Debating India

GE 1999

Of promises and policies

Saturday 11 September 1999, by ATHREYA*Venkatesh

IN the rough-and-tumble of hectic election campaigns, attention to serious issues often takes a backseat. Yet, it is important that such issues come to the fore in public discussions. The election manifestoes of political parties, even allowing for the i nherent incentive for such documents to be self-serving, represent a partial attempt to meet this need. At any rate, they do provide material for meaningful public discussion. In this context, it would be interesting to examine what the manifestoes of the three leading formations - the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Congress(I) and the Left parties - have to say.

The most striking visual feature of the NDA manifesto is the pervasive presence of Atal Behari Vajpayee. A little less than ten pages of text in print are accompanied by nine full page photographs featuring Vajpayee, not counting the ninth text page, hal f of which is occupied by a picture of Vajpayee addressing a meeting. Interestingly, the text of the manifesto does not mention the leading party of the NDA, the Bharatiya Janata Party, even once. It does refer to Vajpayee more than once, describing him, among other things, as "...a statesman who is accepted by all sections of the country" but makes no reference to his role as a leader of the BJP.

In terms of content, there are no big surprises. The manifesto predictably blames the Opposition parties, described as a "...negative coalition led by the Congress," for forcing fresh elections and claims credit for the clearing of Pakistani intruders fr om Kargil.

On economic policy, the NDA manifesto pledges to continue the reforms, control fiscal and revenue deficits and carry out "...comprehensive reforms of the public sector undertakings, including restructuring, rehabilitation and divestment". While stating t hat NDA’s main thrust will be to eradicate unemployment, the manifesto does not put forward a credible strategy towards this end. On foreign direct investment (FDI), the manifesto claims that "...the country cannot do without FDI because besides capital stock it brings with it technology, new market practices and most importantly employment (emphasis added)." The manifesto seeks to reform the public distribution system (PDS) " serve the poorest of the poor", the implicit implication being th e exclusion of many currently benefiting from PDS.

Although the manifesto claims "consensus on a common cause and a common set of principles..." among its partners, the nuances in some of its formulations are suggestive of a certain tilt. Thus, it talks of: special efforts to be made in animal husbandry, "...particularly in respect of cow and its progeny"; "the establishment of a credible nuclear deterrence"; "genuine secularism" and "...the concept of secularism consistent with the Indian tradition..." However, by and large, the NDA manifesto is consis tent with the BJP’s tactical decision to put its key Hindutva agenda on the backburner at least until after the elections.

An interesting aspect of the NDA manifesto is its stand on Centre-State relations. It states: "We are convinced that there is a clear case for devolution of more financial and administrative powers and functions to the States." This is one democratic con cession that the BJP has had to make to its regional allies. Cleverly, however, this concession is accompanied by an assertion that the NDA will "...take measures for ensuring a fixed term (five years) for all elected bodies including legislatures." This is a patently undemocratic stand.

THE Congress(I) manifesto is the longest and most elaborate. Shorn of verbiage, though, the manifesto is all-too-familiar. The neoliberal paradigm and the new economic policies unleashed by the Congress(I) in 1991 are defended. While the manifesto conced es that self-reliance has served India well, it seeks to give it what it calls "... a contemporary meaning" and what follows is an exercise in evasion. Self-reliance is, by simple assertion, made synonymous with eradication of poverty and unemployment th rough faster growth in agriculture and industry.

Like the NDA, the Congress(I) also calls for $10 billion of FDI a year. Despite a plethora of incentives, the total FDI from 1991-92 to 1998-99 is only around $10 billion or an average of $1.25 billion a year. The neoliberal paradigm that underlies both the NDA and Congress(I) manifestoes fails to recognise that FDI gravitates to an economy growing rapidly rather than to one that expects it to fuel such growth in the first instance.

The manifesto repeats the familiar and arbitrary figure of 4 per cent (or less) as the target for combined fiscal deficit of the Centre and the States. It states both that "tax reforms will be continued", and that "the tax-GDP ratio must be brought up to at least 18 per cent over the next five years". The contradiction between these two statements will be obvious if one recalls that the Congress-initiated tax reforms (pursued by the United Front and the BJP governments) have led to a significant decline in the tax-GDP ratio over the 1990s.

The Congress(I) manifesto repeats its claim to have ushered in genuine decentralisation in this country through constitutional initiatives, though this is far from accurate, and its own practice has been highly centralist and often in utter disregard of the rights of State governments. The manifesto continues the Congress(I) policy of playing off panchayati raj against the autonomy of States by declaring: "All Central funds for poverty alleviation and rural development will be credited directly to the f unds of elected panchayati raj institutions." The Congress(I)’s concern for panchayati raj is somewhat difficult to square with its own record in respect of holding elections to local bodies in the States where it had been in power, but perhaps the Madhy a Pradesh experiment may have convinced sections of the Congress(I) leadership of the political benefits of commitment to a degree of democratic local governance.

