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`We will have to work hard to make CMP work’

Purnima S. Tripathi

Wednesday 2 June 2004, by TRIPATHI*Purnima S.

As the Congress(I) gets ready to run the government with support from the Left parties, the biggest task it faces is the economic path it should follow. The defeat of the BJP-led coalition has made it clear that the people have rejected the NDA brand of economic reforms, which failed to improve the lot of the people. Reconciling the political and economic contradictions generated by the neoliberal path is going to be a major challenge especially because of the Left parties’ distinct stand on economic reforms, which were originally initiated and carried forward by Congress regimes. Jairam Ramesh, secretary, All India Congress Committee and secretary of the party’s economic affairs committee, agrees. "Co-habitation with the Left is going to be difficult," he tells Purnima S. Tripathi in an interview. Excerpts:

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The prospect of a Left-supported Congress government at the Centre has been viewed with some apprehension by the corporate world. What do you have to say on this?

The fears about a total policy reversal are totally unfounded; it is not feasible, it has never happened in the last 12 years. After the Congress government lost in 1996, the United Front government pursued the same policies during 1996-98 and then the NDA too took the same path. If at all any policy reversal happened, it happened during the NDA rule and within the NDA itself. So there is no reason to panic about a turnaround in the economic direction the country would take now. Besides, it was the Congress party that initiated the reforms. We are the architects of these reforms. But, yes, the Arun Shourie brand of mindless privatisation is certainly out. The emphasis would be on socially relevant privatisation. But there certainly would be no blanket assault on privatisation. We are of the opinion that the private sector and the public sector could happily co-exist. Take the power sector for example. There is a need for the public sector in generation and transmission, but in distribution, the private sector could be allowed.

So what essentially would be the policy direction of this government?

It would be growth-oriented, employment-oriented, investment-oriented and common man-oriented, along with liberalisation in the right direction.

But there could be differences between the Congress and the Left about what the right direction is? During the United Front government the Left parties, which were both inside and outside the government, had effectively stalled the Insurance bill.

Yes, there are apprehensions about the Left parties’ role. Co-habitation is going to be difficult. Lots of adjustments would have to be made. All the more so because they look inclined to support the government from outside. The Left parties inside the government would be different from when they would be supporting from outside. In the latter case, they would be like loose missiles. We would prefer them inside the government.

What essentially are the areas of concern?

Basically privatisation and the public distribution system, as to how it should be run. Food security and labour reforms are other areas where there could be differences.

How does the Congress(I) plan to resolve these differences?

It will depend on the Common Minimum Programme. I hope the emphasis this time, unlike in 1996-98, is more on programme than on minimum. But we will have to work hard to make it work. Frankly speaking, I have seen the Left parties’ manifesto and it might as well be our manifesto. There are no differences that cannot be surmounted. Besides, in today’s world everyone has to be pragmatic and the Left parties, in the way they run their government in West Bengal, have proved themselves to be pragmatic. Moreover, it is not as though the Congress(I) has no concern for the poor people. We have all along advocated reforms with a human face.

What could be the new government’s direction on issues like privatisation and disinvestment?

Our thrust would be co-existence of private and public sectors. Retain the public sector, give it freedom to innovate, and create the private sector work ethics in public sector environment. Allow them functional autonomy to operate as commercially viable units. [Former Finance Minister P.] Chidambaram’s "Navratna" concept is a good model to follow. Disinvestment in the strategic sector is definitely out. But there could be areas, like power distribution, where the private sector should be allowed. The thrust would be on socially relevant selective privatisation and creative innovation in PSUs. For example, why can’t the PSUs run like venture capitalists. There will have to be new ways of looking at the public sector. The state banks, for example, why can’t they be given functional autonomy in recruitment and operations.

The most important factor that contributed to the defeat of the NDA was the agricultural crisis. What will the new government do about it?

It is wrong to say that agriculture was hit by reforms. Agriculture suffered because in the last decade or so, there has been no public spending in the agriculture sector, no improvement in infrastructure, no addition in irrigation facilities. Whatever public spending there was, it was by way of subsidy. We will have to increase investment on infrastructure in the agriculture sector.

Besides agriculture, what are the other areas crying for instant attention?

The unorganised sector, which has hardly got any attention so far. There is need to provide health insurance and social security to the unorganised sector.

See online : Frontline


Pic : Shanker Chakravarty

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 11, May 22 - Jun 04, 2004.

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