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Getting used to worse and worse

A document such as the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) is not what it is made out to be, ‘the Bible for Governance’. It is an excus...

A document such as the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) is not what it is made out to be, ‘the Bible for Governance’. It is an excuse for getting together. The academics in government must have been a bit embarrassed by what Rohit Saran showed in India Today: proclamation after proclamation, to the very words in the CMP, have been lifted out of the corresponding document of the Deve Gowda government, that is of the government that the Congress brought down. In academia, this sort of a thing is called plagiarism. Of course, in politics, it is called continuity!

Unfortunately, the President’s Address does not mark much of an advance. Two-thirds of it is just the usual dhobi list. Read the sentences on channelling ‘‘a substantial portion of the government’s investment…to the villages, with special emphasis on improving basic infrastructure such as roads, power and drinking water in rural areas’’; on ‘‘connectivity of village complexes’’; on ensuring that ‘‘the flow of agricultural credit is significantly stepped up’’; on insurance schemes being extended to farmers; on agro-processing industries; on ‘‘fair and remunerative prices’’ to farmers; on standing up for national interests in WTO; on completing ‘‘ongoing irrigation projects’’, ‘‘in a time-bound manner’’; on harvesting rainwater and de-silting existing ponds; on ‘‘creating a climate conducive to investments in the organised sector’’; on creating new jobs and expanding credit to small-scale industry and services; on creating new jobs also in ‘‘village industries, textiles, handicrafts, horticulture, aquaculture, forestry, dairying, and agro-processing’’; on ‘‘modernising the railway network’’; on encouraging overseas investment in the hydrocarbon sector; on continuing reforms in the power sector, and giving energy conservation priority; on activising the National Development and inter-state councils; on making government agencies ‘‘responsive and accountable’’; to say nothing of what the address says on foreign policy—read the passages on any of these, and try and spot the difference.

Just read what the President’s Address has to say even on Ayodhya: ‘‘On Ayodhya issue, my government will await the verdict of the courts while encouraging negotiations between parties to the dispute for an amicable settlement which, in turn, must receive legal sanction.’’ How is this different from what was being pursued under Atalji’s government?

So, one is left to conclude either that drafting has run its course in India or that there is a consensus in practice and that documents such as these can be safely ignored. Where the CMP and the Address break new ground, they promise what every weak government does. ‘‘The Government will increase public spending on health to at least 2-3 per cent of GDP over the next five years…The Government will aim at increasing public spending on education so as to ultimately reach at least 6 per cent of GDP…’’

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Those two promises alone will entail an outlay of Rs 1,90,000 crore every year—taking just the GDP of the current levels. With the growth of GDP they are determined to ensure, the outlay they are committing themselves to will be close to Rs 2,50,000 crore every year. Similarly, they have promised ‘‘guaranteed employment for 100 days in a year to at least one able-bodied person in each rural household’’. Swaminathan Aiyer’s multiplications put the resulting outlay in wages alone under this guarantee at Rs 1,90,000 crore. Further, he points out, assuming that the wage-component shall be half of the total cost of asset creation under the programme, this promise will entail an outlay of about Rs 3,80,000 crore.

Leave everything else aside, the cost of these three promises alone will be in the vicinity of Rs 6,30,000 crore every year. While there must be many imaginative ways of financing such inspirationally conceived programmes, to get a feel of what will be required, recall that the total tax and non-tax revenue of the Government of India is about Rs 3,30,000 crore! So, good-bye to all expenditures on defence, on salaries of government servants, on their pensions—and, of course, on packages for reviving and restructuring those ‘‘chronically loss-making’’ public sector units!

Perhaps someone saw the consequences of what was being promised, and therefore added a caveat in the President’s Address: ‘‘The Common Minimum Programme is indicative of the broad thrust of priorities of this Government. It will be the sincere effort of this Government to implement the Programme during the next five years. However, the precise content and phasing of programmes will depend on both the availability of resources and the pace of improvement of the absorptive capacity of various sectors.’’ And lo and behold! Many of our commentators lauded both—the imaginative promises as well as the realism!

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These promises are a symptom. The more tenuous the ground of a government, the more populist its programmes. Everyone knows the havoc that the bankruptcy of Electricity Boards has inflicted on the power situation and therefore the progress of the country: unsustainable rates have led to wastage of power as well as excessive exploitation of groundwater, they have frightened away investment from the sector. But already there are declarations from the Left to dilute the reforms embodied in the Electricity Act—denied, how tentatively we do not know, by the Power Minister. Already governments such as that of Andhra have announced ‘‘free power to agriculture’’. And when they do so, why will other states lag in ‘‘serving the farmer’’? Hence, Tamil Nadu today, others tomorrow.

