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Hard to gulp: Sonia’s tips

The suggestions were broadly aimed at addressing woes of those most affected by Covid-19, including doctors, health workers and migrant labourers
Sonia Gandhi speaks at a rally New Delhi.

Sanjay K. Jha   |   New Delhi   |   Published 07.04.20, 09:38 PM

Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday made radical suggestions to save money and use it to fight the coronavirus pandemic, but most of the ideas could be politically unpalatable to the BJP as they target the core around which the persona of Narendra Modi has been built.

The suggestions include a complete ban on government advertisements to print and electronic media for two years, suspension of the Central Vista construction and beautification project in the capital, discontinuance of ministers’ foreign visits and a 30 per cent cut in government expenses for two years.

Sonia also suggested that the amount collected under the PM-Cares Fund set up to tackle the outbreak be transferred to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.

The suggestions were broadly aimed at addressing the woes of those most affected by the pandemic, including doctors and other frontline health workers and also migrant labourers. Many of the expenditure areas highlighted by Sonia are widely considered largely wasteful, particularly when the country is faced with an unprecedented crisis.

Sonia wrote to Modi in response to the Prime Minister’s telephone conversation with her on Monday during which he requested the Congress chief to suggest ways to combat the pandemic.

Although Sonia’s proposals appear justified at a time when the country is battling a pandemic and its fallout on the economy, the Congress chief’s charter of demands appeared to be a craftily devised political assault on Modi, hitting hard at his personal strengths, pet projects and the ingenious instruments designed for political machinations.

It is unlikely any of the suggestions will find favour with the Prime Minister.

The media — a large section of it — is Modi’s greatest pillar of strength. Congress communications chief Randeep Surjewala said on Tuesday that Rs 4,000 crore had been spent in the past five years on Modi’s personal image-building.

Sonia wrote in her letter: “Impose a complete ban on media advertisements — television, print and online — by the government and public sector undertakings (PSUs) for a period of two years. The only exceptions should be advisories for Covid-19 or for issues relating to public health.”

Sonia wrote: “Given that the central government currently spends an average of Rs 1,250 crore per year on media advertisements (not including an equal or greater amount spent by PSUs and government companies), this will free up a substantial amount to alleviate the economic and social impacts of Covid-19.”

News Broadcasters’ Association president Rajat Sharma was quick to criticise the suggestion, saying this would hurt the morale of the media. The industry was already suffering because of cuts in advertising budgets due to the economic slowdown, he said. Sharma asked Sonia to withdraw her suggestion in the interest of a “healthy and independent” media.

The Congress leader also chose Modi’s pet project of constructing a new Parliament building, saying: “Suspend the Rs 20,000-crore Central Vista beautification and construction project forthwith. At a time like this, such an outlay seems self-indulgent to say the least. I am certain that Parliament can function comfortably within the existing historical buildings.

“There is no urgent or pressing requirement that cannot be postponed until this crisis is contained. This sum could instead be allocated towards constructing new hospital infrastructure and diagnostics along with equipping our frontline workers with personal protection equipment (PPEs) and better facilities.”

Seeking a 30 per cent reduction in the government’s expenditure budget (other than salaries, pensions and central schemes), Sonia said: “This 30% (i.e. Rs 2.5 lakh crore per year approximately) can then be allocated towards establishing an economic safety net for migrant workers, labourers, farmers, MSME’s and those in the unorganised sector.

“Fourth, all foreign visits including that of the President, the Prime Minister, Union ministers, chief ministers, state ministers and bureaucrats must be put on hold.”

She said exceptions could be made in case of special emergencies or exigencies in national interest, to be cleared by the Prime Minister.

Sonia pointed out that around Rs 393 crore had been spent on the foreign trips of the Prime Minister and Union ministers in the past five years.

Sonia also demanded the transfer of the money received under the PM-Cares Fund to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.

“This will ensure efficiency, transparency, accountability and audit in the manner in which these funds are allocated and spent. It seems like a waste of effort and resources to have and create two separate silos for the distribution of funds.

“I understand that Rs 3,800 crore approximately is lying unutilised in the PM-NRF (at the end of FY 2019). These funds, plus the amount in PM-Cares, can be utilised to ensure an immediate food security net for those at the very margins of society,” the Congress leader wrote.

The PM-Cares Fund has triggered a controversy, with critics saying this was unnecessary and might create suspicions about inequitable distribution of funds among the needy and also escape the scrutiny of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Many Congress leaders feel this fund could be used to discriminate against Opposition-ruled states.

The fate of Sonia’s suggestions is more or less known but the Congress leader appealed to Modi: “Every single Indian has made great personal sacrifices to fight this disease. They have complied with every suggestion, instruction and decision taken by your office and the central government. It is time that the legislature and the executive reciprocate this trust and good faith.”

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