take kindly to such callous misgovernance. There was a poor monsoon, giving rise to legitimate concern about the kharif crop. But one kharif does not determine the whole agricultural year. There could be late rabi, there could be a normal rabi harvest (and that is how the unprecedented drought has actually played out). Yet, instead of pulling all efforts together and managing the drought situation, the government and especially the agriculture ministry launched into a period of mourning and killed whatever business and investment confidence that was left in the economy.

Nothing has been done right by the government since February. One by one, the pundits have lowered their forecasts of economic growth during the current year. The Reserve Banks forecast of 6-6.5 per cent made in April is nowhere in sight and Dr Bimal Jalan will be a lucky man if his latest estimate of 5-5.5 per cent proves correct. The lowest estimate is by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy that forecasts a growth rate of only 3.1 per cent during fiscal 2002-03. That will make it the worst annual GDP growth rate since reforms began in 1991.

Apart from the economic woes, there is the new and dangerous political dimension introduced by the results of the elections in Gujarat. In the last four days of the campaign, at meeting after meeting, Mr Narendra Modi unashamedly declared, this is not an election about who will form the government or who will be the chief minister. This election is about religion. And that is how it was in central Gujarat, the region most affected by the communal riots. The other regions south and north Gujarat and the Saurashtra region tell a different story. In each of them, the Congress won a few more seats than what it had won in 1998, and BJP lost a few seats that it had won in 1998. The BJPs net loss was 18. But the central Gujarat turned the tables. The BJPs tally went up from a modest 14 to a record breaking 42, a gain of 28 seats and, hence, a net gain of 10 seats. Godhra falls in this region, and we were told that if one draws a circle with Godhra as the centre and a radius of 100km, BJP won all, or nearly all, the constituencies that fall within this area. Religion, as Mr Modi wanted, was the sole issue.

The Gujarat verdict is a defeat for the moderate, the liberal, the secular and the reformist sections of the Indian society. It is a defeat for those who believe that governance should be the sole issue in an election. The BJP will be tempted to apply the Gujarat formula if it can find a few more willing Modis in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh which go to the polls next year.

Our cup of woes is filling up. Besides Gujarat, there are the new scandals that have hit the nation with frightening regularity. A sober and straight judge enquiring into the Tehelka tapes was lured into a trap and forced to quit both the jobs. Judges in Punjab, Rajasthan and Karnataka are embroiled in allegations of sleaze and sex, and the last word has not been heard on these matters. Nagappa was killed by his abductor Veerappan, who remains untraced. A ioint parliamentary committee has virtually indicted the then finance minister, but he remains unfazed and unmoved. The Comptroller and Auditor General has pointed to more irregularities and possible corruption in the purchases made during the Kargil war, but George Fernandes continues to preside over the crucial defence ministry. The Supreme Court has stayed the Hindujas trial a trial that it had only in May 2002 expressly directed shall continue from day to day.

The gathering clouds dark and threatening leave one bewildered and numb. There are, of course, some silver linings. The highway building programme is on course and is generating employment and demand. Parliament is actually passing Bills, thanks to the two presiding officers. An unusually informal President is inspiring children with his dreams. Good men are still available to do important jobs Dr Rangarajan will head the finance commission. And (be grateful for small mercies), Mr Vajpayee has not quit in favour of Mr Advani or Mr Modi. Though pitifully few, I am counting the silver linings.

(The author is a former Union minister)