Sonia Gandhi takes moral high ground in letter to Modi, but fails to shed 'entitlement' imbibed in Congress

Sanjay Singh

When Congress president Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, making five point suggestions on behalf of her party to fight multiple challenges posed by COVID-19 challenges, one expected them to be constructive and positive.

Gandhi's letter was also important because it had come after the prime minister had called the Congress chief and sought suggestions in this hour of crisis. After all, Sonia has been the president of the Congress party since March 1998 except for a brief interruption of a year and half when she had handed over the reigns of the party to her son Rahul Gandhi.

But the suggestions made by Sonia in her letter to the prime minister were disappointing, to say the least.

She tried to take a moral high ground by supporting the government's decision to enforce a 30 percent pay cut for all Members of Parliament in the opening of the letter. But as she came to her first point, it seemed that her real intentions are not to help the government come out strongly from the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

"I am writing to offer five concrete suggestions. I am certain you will find value in them," she wrote in the letter. Now let us consider the merit of these suggestions one by one.

Sonia's first suggestion was that the Modi government (including all PSUs) "impose a complete ban on media advertisements €" television, print and online. The only exceptions should be advisories for COVID-19 or for issues relating to public health". Her prescription, she argues, will "save Rs 1,250 crore to be used to fight COVID-19".

At the outset this would appear to be a noble suggestion. But the question is: if this was such a good suggestion, why did she not first ask the Congress-ruled states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Punjab, or Maharashtra where Congress is part of the coalition in power, or in the UT of Puducherry?

It's well known that in India, subscription/viewership to media, television, print and digital is either free or is nominally paid. That is because the real expenses in running media outlets and their distribution is funded through advertisements from private companies as well as the government.

Now Sonia wants all government ads to be stopped for two years at a time when the industry is already reeling under real crisis, perhaps the biggest ever. Apart from disseminating news and informed views to people at large, this sector is a big employment creator as well.

While the Congress, on the one hand keeps on talking about jobs, but here it is asking the government to do something that will result in closure and reducing the size of media outlets, which will result in massive job losses.

There is another angle to it. The Congress president perhaps thinks that the media by large is supportive of Modi and his government, and the closure of all ad revenue to media houses will turn the owners and journalists against it. Young aspiring journalists too wouldn't get jobs.

Sonia's solution number two: "Transfer all money under 'PM CARES' Fund to the 'Prime Ministers National Relief Fund' ('PM NRF'). 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."

This smacks of an agenda €" the continuing entitlement of the Congress president. It was not publicly known until now that that the Congress president is an ex-officio member of PM NRF.

When then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru constituted this fund, he decreed that the Congress president will be part of the six-member committee. In fact, Congress president is listed on number two position, after the Prime Minister of India.

In PM CARES Fund, the Congress president or for that purpose no political party president has been made a member. The mandate of especially created PM CARES Fund and PM National Relief Fund is different.

Remember the noise Congress had made when the elite SPG cover of the Nehru-Gandhi family was withdrawn.

Sonia's solution number three: Suspend the ‚¹20,000 crore 'Central Vista' beautification and construction project forthwith.

This is a worthwhile suggestion to the government

Sonia's number four suggestion: "It makes sense to order a proportionate reduction of 30 percent in the expenditure budget (other than salaries, pensions and central sector schemes) for the Government of India as well. This 30 percent (i,e, ‚¹2.5 lakh crores 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."

This is open to debate among the economists whether or not cutting 30 percent of expenditure budget by the Government of India would aggravate the economic crisis and result in massive job losses. But if it does, this would go exactly the opposite way to the cause that Congress president is advocating.

Sonia's solution number five: "All foreign visits including that of the President of India, the Prime Minister of India, Union ministers, chief ministers, state ministers and bureaucrats must be put on hold in a similar fashion."

The Congress president would appreciate that all-air traffic €" domestic and foreign €" is currently suspended and no one is in capacity to say when these services are going to resume. One would assume that no bilateral, multilateral and large conferences are going to happen till the end of this year.

The G20 meet and the Modi-initiated SAARC summit were held through video conferencing. That would probably be the template for immediate term meets. Since there are some notions attached to hawai yatra and foreign visits, she is apparently trying to score a brownie point.

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