Can you believe it? Can you really, really believe it? The Congress has actually dug up and dusted out its old Indira Gandhi slogan of Garibi Hatao (Remove Poverty — parodied later as Garib Hatao, Remove the poor) and the 20-point poverty eradication programme! If nothing else, this amazing action shows up the abysmal poverty of ideas and imagination among the current top brass of the party. In this age of instant communication, should anyone vote this party to power if it can’t even think of a catchy slogan for its work programmes?
It also makes for a déjà vu situation for us journalists (although I was a child then, I quite remember the snorts and smirks expressed by relatives and later by my teachers of economics about the programme)—does nothing really change in India? I’m vividly reminded of that splendid photograph of the first torpedo-like Indian reactor being transported by bullock-cart as I sit amidst the splendors of Maurya Sheraton hotel in Delhi hearing about the 37 companies in today’s India turning over more than a billion dollars every year. These are the companies that will groom the new 100 billionaires of tomorrow, some of whom will rule the world as MNCs, even as politicians of this country cling to their obscene pillows and daydream about the 1970s.
What makes me even more uncomfortable is the fact that Planning Commission deputy chairman M S Ahluwalia as well as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are associated with this resurrection. They are among the main architects of the 90s' economic liberalization. Have they paused to think for one moment that if this policy had been so successful, we didn’t have to go to the IMF for the umpteenth time and launch the reforms?
A more important point though is: Was Garibi Hatao really a golden wand for Indira? As far as I remember, that was the blackest period of the Indian economy. A period when it hurtled or was pushed towards doom, shackled and tied so much that it couldn’t breathe till the late 80s. The Constitution was amended 28 times during 1966-80 to protect the various new laws and to allow ordinances through, the right to property was taken away in 1971. The economic collapse was all pervasive—the crisis in food and forex, the plan holidays, the terrible inflation, Indira Gandhi's perceived need to ally with the US, the 57-per cent devaluation and the wars. The lone saving grace was agriculture, thanks to the Green Revolution. During 1966-81, we went thrice for extraordinary aid and the IMF. Exports stagnated at 4.4 per cent in 1970-75, industry grew at 5 per cent, and import tariffs climbed steadily to touch the frightening 50 per cent in the 80s.
Surely Manmohan Singh remembers all of this. He shot to fame and closer to Indira Gandhi with his inflation management during this period. Before this, in 1964, his cautiously argued study on the government’s shooting-in-the-foot export strategy had remained only in the mindspace of the academics. Hindsight has shown that if we didn't have an anti-export bias, the improvement in forex situation would have been more than enough to finance the heavy industry strategy. Gandhi’s tightening noose had only served to worsen socialistic pretensions. As Jagdish Bhagwati were to say later, in his inimitable acerbic style: "We had reproduced beautifully the disadvantages of communism, without any of the benefits!"
Is it this that we want to remind ourselves of? Garibi Hatao was merely an election slogan designed to stave off the imminent collapse of the Congress and to stem the rise of Jaiprakash Narayan. That it was not successful is clearly brought out by the emergency of 1976. The Congress needs to shed all old practices, despite Sonia Gandhi’s rather effusive, eternal love for her mother-in-law’s working style. Surely even a C-grade advertising agency can think of better slogans.