The Congress(I) manifesto strains one’s credulity when it states: "The Congress will continue to lay great stress on land reforms..." In a reference that must have caused the Congress(I) considerable agony, the manifesto actually talks of "...registratio n of all tenancies through Operation Barga type campaigns..." (Operation Barga was the West Bengal Government’s pioneering programme for the registration of share-croppers.)

In what seems to be a case of promising everybody everything, the Congress(I) manifesto states: "The terms of trade will always be kept in favour of agriculture." In an interesting and rather far-reaching proposal, it says: "Organisations that supply inp uts to farmers will be converted into farmer managed and controlled organisations." What this implies is not made clear, but the proposal would not at all be easy to implement.

One area where the manifesto comes close to making a progressive commitment pertains to education. It states: "Over a period of time, we must move towards making primary and secondary education compulsory as well." However, it stops well short of making a time-bound commitment to honour, at least belatedly, the promise of free and compulsory education for all children in the 6-14 age group.

In an evident attempt to rewrite history, the Congress(I) which instigated, along with the Sangh Parivar, violent opposition to V.P. Singh’s attempts to implement the Mandal Commission report, now declares in its manifesto: "It was the Congress that buil t the consensus over the Mandal Commission report."

While the NDA and Congress(I) manifestoes thus have little to set them apart with respect to economic policies, the Congress(I) makes a rather more categorical statement on secularism. It states that "...secularism can only mean... the clear separation o f politics from... religion. Religion is a private matter for individuals. Politics is all about activities in the public arena." And further: "Religion cannot be used as an instrument of mobilisation... The Congress vehemently rejects the use of religio n for political ends." One can only hope that the Congress(I) will, unlike in the past, be consistent in its stand on secularism.

Finally, it must be noted that the Congress(I) is dismissive of regional parties ("Regional parties are born and fade away") and poses before the people the choice between "... a coalition that has failed miserably and a cohesive Congress alternative." T his last assertion has since been somewhat tampered by a more sober assessment of political ground realities.

THE election manifesto of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is in two parts. The first part provides a detailed critique of 13 months of the BJP-led coalition rule, rejects the notion that the Congress(I) can be an alternative to the BJP, draws atte ntion to the record of the Left, and finally calls upon the electorate to defeat the BJP and its allies, strengthen the CPI(M) and the Left and support the Left, democratic and secular forces. The second part puts forward the CPI(M)’s positive programme of action.

The CPI manifesto is similar in structure to that of the CPI(M). Both the Left parties draw attention to what they regard as the major failures of the BJP-led Government:

* failure to protect religious minorities from attacks by various constituents of the ’Sangh Parivar’.

* nuclear adventurism, now tending to capitulationism on such issues as the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), attitude to the aggressive actions of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in various parts of the wo rld and so on.

* sell-out to the transnational corporations and an even more vigorous pursuit of neoliberal economic policies including a wholesale attack on the public sector.

* authoritarian actions, including the ultimately unsuccessful invoking of Article 356.

* compromising national security, by its complacent attitude post-Pokhran and "Lahore" euphoria.

* record of corruption, capped by the telecom scam.

The manifestoes of the Left parties reject the Congress(I) as the alternative. The CPI(M) makes the point that the Congress(I) "...still advocates the economic policies initiated in 1991, which are against the interests of the toiling people of the count ry" and that "on questions of economic policies the BJP and the Congress have no basic differences." Even on the issue of secularism, the Congress " bereft of the political and ideological will to rally all the secular and democratic forces to fight the menace of communalism."

In sharp contrast to the NDA and the Congress(I), the Left parties put forward an economic agenda that rejects neo-liberalism and calls for:

* radical land reforms

* increased public investment in infrastructure and agriculture

* review of telecom and power policies

* protection for domestic industry

* defence of the public sector

* renegotiating the World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, forging common cause with other countries of the South

* broadening the direct tax base, with higher tax rates on affluent sections

* opposition to opening up the financial sector

* review of patent laws

* strong public distribution system

* job security and working class rights

In a similar vein, the Left parties support a number of democratic demands pertaining to women, youth, Dalits and Adivasis and other socially and economically vulnerable sections.

The Left manifestoes call for strengthening India’s secular foundations, promotion of federalism for national unity including the replacement of Article 356 by a suitable, democratic alternative; an independent, non-aligned and anti-imperialist foreign p olicy; reversing nuclear weaponisation and not signing the CTBT; universalisation of child care services and abolition of child labour; compulsory primary education, guaranteed free and universal education for all children up to the age of 14 years; an e nvironment policy to serve the needs of rapid and sustainable development; the promotion of scientific and technological self-reliance; and progressive electoral and judicial reforms.

While the Left Parties have presented a distinctive secular and progressive agenda before the people, in sharp contrast to those of the Congress(I) and the NDA, given their limited media access, it is unlikely that their programmes and policies will reac h as wide a segment of the electorate as those of the Congress(I) and the NDA.

The Left manifestoes address the needs of the bottom 90 per cent of the population and not of the articulate and powerful top 10 per cent and they deserve to reach the people much more widely. The fact that they do not is yet another reminder of the rele vance of the Chomsky-Herman concept of "manufactured consent".

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 19, Sep. 11 - 24, 1999

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