By TP Saran
Although the announcement of the date of elections is being held back for whatever reason, the fact remains that sooner or later there will be general elections and a new government will come into power. There may be uncertainty about its configuration, but what is absolutely certain is that whichever party or alliance takes over is going to inherit a real hot economic plate. Indeed, as our interviewee of this week emphatically underlines, the poor management of the country’s economy in the past five years has left us not only grossly indebted, but incapable of stimulating growth to the level required for meeting the challenges that the country is facing in order to satisfy the needs of a majority of its population.
As such, therefore, the new regime will have to fulfill a number of expectations which the people are eagerly awaiting. One salient fact that must be remembered, as several observers have pointed out in the past, is that in voting for a change, people have been seen to vote in consecutive elections till the last one against the incumbent rather than for the contending party, and this raises the level of expectation even higher on the one that assumes power. And that implies an equally higher level of responsibility on the part of the next bunch of aspirants to power who will take charge of the country’s destiny. They cannot afford to fumble and stumble, let alone proceed with business as usual: they will be looked up to, rightly or more often wrongly, as messiahs come to transform the lives of the people, and cannot afford to be laid back let alone fail the latter. Beyond solving the growing list of social and economic ills, they are called upon to answer to a higher moral responsibility vis-à-vis those who will hoist them to power.
To start with, there are the contradictions that have plagued the present regime and that hopefully will be a thing of the past. One has only to think back over the list of parliamentarians, including ministers, who have had to step down because of irregular practices both while handling affairs of the state and in their personal behaviours even as the Government was loudly proclaiming its crusade against corruption and condemning the unethical behaviours of its predecessors. From disrespect to women to dubious financial transactions that have plagued even the Presidency, the country’s image has been battered repeatedly. And the culprits are still having it good on the back of the citizens whom they have duped – and show no sign of remorse whatsoever.
Fiscal irresponsibility has resulted in the country being dependent on foreign partners, leading to spending beyond our budgetary means in order to be able to cope with a string of populist measures that were announced in successive budgets, such as raising the universal pension, with a proposal to eventually raise it to basic minimum wage level. The latter itself has had to be kept afloat by introducing a negative income tax, which is considered to be tantamount to subsidising those who are already economically well-endowed. Whether such measures will be sustainable in the long term has never been openly addressed, and this will definitely be a matter of great concern for the next government. Can we afford levels of spending and public debt that will trap our future generation for decades to come? How will growth take place then, if we have to keep on borrowing simply to pay for upkeep?
Rightly so, our guest Eric Ng thinks that there is an imperative need for a Fiscal Responsibility Act to rein in unbridled government expenditure and reduce the budgetary deficit. We need a radically new paradigm that breaks away from the current trends so as to deal with the challenges that will otherwise become insuperable obstacles. As Eric Ng states : ‘Une nouvelle orientation économique doit faire la part belle à la déconcentration de l’économie, à l’élargissement de la concurrence, à la responsabilité fiscale, à la stabilité monétaire, à la bonne gouvernance économique et à une meilleure redistribution des richesses, entre autres. Il nous faut une autre stratégie économique que celle axée sur l’immobilier à tout prix…’
Although it is a worldwide phenomenon à la Thomas Piketty, we cannot use this as an excuse or a pretext to allow the growing inequality that the country has seen over the past few years to increase any further, with the potential it carries to aggravate social unrest. If we may put it this way: the metro, the innumerable real estate projects and the super-costly surveillance system cannot fill hungry bellies. Visibly, the traditional economic elite and the political class have been surfing on the waves of prosperity, with in many instances the latter brazenly displaying their indecent luxury. This is a slap in the face of the many who are toiling and suffering to make ends meet. If we do not stop this propensity to offend public sensibility, there is no predicting what turn matters may take, with unintended consequences that may well result in grave social upheaval.
To all intents and purposes we are teetering on a very thin edge, and there will be no margin for error in the conduct of the country’s affairs, what with the parlous state of our finances and the formidable obstacles that lie ahead in all sectors we can think of: agriculture, sugarcane and the small planters, the SMEs, textile, global business and the offshore sector… It will require more than just political rhetoric and populist pledges to plug the gaps and lift us to sustainable growth levels.
The next winner will be ushered in with a thick noose around the neck, and any faux pas will be unforgiving. As they say, forewarned is forearmed.
* Published in print edition on 27 September 2019