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The stage is set for the polls

The nuclear deal and the farm loan waiver would be the two main issues in the forthcoming general elections, writes Pankaj Vohra.
Hindustan Times | By Pankaj Vohra
UPDATED ON APR 02, 2008 06:58 PM IST

The Indo-US nuclear agreement which had been put in abeyance for some time and the Rs 60,000 crore farm loan waiver dominated all political activities last week. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is making every effort to evolve a consensus on the nuclear deal, once again made a fervent appeal to the senior leaders to come together for the future of the country. He appealed specially to former Prime Minister and senior BJP leader A.B. Vajpayee to act like a statesman and persuade his party to fall in line.

If Singh succeeds, the Vajpayee factor will silence the critics in the BJP and, therefore, change the support structure for the treaty in Parliament. It is true that the Parliament’s endorsement for the treaty is not mandatory but if the BJP backs the deal then there will be little doubt left as to what was the sense of both Houses of Parliament. The BJP’s support for the deal if it comes, however, cannot be seen as the end of ideological and political differences between the Congress and the saffron brigade. It has to be understood by everyone that the two parties can never be the same, even though some recent responses of the UPA on several issues are similar to those of the NDA in its last stages.

The Congress and the BJP can never be allies. As stated in this column several times before, the BJP (from the Jana Sangh days) and the CPI(M) have shared a close political association with each other. This was evident in 1967, ’77 and ’89. The relationship of the Congress with the Left parties (read: the CPM) is purely tactical and they got together on the anti-communalism plank after the 2004 verdict. It is another matter that the honeymoon did not last long because the Left started accusing the Congress of deviating from the Common Minimum Programme. Despite the strained relations, the UPA (led by the Congress) and Left have carried on with each other for nearly four years. But as things stand today, the parting looks inevitable even though the timing will be determined by the operationalisation of the deal. Unfortunately, the nuclear deal is being linked to the alleged hatred of the minorities for the US in general and President George Bush in particular. This is not true because the average Indian including the minorities is more concerned about their day-to-day lives rather than the US or Bush.

And if this feeling has gained some currency, it is because of the failure of the UPA and the Congress to explain the issues to the people. This is unfortunate and could also be an indication of the casual attitude of some of the UPA and Congress leaders, which could come under greater scrutiny when the polls take place. From their perspective, the CPI(M) is on the right path and General Secretary Prakash Karat has conveyed it to the Congress leadership time and again that the signing of the deal would mean the end of this government.

The Left now wants to have a meeting with the UPA by using the coordination panel mechanism and sparks may fly. On its part, the Congress is expected to re-assure the Left parties. But this re-assurance may be deceptive since the ruling party is waiting for the right opportunity to go ahead with the nuclear agreement. This will perhaps happen sometime after the Budget is passed in Parliament but certainly not before that.

The problem is the ambiguity, intrigue and deception that surround the deal. Everyone knows that the agreement will help us to strengthen our energy resources and also help in building up our infrastructure. Scientific progress cannot be held to ransom by ideological considerations and signing of the deal does not in anyway compromise our sovereignty. India is not a banana republic and no government including the US can challenge our sovereignty. But the dangerous fact is that the politics being played around it is bound to harm the interests of the country and may lead to a period of uncertainty when regional parties and smaller groups would have a field day at the cost of the integrity of the Indian nation. By this, I don’t mean that regional parties are anti-national but their shortsighted approach is perhaps not good for the overall interests of the country. It could lead to lopsided views.

It is virtually certain now that the country is heading towards an early parliamentary poll. In this context, the farm loan waiver assumes a lot of significance. Even though it is well- known that it was at the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s behest that the farmers got this waiver, it is important for the Congress to carry this message across the country. The Sonia Gandhi kisan rally, comprising mainly farmers brought by Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda, at the Ramlila grounds was a good move. One wonders why farmers from Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh did not show up in great numbers. Obviously, Hooda alone cannot get the farmers on the Congress’s side. Others should also pitch in.

The Centre needs to evolve a mechanism of making sure that the benefits of the waiver reach the farmers. Many of them owe money to moneylenders and not banks. To implement this scheme effectively, income-tax officers, and not bureaucrats, should be asked to ensure that the banks repay the money owed by the farmers to the private moneylenders.

It is possible that many of these moneylenders may not show up to claim their money if they have to explain to an I-T official the source of the funds because then their black money would get detected. The government must announce the procedure in Parliament and also ensure that unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats do not siphon off the farm waiver funds.

Rajiv Gandhi had once said that out of Re 1 spent by the government, only 16 paise reach the beneficiary and the rest disappears. Therefore, the government should make sure that the interests of farmers should be first served. The nuclear deal and the farm loan waiver would be the two main issues in the forthcoming general elections. In short, politics has just begun. Between us.

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