UPA, Without Illusions
By Praful Bidwai
05 June, 2004
I write this, barely 10 days after the swearing in of Manmohan Singh
as Prime Minister, three broad trends are discernible. First, the United
Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is already under intense pressure
from the Right to adopt a conservative stance not in keeping with the
electoral mandate. Second, it has negotiated, not least because of the
Left parties, a centrist "social market economy"-oriented
Common Minimum Programme, although not without compromises, ambiguities
and flaws. And third, the Council of Ministers is a mixed bag. Some
key portfolios have been allotted to leaders either lacking in dynamism
or with a distinctly pro-business disposition and a Right-leaning orientation.
top leaders will face heavy odds in translating the electoral mandate
into policies, which can inflict a decisive defeat on the socially retrograde
forces represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies. Such
a defeat is today's categorical imperative. All secular public-spirited
citizens must welcome the UPA, but they should have no illusion that
the alliance will deliver - unless progressive parties and people's
movements mount moral pressure on it.
Of the three trends,
the first became manifest even as the election results were coming in.
The Sensex lost 200 points and then another 800 - a warning, the pink
press declared, of the mood of the "investing community" which
apprehended that the NDA's policies would be reversed. It now turns
out that the stock crisis was exaggerated and made out to be unique
to India, when in reality Asia's major "emerging markets"
- China-Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, besides India - saw share
values decline by a huge 15 per cent-plus in two weeks.
This was largely
due to foreign portfolio investors pulling out a chunk of the $500 billion-plus
they had invested in the region over preceding two years - wing to high
oil prices, fear of inflation and an upturn in the U.S. economy, which
has gained 900,000 jobs in four months. Evidence suggests the Indian
markets were rigged in order to solicit pro-business signals from the
new government and influence key appointments.
Sections of the
media luridly played up the "bloodbath" and how it destroyed
tens of thousands of crores in share value. On May 18-19, they launched
a campaign of disinformation alleging that Sonia Gandhi had decided
to turn down the prime ministership because the President advised her
to do so or questioned the legality of her naturalisation as an Indian
under the Citizenship Act. Since then, they have relentlessly poured
scorn on the UPA's effort to formulate the CMP, and on its contents,
branding it the "Crash Markets Programme". They have painted
the UPA's coalition-building process in dark hues.
The central thrust
of this media campaign, with all its inaccurate or unchecked allegations
and unsolicited editorial advice to Manmohan Singh - interestingly,
this was rarely offered to NDA leaders - has been to construct elaborate
apologia for neo-liberalism and for the perpetuation of the obnoxious
Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Equally, it is to legitimise the
BJP's ludicrous claim to be the "natural" party of governance
and India's best candidate for coalition-building. In fact, the UPA
enjoys the support of 320-plus Lok Sabha members, a number the NDA could
never reach despite all manner of compromises and inducements to allies.
Some of the media campaign has apparently had an effect, especially
as regards appointments to some key Ministries.
The second trend
- negotiation and finalisation of the CMP - in many ways represents
the opposite process. The UPA by and large stood up to pressure from
the pro-neo-liberal media and business groups. The CMP is undoubtedly
a compromise document. Its final version differs significantly from
the original draft on issues such as employment, labour, foreign investment,
electricity, foreign policy, and defence and security. The differences
are largely attributable to the suggestions made by the Left parties.
The "six basic
principles of governance" are unexceptionable within the context
of today's largely forward-looking, Left-leaning, secular dispensation.
They emphasise "social harmony" and enforcement of the law
"to deal with all obscurantist and fundamentalist elements";
sustained 7-8 percent economic growth "in a manner that generates
employment so that each family is assured of a safe and viable livelihood";
"welfare and well-being of farmers, farm labour and workers, particularly
those in the unorganised sector"; and empowerment of women - "politically,
educationally, economically and legally"; and "full equality
of opportunity, particularly in education and employment for the Scheduled
Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs [Other Backward Classes] and religious
minorities". The sixth principle is about unleashing "the
creative energies of our entrepreneurs, businessmen, scientists, engineers
and all other professionals and productive forces of society".
These together mark
a definite improvement over the Congress party's election manifesto.
The UPA has taken to heart the salience of unemployment associated with
the current pattern of growth and placed it on top of the agenda. It
promises to "immediately enact a National Employment Guarantee
Act. This will provide a legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment,
to begin with, on asset-creating public works programmes every year
at minimum wages for at least one able-bodied person in every rural,
urban poor and lower-middle class household. In the interim, a massive
food-for-work programme will be started". Agriculture, education
and health also figure prominently in the CMP. As do schemes for Dalits
and Adivasis, and women.
A particularly healthy
part of the CMP is the emphasis on regional development, and redressing
growing imbalances, between and within states, "through fiscal,
administrative, investment and other means". On the agenda are
debt relief, special programme for social and physical infrastructure
development in the poorest districts, and transfer of all centrally-sponsored
schemes (except in "priority areas like family planning")
to the States. Also welcome, despite its slow pace, is the commitment
to eliminating the Centre's revenue deficit by 2009, so as to release
"more resources for the social and physical infrastructure".
CMP does not go ga-ga over the river-linking proposal so mindlessly
peddled by the NDA. It only promises "a comprehensive assessment
of the feasibility of linking of the rivers... This assessment will
be done in a fully consultative manner... " The CMP promises "steps
to ensure that long-pending inter-State disputes on rivers and water-sharing
like the Cauvery waters dispute are settled amicably at the earliest".
