New Delhi: It is a known fact that Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi share a frigid cold equation. Small courtesies, even looks, are rarely exchanged between the leaders. But such are the times brought about by coronavirus that the two are now communicating at regular intervals. Following up on the call made to her by PM Modi, Gandhi, the interim president of the Congress, has now written to him with five suggestions.
These are imposing a complete ban on media advertisements in television, print and online, by the government and Public Sectors Undertakings (PSUs) for a period of two years. The only exceptions should be advisories for Covid-19 or for issues relating to public health.
Two, suspend the ₹20,000 crore ‘Central Vista’ beautification and construction project forthwith, which Gandhi calls “wasteful” expenditure.
Three, it makes sense to order a proportionate reduction of 30 per cent in the expenditure budget (other than Salaries, Pensions and Central Sector Schemes) for the government of India as well.
Four, all foreign visits, including that of the President, the Prime Minister, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers, State Ministers and Bureaucrats, must be put on hold in a similar fashion. Exceptions can be made in case of special emergency or exigencies in national interest to be cleared by the PM.
Five, 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
It is this suggestion that is expected to stoke a political storm. From Day One, Congress has questioned the need for PM Cares Fund when the PM National Relief Fund has existed since 1948 when it was set up by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Shashi Tharoor and the Congress were the first to raise the question. But the government said PM Cares is specific and dedicated to Covid-19 and also similar crisis arising in future. The BJP also pointed out that the PM National Relief Fund had the Congress president on board and this is why the Congress was opposing the new fund.
The government says in times of crisis, what was needed was urgent immediate steps and fund allocation with no bottlenecks. This argument was rejected by the Congress as it sniffed a conspiracy to keep the opposition out. The cabinet decision to suspend MPLADs added to the opposition anger as it feels it’s an attempt by the government to make opposition MPs redundant.
The government has dismissed the allegations, saying a dedicated PM Cares Fund would remove delays and ensure more people contribute, which they have. But Sonia’s Gandhi’s last line in the letter has added to list of allegations by Opposition on the government’s intent.
“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.”
Even in this moment of crisis, clearly trust is deficient between political opponents.