Careful at the crossing
Of the many diabolic statecraft dictums Machiavelli suggested, one goes as follows: first, declare the worst that is possible under your rule. Then proceed not to implement it. The people will then heave a sigh of relief and hail you as the benefactor (sounds familiar in post-Babri masjid demolition India). As sinister as this may sound, the opposite is also true. Rousing expectations of the people and then proceeding not to live up them is bound to create a sense of disillusionment. This will only undermine rather than consolidate the rule.
This, unfortunately, is applicable to the UPA government. Its formation was received by the people as a sign of relief from the communal combine’s six-year rule. The aura of renunciation around Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to become the Prime Minister further bolstered the UPA’s credibility. Apart from assuring a secular government that promised to safeguard the republican foundations of modern India, the UPA went further by promising policies and measures to uplift the lot of the aam aadmi. These are mentioned in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), which was broadly endorsed by the Left parties that provide crucial outside support. In fact, the UPA government went a step further. The ‘final word’ of the CMP states that it is, “by no means a comprehensive agenda. It is a starting point that highlights the main priorities, policies and programmes. It is the foundation for another CMP — collective maximum performance.”
The third anniversary of the UPA government is an occasion to evaluate dispassionately if it has lived up to the stated expectations. The UPA did put out a ‘report card’ about its performance. There are, of course, certain positive measures which have been initiated. These are, indeed, unprecedented in the history of independent India: the Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (notwithstanding its limitations both in coverage and implementation), the Tribal Rights Bill, the Right to Information Act and the limited protection of the public sector by arresting the reckless privatisation spree of the previous NDA government.
There are, however, crucial areas where the CMP promises are yet to see the light of the day. Most crucial to India’s future is the continued crisis in the agrarian sector. The agrarian distress, reflected in farmers’ suicides, continues unabated. The CMP had promised a substantial hike in public investment in agriculture. But, enough has not been done. Institutional credit to the farmers, though expanded, still leaves two-thirds of the farmers at the mercy of private money-lenders and their usurious interest rates. The inability to return this debt is, in fact, the main cause for farmer suicides. The CMP also spoke of fair and remunerative prices for our farmers and special attention to foodgrains procurement.
On the former count, consider the fact that the government has recently decided to import five million tonnes of wheat to meet the domestic shortfall in production. At what price is the government buying this in the international market? Anywhere above Rs 1,200 per quintal. And, what is the remunerative price being offered to wheat farmers in Punjab? Rs 850! Can’t we give our farmers the same price that we are paying to foreign farmers? If this is done along with tackling the debt burden, then the lives of farmers can be saved. Procurement is virtually in shambles. This further undermines the near-decaying Public Distribution System (PDS). Strengthening the PDS is an essential precondition before the government tries to control the current spiralling prices.
Many promised laws are yet to be passed. Some of these include the legislation to protect unorganised labourers, the central legislation for agricultural labour, the Women’s Reservation Bill, the Prevention of Communal Violence Bill and the Lokpal Bill. One can examine, sector by sector, the promises made and the achievements of this government.
One can also comment on the many efforts made to advance the neo-liberal agenda of the economic reforms that are not contained specifically in the CMP — like the urge to induct foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, in insurance and many other sectors; to privatise pension funds; to facilitate the takeover of domestic private banks by foreign banks, etc. This, however, is a continuous exercise. Let us, therefore, turn to the larger picture.
The emergence of the UPA was significant on many counts. Compared to the 195 seats that the Congress under late Rajiv Gandhi won and refused to stake claim (certain to fail in getting the support of 80 more MPs) to form the government, this UPA government is led by the Congress with just 145 seats. This portrays a change in the ground realities: many parties opposed to the Congress policies including the Left, chose to join or support this government with the objective of keeping the communal forces at bay. This was the reflection of the popular verdict, which sought the consolidation of our secular democratic republic.
Thus arose an opportunity to steer the country away from internecine communal conflicts and address in right earnest the issues of development and inclusive growth. To be fair, since the inception of this UPA government, the paradigm of public discourse has shown a tendency to shift from communal disputes towards issues that impact the common man. Even in the recent UP assembly elections, despite the BJP’s prakhar Hindutva, the circulation of an obnoxious CD failed to polarise communities. The party recorded its poorest electoral performance in recent years. The RSS has now surmised that the BJP’s bad performance was due to the fact that it did not campaign wholeheartedly on the Hindutva agenda! While this is an ominous signal for the future, it is clear that the people are pre-occupied with their problems of daily existence.
However, apart from not displaying alacrity and urgency on many occasions in addressing the communal menace, the UPA government’s economic policies are failing to permit the possibilities of the secular consolidation from being fully realised. The continuing price rise, for instance, is creating discontent to the extent that in many states the people have voted against the UPA constituents. This is directly helping the communal combine to stage a comeback. The very purpose of forming the UPA will get defeated if this situation is not corrected.
Today there is a possibility of creating a better India — an India where the growing hiatus between the ‘shining’ and the ‘suffering’ is bridged. Together, we will march towards prosperity, stability and security. To achieve this, however, the UPA government, in the remaining two years, must concentrate on implementing the promises made in the CMP and stop wasting its energies in pursuing neo-liberal economic policies, no matter where the pressure is coming from. The failure to do so would not only mean the unforgivable waste of an opportunity to create a better India, but could also lead to the return of those forces that believe in pushing India back to an illusory past while pushing the nation towards a bitter future.
Sitaram Yechury is a Rajya Sabha MP and Member, CPI(M) Politburo.