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NEW DELHI:TURNING ‘POT’ ON ‘TOP’, CONGRESS COURTS CONTROVERSY BJP GETS A ‘NEECH-LIKE’ HANDLE FOR KARNATAKA.

 The “TOP” news is Rahul Gandhi’s top-aide Divya Spandana asked the un-askable question: “Is this what happens when you’re on POT?”, referencing her tweet to Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling a rally in Karnataka that farmers are his “TOP” priority as “tomato, onion and potato” are three vegetables grown across India and found on dinner tables everywhere.

Spandana woke up to PM Modi’s “TOP” comment and tweeted that question “Is this what happens when you’re on POT?”, which has now become a top controversy, with the BJP asking Rahul Gandhi if he would now suspend Spandana as he had Mani Shankar Aiyar.

Divya Spandana, who is in charge of social media outreach of the Congress party, was last heard wondering “what all the fuss was about” because all she had done was to “invert” PM Modi’s TOP vegetable preferences to POT.

But in the process, she inadvertently inverted her own question towards her boss, Congress President Rahul Gandhi. A “very, very annoyed BJP” retaliated. “Most people of the country and our party members won’t even know what you are referring to (including PM himself) but your leader will connect with it instantly. While you have insulted people of India with your atrocious comment, your leader will be proud of you!!” BJP leader GVL Narasimha Rao pointed out.

That was because in the past several politicians have cast doubts on whether Rahul Gandhi was on drugs! During the Punjab elections last year, Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal asked the question while BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Subramaniam Swamy has been off and on telling everybody in his hearing distance that Rahul was on drugs.

One story that got very “popular” on the Internet was that Rahul Gandhi was once arrested for cocaine possession in the United States and that then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to step in to get himl out of the “drug-induced” trouble he had landed in.

Not just the Internet, even legacy news media reported this so-called “incident”. Zee News, which is not exactly Rahul-friendly, reported in 2015: “Swami last week alleged that Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi was caught by Federal Bureau of Investigation for holding USD 1.60 lakh and white powder in the US in 2001.” The report said Sonia Gandhi then called then PM Vajpayee and Vajpayee called then US President George Bush and got Rahul released from the clutches of the FBI.

But The Hindu had reported in 2001 that the FBI had “detained” Rahul Gandhi “for about an hour at Boston airport” and “Congress president Sonia Gandhi reportedly spoke to Indian ambassador in the US, Mr Lalit Mansingh. Mr Gandhi was able to proceed with his onward journey”. The report did not mention “drugs”.

Then in January 2017, the Times of India reported that when drug abuse took centre-stage in the Punjab assembly elections, and Rahul Gandhi said 70% Punjabis were drug addicts, Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal had called the Congress vice president an “addict”.

Now, it is on to another assembly election and Divya Spandana has brought POT into the election campaign, prompting the BJP to hit back. The BJP’s own “IT maven” Amit Malviya, “wondered” whether Spandana will meet the same fate as Aiyar’s, whose use of the “neech” word during the Gujarat assembly elections targeted PM Modi.

“Will Rahul Gandhi maintain silence on Divya Spandana’s comment while he sacked Mani Shankar Aiyar just because his jibe came close to Gujarat election and Karnataka is still some months away, sacking his aide responsible for his rise as a leader takes some courage?” Malviya tweeted.

Spandana, who must have been glued to twitter, returned with a “You didn’t want to tag me cos you didn’t want people to watch the Modi video pinned on my timeline?” adding “Come on! Be a sport- And hey, POT = Potato ?? Onion Tomato ?? what were you thinking? ??.”

Maven was not amused, saying that more than 3,500 farmers have committed suicide in Karnataka, the highest for any state in India, but “speaking for them is being on ‘POT’… Congress keeps it classy, again”.

So, TOP got POT involved and POT called TOP to question and set the world spinning like a TOP on POT. Politics such as this should STOP but who is listening, every politician irrespective of party appears to be on POT in the zeal to come out on TOP.

PRE-POLL PROMISES TO BHARAT’S FARMERS AND POOR

‘EASE OF LIVING’ DEAL WITHOUT EASE OF FINANCING

An elaborate exercise in “friendliness” to the farmer in distress for long, to the small business, devastated by demonetisation, and “healthcare” for poorer sections, crafted by Prime Minister Modi, was faithfully projected by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in the Union Budget for 2018/19.

That it is all politically timed for safeguarding the strength of ruling BJP-led NDA in a critical election year in states leading to Lok Sabha polls in 2019 is patent.

