The distinguished Harcharan Bains in his write-up in this newspaper on Friday described himself as "emotional and philosophical" and hence felt it was inappropriate of him not to be part of the governance process. For me, the hilarity of his argument is neither the fact that he has never contested an election in his life nor his illusion that he is in the reckoning for a political leadership position, allowing him the 'prerogative' to leave governance to genuine and practical hands.
I am instead amused that he chooses to mention only the partial truth. He is emotional alright but so blindly emotional towards fulfilling his selfish pursuits that he is impervious to any rational argument and has a callous disregard for the tax payer's money. During my tenure as the Punjab finance minister, Bains, like an emotional child, would keep on sending requests that his official vehicle be upgraded to a Toyota sedan. My argument was since he had not taken a public oath, and therefore it did not behove him to misspend public money, did not convince him as he kept on pestering the finance department for approval of his perks. As a page 1 report published in this newspaper on October 28, 2010, 'PR doctor's on a spin, 50 times round the globe', showed that he would usually spend government-provided petrol that was sufficient for a vehicle to take several trips across the Equator!
Setting the record straight
What I do find objectionable is that he draws a parallel between me and himself. Can he face the public and point out to a even single 'emotional misdemeanor' that I have committed at the public exchequer's expense, or where I pestered the government to get what was not my rightful due? In his pettiness, he accuses me of being jealous of (deputy chief minister) Sukhbir (Singh Badal), which led to my splitting in 2010. To recap the facts, I did not leave the party; I was shunted out, simply for doing my duty. I did not vie for the poisoned chalice of the finance ministry. I was handed the finance department because the chief minister felt that I was suitable for this role. But clearly, my drawing constant attention towards the imminent fiscal disaster of Punjab did not go well with him.
Bains farcically quotes speeches from my tenure as a finance minister to highlight my alleged volte-face. That Punjab is a border state is a geographical fact. As a finance minister of Punjab, it was my duty to continuously demand, greater share of taxes from the Government of India. At the same time, it was also my duty to raise awareness about Punjab's own profligate ways, show my concern towards curbing needless expenditure; and save public money from unconscionable dissipation. One could argue that I showed slightly more enthusiasm for the latter than former, but in this government all we see is blaming the Centre and cursing our geographical location, conveniently forgetting that the onus on reform is on our self.
He makes a sweeping statement that no other state has faced challenges akin to the ones being faced by Punjab. I wonder that as an adviser on national affairs to the CM, is he really aware of what is happening in India? Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are landlocked and continue to be troubled by Maoists but they show better growth than Punjab. All of them also happen to be landlocked. Chhattisgarh for example is growing at over 9%.
Know your numbers
In my alma mater, St Stephen's College, Delhi, where the debating tradition is a legend, we were taught not to use statistics unless we were confident of the context in which we were quoting the numbers. In the University of London, the advice pertaining to vague statistics was even more direct: "Don't use statistics like a drunken man uses lamp posts, for support and not for illumination".
While comparing Punjab's fiscal indicators, Bains gleefully uses the reference point of the Centre, conveniently ignoring that in most of the federal world, the national government's fiscal numbers would be inferior to those of its provinces, simply because of the scale and nature of expenditure (a province doesn't spend on defence, external affairs). To give a crude example, the US budget deficit is close to 5% of the GDP. Will it make Bains draw conclusion that Punjab is performing better than the US? The hard fact is that among all major states in India, Punjab's fiscal numbers are the worst. Shockingly, despite the salaries and other employees' allowances not being paid on time, Bains has the temerity to claim that Punjab has never defaulted on its payments!
Admit there's a problem
In fact, it is this blatant disregard that has always made me worry about Punjab. Yes, nations face crisis. India too had to mortgage its gold in 1991, but there was an admission of the problem and the reform process started immediately. But in Punjab, we are mortgaging our properties and still claiming that all is well! Instead, we have government representatives engaging themselves in pseudo one-upmanship where they use weak statistics, ridiculous oxymoron's ("Poor government, rich people"- is it possible?), fake allegations (when did I undermine the RBI report? I merely pointed out the context of the numbers).
Usually, such a vacuous dig does not merit response, but then, I use this illustrious newspaper to convey to the Punjab Government that we will continue to voice against the clear and present danger of fiscal crisis in the state, and we expect them to come out with potent policy action and not feeble polemics.
By the way, contrary to what Bains claims (19th century economics are a passé), the philosophy of John Stuart Mill who was the first one to emphasise freedom of the individual as against unlimited state control, is the basis of actions of most progressive nations in the 21stcentury.