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Quiet, all too quiet

The Left is not asking the most urgent questions about the country's economy, writes Shikha Mukerjee.

india Updated: Mar 09, 2006 05:20 IST

If you belong to the opposition, criticism of the Budget is mandatory. It, however, has the potential to be embarrassing if your criticism follows the prescriptions of institutions reviled by generations of the Indian political class, that is the World Bank, the IMF and a host of others based in Washington or in the capitals of western Europe.

For the words of caution that have been emerging out of a change of fashion in development theory is that India needs to jack up its spending on human development indicators or else it will fall behind in its race to emerge as the new economic tiger. Therefore, one could argue that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has faithfully followed the text, just as much as has the CPI(M)-led Left alliance. Chidambaram has done his bit by using growth to mount a heroic battle against illiteracy, poverty and inadequate rural infrastructure, while the Left has done its bit by declaring that this is not enough. More than the poor and the target audience of the excluded, the Left’s concern must be manna to those who have been passionate in advocating that India has to stop making excuses for failing to rapidly improve its human development performance.

As much as investors worry about the pace of economic reforms, they worry about the long-term prospects of an economy that has invested too little in its people and its infrastructure. Where Chidambaram stops short and the Left ‘starts’ is addressing the issue of the estimated 13 million Indians who will enter the job market every year for the next 40 years. How can jobs be provided for this vast and growing pool of low-skilled labour, coming mostly from what is being increasingly recognised as ‘laggard states’? The Left continues to not ask this question (and Chidambaram continues to not answer it). Since India is home to 20 per cent of the world’s population under the age of 24, offering a national rural employment guarantees is not enough. It may keep the rural youth from migrating to the urban areas for a few months, but it is no long-term solution.

The Budget would have been a more honest guide to the future if provision had been announced for the long awaited social security scheme for agricultural and unorganised workers. The Left has chosen not to raise this as an issue, allowing Chidambaram the luxury of avoiding offering an answer. Addressing the social security problem is an urgent requirement for two reasons: one, traditional social safety networks are deteriorating even in rural India; and two, without providing a safety net, the long overdue changes to labour laws cannot go forward. Consensus, which underwrote Chidambaram’s Budget proposals on pushing more funds for social and physical infrastructure, exists within the international community for some act to loosen up the labour laws in India. The Congress-led UPA has to find that consensus within India to do what is needed, not just for changing the labour laws, but because it is the ‘compassionate’ thing to do.

Adoption of global fashions is not confined to policies on social and physical infrastructure. Nationalism, disguised as patriotism, across the world is evident in the CPI(M)’s fuss over the extent to which the Indian economy is being opened up to foreign funds, particularly foreign institutional investors. If the CPI(M) has serious concerns over this, so do lots of other people, including George Soros.

What this suggests is a curious conundrum: what or who is a conservative in the Indian context? What is the communist vision of the world, as seen from India circa 2006? William Morris, artist, designer, ardent socialist and later communist asked himself why he was a communist. His answer was as aesthetic as the designs he created: for him communism was a state of society that was “practical equality of condition” based on the full recognition of man as a social being. Morris distinguished between the common welfare and the welfare of the individual. This is a distinction that the Left, particularly the CPI(M), finds difficult to negotiate while balancing the different constituencies it would like to keep happy.

The Left, having dodged answering its ideological dilemmas ever since West Bengal began taking advantage of liberalisation, is walking along the sharp edge of the razor. It has reached its present position by nurturing a coalition of interests that range from the young person working in the IT industry, the petit bourgeoisie of West Bengal, the privileged permanent worker in a PSU, the wretched worker on a construction site, as well as the peasant who has turned proprietor thanks to land reforms. It has, therefore, been reduced to fumbling in its tinkerings on the fringes of a historic challenge — India’s economic transformation.

First Published: Mar 09, 2006 05:20 IST