Otherwise, how after four years in power already, the Modi Government achieving neither inclusive growth nor jobs in millions promised in 2014, should now wake up to the plight of distressed farmers over years and of the rural and urban poor. The Modi Exercise is thus designed to focus on the needs of rural areas as well as other sectors from agriculture to infrastructure – a modified version of the “Garibi Hatao” slogan of the 1970s.

Modi thumped the desk for every announcement of Jaitley on higher institutional credit to farmers and extension of Minimum Support Prices (MSP) at one and half times the cost of production cost, now available to rabi crops, for all unannounced kharif crops. The MSP rise, marketing funds and other proposals announced in agriculture and animal husbandry, duly applauded, were all designed toward the promised objective of doubling farmers’ income by 2022.

Jaitley said his other priorities in the budget were good healthcare to the economically less privileged, infrastructure expansion, and working with states to provide more resources for improving the quality of education. Laudable as all these goals are, there are no readily available institutional mechanisms nor funding at the central or state levels. In food also, the scale of procurement and the methodology for arriving at MSP were left unsaid for exchequer cost calculations.

It is understandable for the Prime Minister to bestir himself at a time the opposition has begun to make a gradual recovery to be able to challenge the ruling BJP in states first and later in the Lok Sabha elections. After Gujarat, Rajasthan is sending out strong signals of the changing voter mood. No doubt, the Prime Minister would become hyper-active henceforth, choosing all platforms, to thunder against Opposition parties with allegations of corruption.

The Modi Government thus far cannot claim to have mastered the art of seizing black money and benami properties and providing a corruption-free regime, leave alone the economic growth and lack of private investments in these four years. Nor is there anything of substance in Jaitley’s latest (fifth) budget to trigger “animal spirits” for business investment to revive.

Taking the budget overall, given the appalling deficits – with deferred fiscal consolidation plans – the Finance Minister has sought to distract attention and making his lengthy speech a review of “achievements” in the first four years in terms of “yojanas” of the Prime Minister for “vikas”, partly under implementation, and “fundamental structural” reforms undertaken like GST, code on bankruptcy, etc.

Certainly this government has fiercely and forcefully been enforcing Aadhaar in all spheres downplaying citizen’s rights including privacy, in a vast country of low literacy and large segments of poverty. A deliberate policy of digitalisation toward a ‘cash-less’ economy is being pursued with a majoritarian push unmindful of ground realities even as more basic needs and requirements of the people are downplayed..

The Prime Minister said with focus now on “ease of living” – away from “ease of doing business” – the budget envisages an “unparalleled” shift in health sector – providing healthcare to nearly 50 crore Indians at Rs. five lakh a year for quality treatment. The budget makes a token provision of Rs. 2,000 crore. Based on research study, health insurance for 10 crore poor families would cost Rs. one lakh crore and annual premium would be Rs.10,000 crore even at 2 per cent of the sum assured (Rs. 5 lakh).

Health, as a state subject, requires serious Centre-state commitments for such major healthcare programmes expected to cast a heavy burden for both Union and state exchequers. While the budget describes it as the world’s largest government-funded healthcare programme (Ayushman Bharat plan), at this stage it is more like floating a balloon. Healthcare costs are very high in the country, though may look cheaper for the wealthy abroad visiting India, and have become unaffordable even for the affluent nationals. Since the government has to rely on private sector substantially, the speciality hospitals and insurance companies would be getting richer.

On the taxation side, Jaitley has now come to believe that medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs) would lead economic consolidation in India. He had earlier refused to acknowledge the damage done to this sector by demonetisation both in terms of loss of cash for transactions and lakhs and lakhs of workers being thrown out of jobs. The budget extends reduced corporate tax at 25 per cent for MSM companies with turnover up to Rs. 250 crore, and Jaitley hopes with higher investible surplus these enterprises could create more jobs.

For jobs, the Finance Minister relies more on new schemes in the agriculture, small-scale and health sectors and offered selective subsidy, where employees would be kept for three years at least in any new start. The economy must first get back to sustained growth for jobs.

The government sees “green shoots” on the economic horizon and has assumed that GDP would grow at 11.5 per cent at current prices (7.2 per cent in real terms) in 2018/19 after the slowdown to 6.7 per cent in fiscal 2018. The medium-term outlook is clouded with global developments not entirely benign. The rising trend in oil prices would affect the budget arithmetic as also any fall-out from the budget on consumer prices.