The equivocation notwithstanding, the talk of reservations in the private sector is of the same piece. Indeed, it is a promise that will have the most far-reaching consequences. Apologists whisper that it is just talk, all that has been promised is that a dialogue will be begun. But in such matters, as we saw so recently during the fires that V P Singh—at a moment of comparable tenuousness—ignited over the Mandal Commission report, once begun, these things are impossible to stop.

Many take heart from the contradictory statements that come out every other day. On interest rates for provident fund. On airport privatisation. On FDI in different sectors. On labour reforms. They see hope—‘‘The Government will fall because of its inner contradictions’’—the hope runs. Quite the contrary. Neither the Congress nor its props believe in anything. There is nothing because of which they will give up office—or, in the case of the Communists, the control over the ones in office. The consequences will follow from the opposite outcome: the Government will stay in office—by buying time through one populist lunge upon another.

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There are two further sources from which harm of even greater import will swell. The first is that a government as precarious as this one will have no time to attend to the long-term problems that are weakening our country. Look at the way large swathes of the country—Bihar, the North-east, many others—are slipping into the abyss of non-governance. Today this is the greatest security threat to the country—if any reminder were needed, Nepal provides it.

If I were running the ISI, I would not waste lives in Kashmir. I would just smuggle five-ten thousand AK-47s via Bangladesh into Bihar. The people will do the rest. They will suck the BSF, CRPF and the rest into the bog of fratricidal violence. Will a government—and this has absolutely nothing to do with whether this is a UPA government or an NDA government—as precarious as this one, one that is as dependent as this one is on the very elements who have brought these regions to their present pass, be able to do anything to retrieve governance there?

Similarly, consider the inundation of the North-east by Bangladeshis. Intelligence chiefs, governors—not just of Assam but also of Bengal—home ministers from Indrajit Gupta to S B Chavan have acknowledged that between one and a half, two crore infiltrators from Bangladesh have spread through India. That among other things, they pose a grave security threat to the country. Even a Congress chief minister like Hiteswar Saikia acknowledged the peril they posed. Will a government constituted as the present one is, a government as precariously poised as this one is, do anything to staunch this inundation? Hiteswar Saikia’s admission—made on the floor of the state Assembly—provides a ready answer. He had but to acknowledge the fact and the leader of a communal outfit declared, ‘‘Unless he takes back his statement within 45 minutes, we will bring down his government.’’ And our friend took back his statement!

Similarly, a case against the suicidal IMDT Act has been rotting in the Supreme Court for years. The AGP government had owned up to the facts. The moment the Congress government came to office in Assam, it filed an ‘‘additional affidavit’’, and completely overturned what the state government had acknowledged. Ask any intelligence official, and you will learn what confidence and freedom ULFA has acquired since the last state elections. The case in the Supreme Court will come up one of these days, and you will see that this time the Central Government too will file an ‘‘additional affidavit’’.

Hence the danger: as we keep scoring points off each other, the cancer grows. An even graver threat comes from the compromises with norms that such situations force upon even the best of men. For those compromises weaken the state itself, and thus disable it even more from tackling the sorts of problems I mentioned. Look at the resignation with which Dr Manmohan Singh has to accept that his colleagues will look for decisions to the power outside government. Surely we will be told, ‘‘But there have been extra-constitutional centres of power before.’’

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Look at the way a person like Dr Manmohan Singh has had to defend the inclusion of the sort of ministers he has had to accept. The defence itself speaks of the fatal drift. ‘‘But the NDA government too had chargesheeted ministers.’’ At the least that means that henceforth persons charged with any sort of crime can and will be inducted into even the Central Government. One step to the next, we get accustomed to worse and worse. Till 10 years ago no one could have imagined that such persons would be members of Parliament. With what has happened now, and at the hands of a man who has been a synonym for probity and rectitude, we will get used to their being in the Central Government.

Great trees are felled not so much by the single fierce storm as by the slow work of termites. Large countries are brought to their knees by the same, step-by-step erosion of norms. That is the process that this phase will accelerate.

(Concluded)

Part-1 : Talking themselves into a corner

First published on: 21-06-2004 at 00:00 IST
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