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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Inflation deflating Congress

Inflation Image of Business and Economyhas been a critical factor in the downfall of governments worldwide. IFor instance, it was the unaffordable prices of essential commodities that ousted Indonesian President Suharto in 1998 and senior Bush in 1992. Even in India, many ruling parties have paid the price. Will Congress survive it? By asad

Many a time, inflation has proved to be a wrecker of governments worldwide; and in India the scare is quite perennial. In 1980, the skyrocketing prices of essential commodities delivered that most essential of all lessons to the left-of-centre Janata Party; and it paid the price that inflation inevitably exacts. In the 1998 Delhi local elections, the voters put the BJP-led coalition out of business in the Onion War that saw onion prices hitting the aam aadmi’s roof.

And ten years down the line, the ruling Congress-led UPA has that same ageless worry gnawing at its very foundations. Wholesale price-based inflation has already touched a 40-month high of 7.41%, with everything from fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, meat and milk becoming dearer. For UPA, the price rise couldn’t have come at a worse time. The glee Congressmen experienced in 2004 – when the BJP was hounded out for failing to deliver on its pledge of ushering in social and economic change – has all but vanished. And at least on the subject of price rise it’s the saffron party that calls the shots and is eager for all the photo ops.

Already, inflation is the leading item on the opposition’s agenda. Warning of nation-wide protests, L. K. Advani would have the Congress “forewarned” of its “culpability” for failing to rein in the monster of inflation. “The hungry masses must make these exploiters pay for this crime,” he said. The barb seemed to have been directed chiefly against Finance Minister P. Chidambaram who, around February-end, had drawn loud partisan cheers for his populist budget pledges that had brimmed over with eye-popping tax cuts and a massive Rs.600 billion farm debt waiver scheme. But the icing was the Pay Commission largesse.

Meanwhile wholesale vegetable prices have shot up by an incredible 4.1% and pulses have become dearer by around 1.2%; with retailers and consumers experiencing the usual jitters. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has admitted that the steep rise in food prices is hurting inflation management, but has ruled out arbitrary controls. The IMF forecast estimates India’s inflation at a moderate 5.2% in the current calendar year and 4% in 2009. But the voter does not care about stats; sop or no sop, he will vote for the party that can deliver.

And all UPA coalition members – particularly the Left – realise that nothing can upset their winning calculations more than the general discontent with the government over the unbearable cost of living. The United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA) has joined forces with CPI to launch anti-price rise protests. “The government will pay a high political price for inflation,” said senior CPI leader D. Raja. So how is the ruling alliance likely to fare in the next elections? Former Karnataka chief minister S.M. Krishna told B&E that he feared for his party in the upcoming assembly polls due to its failure to control inflation.

What’s more, even the middle classes are beginning to fear that the sagging economy will eventually erode their lifestyles, pensions and business prospects. Said a Delhi-based housewife Nilofer Raquib, “I am really worried with several vegetables selling for over Rs.40 a kg.” The government, of course, knows that the baby steps it is taking will not protect it from the voters’ wrath. “We have no magic wand, the whole world is affected,” is the line that big wigs of the ruling party are mouthing.

Said Minister of Earth, Science and Technology Kapil Sibal, “Prices of agricultural commodities had shot up by 73% in the international market between August 2007 and March 2008.” His point is taken. Inflation has notched up record highs in all emerging markets such as China (8.7%), Russia (11.9%), Argentina (7.3%) and Turkey (8.1%). But Sibal must realise that inflation has led to the downfall of governments worldwide. In the late 1990s, this was the case in Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia. It was the unaffordable prices of essential commodities that ousted Indonesian president Suharto in 1998.

Economic slumps have dashed the aspirations of presidential hopefuls in the US. George H. W. Bush found this at his cost when he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. The two exceptions in US history are Harry Truman and Republican Warren Harding, who snatched the White House from the Democrats in 1920, even as recession was under way. But there can be no parallels, particularly not between the Indian and US scenarios. It’s absurd, for instance, to speculate whether Sonia’s fortunes will go the Truman way.

Will people care less about their pocketbooks and give the UPA the benefit of doubt? Will they be as receptive about the global recession line that the government feels forced to hammer on? Just as there is no magic wand, there are no easy answers this time.

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Source : IIPM Editorial, 2008

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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