The government’s inability to contain fiscal deficit at 3.2 per cent of GDP in 2017/18, attributed to less than expected GST revenues (net) and decline in non-tax revenues, is compounding the outlook for inflation. From the now enhanced 3.5 per cent of GDP, the budget assumes fiscal deficit at 3.3 per cent in 2018/19. This is a temporary blip, according to the Finance Ministry, which sees more buoyant revenues with a reformed GST and strategic disinvestments planned. The revised consolidation plan targets fiscal deficit at 3.0 per cent in 2021.

LOOKING AT ELDERS THROUGH SELECTIVE EYES

RETIREES FROM NEWS ORGANISATIONS IN DIRE STRAITS

The anxiety of the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister about periodically raising salaries and perks of the government employees is well understood, because they cannot afford to keep a very large segment of working force in the government unhappy for long when the governance is in the bargain. Not only the current cabinet, the earlier cabinets also did the same using just different phraseologies. It is because each government has to worry about this segment of people who would be required to carry out its programmes.

But never once they care to look into the ordeals of lack of protection being suffered by the retired people in the marginal strata and from certain private sector companies, including those who spent their lives in newspaper industry but are ruled to retire at comparatively capable age of 58 in this country, (to suit the selfish agenda of the managements or owners).

There is an Atal Pension Yojana created as family pension by the Employees’ Provident Fund Commission, which grants a little over Rs 1,000 and below Rs 1,500 per month to such retired people. This Yojana is linked to the EPF-95 scheme of the EPFO. This amount remains constant year after year, even as the cost of life always moves upward and mobile, with life expectancy growing, salute to the modern medical practices in the country. There is no rise in the constant amount even as dearness in living goes up every other month.

The Finance Minister and the Prime Minister would do plausible jobs for the grassroots by linking this pension to the dearness allowance, as they do in the government and organised sector employees’ cases, and, by re-employing the physically and intellectually capable among this segment of pensioners so to contribute to the economy. These two steps are possible.

Looking back, retired people from newspaper companies and organisations were never granted proper salaries in their prime time of life, nor even granted the full entitlements according to the government-granted Wage Boards recommendations, with one pretext or another, even as they were always unavoidable essential staff to run the daily production of the newspapers, both editorially and technically. Having craftily ensured low salaries to these essential staff, the management of these newspaper companies also created a debt-trap so that these expert hands could not leave the organisations to join better employments. The debt-trap came in the form of credit and thrift societies, which advanced loans against low interests to employees to run their day to day life and rentals, as their low salaries were already debited against long-time loans taken for sheer survival in ever-growing market prices. These loans were also compounded and never really repaid during the tenure of their employment, but were adjusted only at retirement against their provident fund and gratuity dues.

The newspaper employees who were not covered by, or chose to go out of wage boards to avoid the unruly ruckus of cultured unionism and to pursue careers for excellence, suffered even more miserable working life than their unionised brethren covered by the wage boards. They were not given respite, even after coming out of the dragnet of unionism, from the management’s discriminatory treatment. Such employees’ professional (and thus financial) growth has always been stunted and even denied year after year with one pretext or another to suit the favoured recruits of the management. Though these employees were trusted hands and, therefore, unavoidable, yet their merits were never rewarded with the intention to accommodate the connected aspirants from the civil society. Thus a majority of them started at a post in employment and retired in the same post after completion of their 58th year. They worked amid penury and left the organisation in penury. Post-retirement, both these groups of citizens have only inflated the grassroots of disadvantaged citizen-groups of India.

The news organisations use all their clouts in political parties, governments, and bureaucracy to defer or suppress a Wage Board before declaration, when every ten years it is in the offing. Not only this, even after the grants of the Wage Boards by the judiciary, some influential companies continuously try to influence the government and members of parliament to scale down the awards already granted to the newspaper journalists and employees by the wage boards.

This has been the history of independent India’s Fourth Estate — ruled, governed and managed by some influential selfish families of the country. This practice continues, because of the continual absence of clean policies of the governments about the newspapers and news organizations. This situation can be bettered, with a view to making the Fourth Estate truly non-committal, meaningful and trustworthy, giving democracy its real vibrant structure in the country, only by putting all these news organization into public trusteeships. Resultantly, except a very few chosen journalists and non-journalist employees, majority of the news organisations’ staff suffer the ordeals of retirement at a capable age in the thick of pecuniary hardship for the rest of their life.

Even the current arrangement of this meagre pension (Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500) needs a progressive look. It is required to be re-instituted every November, but is stopped either for Aadhaar compliance or other issues. The government has created a system of acquiring the Digital Life Certificate (DLC), besides Aadhaar linking to the accounts of the pensioners under the EPW-95 scheme. According to one of these agents, the software and the processing have been made so cumbersome and complex that most of such agents have stopped working for the DLC.

End.

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