Kolkata: Sops galore, doles all the way – that’s perhaps a realistic assessment of the manifestos of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is eyeing its maiden ministry in West Bengal. The first of the eight-phase Assembly election starts March 27, and certain aspects of the manifestos of the key players sound intriguing.
Another way to look at the manifestos of TMC and BJP is to draw upon a recent observation made by Ashoka University professor and columnist Pulapre Balakrishnan (The Hindu, March 24, 2021) on the manifestos of the contending coalitions in Kerala (Left Demoratic Front and United Democratic Front). It reads: “..... they [manifestos] are joined by distributivism, competing with one another in welfare payments. Almost no section has been left out – the old, the youth, the housewife”.
In West Bengal, there is one more commonality between the incumbent party in power (TMC) and the one that is looking forward to fulfilling its long-cherished ambition (BJP) -- both are maintaining silence on the Indian Secular Front (ISF) of Furfura Sharif Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui formally joining the Left Front-Congress alliance in January-end after floating the party on January 21.
Earlier, both TMC and BJP would derisively refer to the Left Front-Congress tie-up and maintain that the electoral fight would be between them.
The state’s seven-crore plus electorate has two more manifestos to contend with – one by the Left Front, the other by Congress. It is not clear whether ISF will come out with a manifesto on what it intends to do or strive for, but its candidate list and the campaign speeches of Siddiqui do make some inferences.
Against the dole-based manifestos of TMC and BJP, the Left Front’s statement of intent lays stress on creation of employment opportunities and ensuring social justice, with stress on protection of women from torture and domestic violence.
The Congress document calls for a shift away from dole-based politics and for creating conditions in which sustainable development becomes a reality.
Judging by the speeches, Siddiqui has delivered so far, it appears that ISF is also against allowances and honorarium. “We do not want Imam bhata (dole), we want jobs”, he has been heard saying in some meetings.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has drawn upon the NYAY scheme of the Congress in its Lok Sabha election 2019 manifesto and has announced a monthly payment of Rs 500 a month to general category households and Rs 1,000 a month to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe category households.
“The ...shree and ...saathi schemes already in force will continue, so will the free ration scheme to the prescribed categories of families but as a further sop, the ration entitlement will be delivered at the doorstep of those families,” she said. She has also spoken about her intention to raise expenditure on healthcare and education substantially.
The least specific is her announcement to “raise the number of micro, small and medium enterprises by 10 lakh and to set up 2,000 big units”.
Banerjee’s prolonged agitations in Singur and Nandigram against land acquisition by the Left Front government had helped TMC to grab power in 2011. No wonder, her manifesto is silent on how big industries will come up unless the state government involves itself as a facilitator for land acquisition. It may be recalled that as a result of her agitation, the Tatas withdrew its small factory from Singur, and as a result of her protests, the chemical hub project and the Haripur nuclear power project, both in Purba Medinipur district, are now part of history.
Also, nothing is heard about NTPC’s power project at Katwa in Purba Bardhaman district, 55% of the land requirement for which was arranged by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya during his 2006-2011 term as Chief Minister.
This campaign season, Banerjee has also not uttered a word on the Deocha Pachami coal project, which is hanging fire for over five years now.
The proposals in the BJP’s Sankalp Patra, which will involve substantial expenditure, are free travel for all women in public transport services, monthly hononrarium of Rs 6,000 for ASHA workers, Rs 10,000 a year to every refugee family for five years (this is related to identification as refugees under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019). In a subtle move to get en bloc support from the state’s 75 lakh farmers, the BJP has offered to increase the annual payout under PM Kisan scheme to Rs 10,000 from the existing Rs 6,000.
Neither TMC nor BJP has indicated how they propose to mobilise resources/funds for the additional expenditure. In this context, it is relevant to quote from a report prepared by Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, in 2015 when the TMC ministry was completing its first term.
The report, prepared under a NITI Aayog research scheme observed: “Our analysis tends to indicate that a major explanation of adverse condition of West Bengal’s state of finances emanates from lack of growth in the organised sector in general and organised manufacturing in particular. Thus, the economy is dominated by ‘hard-to-tax’ sectors with a vast and expanding unorganised sector. As far as low tax proceeds are concerned, the state of West Bengal is thus caught in a trap, whereby tax proceeds are low because easily taxable economic activities are few and informalisation is high. Suffice it say that the ultimate boost to tax proceeds will come from improving the ease of doing business -- both in reality and in perception – as also from widening the tax base and generating non-tax revenue”.
There is not much change in this situation, except that the collection from VAT (value added tax)automatically goes up whenever petrol and diesel prices firm up and stay at higher levels.
The state budget papers for 2020-21 noted that in 2021, the outstanding debt is expected to be 32.9% of the gross state domestic product. This is much higher than the limit of 20% of GDP suggested by the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management or FRBM review committee (2017) for the cumulative debt of all states.
Revenue deficits are invariably met by borrowings, which do not create capital assets. Only the revenue deficit is accounted for, the balance from borrowings, if any, can be used for capital investments. That is the stipulation. The 15th Finance Commission recommended a grant of Rs 5,013 crore in 2020-21 to enable the state to eliminate revenue deficit.
As per estimates of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy or CMIE, the unemployment rate in West Bengal in February was high at 6.2% compared with, for example, 3.8% in Maharashtra, 2.5% in Karnataka, 4.8% in Tamil Nadu and 4.3% in Kerala and 1.6% in Assam.
Meanwhile, it is seen from the manifestos of the Left Front, Congress and BJP that certain suggestions have been made for the first time. Setting up of a separate department for migrant labour has been proposed by the Left Front. In this context, it is worth mentioning the efforts made by the West Bengal unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to unionise migrant workers. The party’s Karnataka unit had done so earlier.
Setting up of electric car manufacturing units in the Asansol-Durgapur region has been suggested by Congress. The chosen locations have land available as a result of the closing down of several industrial units, including public sector enterprises.
A cash payment of Rs 6,000 annually with accident insurance cover up to Rs 3 lakh has been offered by BJP for the state’s about four lakh-strong fishermen community.
The BJP’s accommodation of defectors from TMC, Mamata Banerjee’s wheel-chair campaigning with a plastered left leg, Siddiqui’s ISF, which has fielded two Bengali Brahmin candidates, the low-key manifestos of the Left Front and Congress, the total silence of pro-TMC Furfura cleric Twaha Siddiqui and, of course, the high-decibel dole-centric announcements of TMC and BJP are factors that may combine to make the electoral contest intriguing.