Having said this,
ambivalences, inadequacies and flaws do remain. For instance, to achieve
food security, India badly needs to universalise the Public Distribution
System, in place of "targeting", which has very nearly destroyed
the PDS for the poor. Yet, the CMP only says: "UPA will work out,
in the next three months, a comprehensive medium-term strategy for food
and nutrition security. The objective will be to move towards universal
food security over time, if found feasible (emphasis added)". Yet,
the central issue is not feasibility, but the will.
Again, the CMP does
not rule out privatisation of profit-making public sector companies:
"generally", they will not be privatised. The promise is to
retain "the existing `navaratna' companies, while these companies
raise resources from the capital market. While every effort will be
made to modernise and restructure sick public sector companies and revive
sick industry, chronically loss-making companies will either be sold
off or closed after all workers have got their "legitimate dues
and compensation". One can read some formulations as offering a
justification for privatisation - for instance, that "the UPA government
believes that privatisation should increase competition, not decrease
it". Also that, "there must be a direct link between privatisation
and social needs - like, for example, the use of privatisation revenues
for designated social sector schemes".
In the conclusion
of the economic section, the CMP reiterates its "abiding commitment
to economic reforms with a human face, that stimulates growth, investment
and employment. Further reforms ... will be carried out in agriculture,
industry and services. The UPA's economic reforms will be oriented primarily
to spreading and deepening rural prosperity, to significantly improving
the quality of public systems and delivery of public services to bring
about a visible and tangible difference in the quality of life of ordinary
citizens ... ". Since this does not specify what is meant by "reforms",
one can only take it to connote neo-liberal policy changes, albeit with
"a human face" - a classic World Bank-International Monetary
Fund formulation. There is no mention of equity and equality in the
CMP, although "growth", "investment" and "employment"
are repeatedly stressed.
The broad point
is there is no commitment in the CMP to dismantling the macro-economic
structure of neo-liberal policies, not even to progressive taxation
with which to rectify imbalances in the government's finances.
The CMP takes a
step backwards as regards India's nuclear policy. It ignores the Left's
opposition to the 1998 nuclear tests and to plans to make and deploy
nuclear weapons. It says the government is "committed to maintaining
a credible nuclear weapons programme while at the same time it will
evolve demonstrable and verifiable confidence-building measures with
its nuclear neighbours. It will take a leadership role in promoting
universal nuclear disarmament and working for a nuclear weapons-free
world". This is definitely a retrograde departure even from the
Congress' reiteration of a commitment to the Rajiv Gandhi plan of 1988
for global disarmament.
The CMP promises
"an independent foreign policy, keeping in mind its past traditions.
This policy will seek to promote multi-polarity in world relations and
oppose all attempts at unilateralism". There is a welcome effort
to play down India's recent proximity with the United States and no
mention of "strategic partnership": "Even as it pursues
closer engagements and relations with the U.S., the UPA government will
maintain the independence of India's foreign policy position on all
regional and global issues. The UPA is committed to deepening ties with
Russia and Europe". The emphasis on the South Asian region too
is welcome. What this will mean in practice remains to be seen. On the
World Trade Organisation, there is no mention of the urgent need to
protect services, in addition to agriculture and industry.
On the whole, the
CMP is a reasonably good broad framework, whose ultimate test will lie
in actual policy-making and implementation. The government must be held
accountable on its commitments in favour of the people.
Unlike the CMP process,
government formation has been messy and driven by exigencies. Some major
appointments remain unsatisfactory. Among the positive ones are those
of Natwar Singh (External Affairs), Arjun Singh (Human Resource Development),
S. Jaipal Reddy (Information and Broadcasting), Mani Shankar Aiyar (Petroleum
and Panchayati Raj) and Prithviraj Chavan (Minister of State in the
PMO). However, the downside is strong too. Take three key portfolios:
P. Chidambaram (Finance), Pranab Mukherjee (Defence) and Shivraj Patil
(Home). Chidambaram is an ideologically driven neo-liberal who, like
many other Harvard Business School graduates, remains dedicated to "free-market"
doctrines. Manmohan Singh by contrast is no "free-market"
zealot. He opposes dismantling of the public sector "for ideological
nor Shivraj Patil can be accused of being imaginative or firm in adhering
to principle. That is sorely needed today in Defence, which cries out
for streamlining, deep cuts in wasteful budges and action against corruption.
Similarly, Home holds the key to bringing the culprits of the Babri
Masjid demolition to book, to resolving the Ayodhya dispute, abolishing
POTA, and outlawing Togadia-style hate-speech and VHP-Bajrang Dal-style
hate-acts. Similarly, Kamal Nath (Commerce) inspires no confidence whatsoever.
The Minister will be called upon to play a crucial role in the coming
round of WTO negotiations in which India's stand, like that of Brazil
and South Africa, as well as the least developed countries', will matter.
At stake is unrestricted trade in services, which will be disastrous
for the Third World.
is J.N. Dixit's appointment as National Security Adviser. Dixit's role
during the Indian Peace-Keeping Force period in Sri Lanka was embarrassing.
He is a known hardliner on the nuclear issue, and on relations with
Pakistan. In the early 1990s, as Foreign Secretary, he gave hawks a
free run in determining India's nuclear policy. Since 1998, he has openly
advocated nuclearisation. He was singularly responsible for removing
any reference to the Rajiv Gandhi plan from the Congress manifesto and
for committing the party for the first time to "a credible nuclear
weapons programme" - without debate or discussion. This composition
does not suggest a great beginning. The UPA will have to do better than
give the impression that it might soon drift towards conservativism.