Something important happened at Sharad Pawar’s residence last week. Not that the Opposition leaders met again — there have been plenty of these recently. But, there was talk of a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) — something a lot of citizens, particularly those disillusioned with the performance of the current NDA government, have been waiting for. A vision that all these various state parties, who are vying to present an alternative to the electorate, can agree and sign-off on. On this may hinge the nation’s choice of plumping for a federal style coalition government or handing Narendra Modi another term to prove himself.
A lot of voters believe, correctly, that Modi is betraying tell-tale signs of desperation. The recent reservation for economically weaker sections and the handouts in the “interim” budget all point to that. Desperation is usually punished by voters. Opposition parties have to be careful not to fall into this desperation trap themselves. In that, Rahul Gandhi’s recent reckless announcements about farm loan waivers and basic income schemes should be viewed with caution. It can easily be interpreted as a race to the bottom. What voters need is a calm, well-thought out programme which is less a sheet full of unattainable promises, like they witnessed in 2014, and more of an action plan meant to address the country’s deep structural faultlines. We don’t need another promise of “acche din” but a layout of the road that can get us somewhere close. The Common Minimum Programme needs honesty, not bravado.
The vision plan has to start with jobs, as this has been Modi’s biggest failure. The CMP should avoid the mistake of putting out an annual job target like Modi’s 20 million jobs a year, which he fell woefully short of. Rather, the nation needs a plan. As an example, the CMP could point to the pathetic 1.6 per cent growth in exports over the NDA’s term and make a promise to focus on creating a manufacturing base for exports which can potentially create millions of jobs, as witnessed in other Asian economies like Bangladesh and Vietnam. Like we have a fiscal responsibility plan which pressurises the government to stick to deficit targets, the CMP can impose a target of bringing down unemployment from the current four-decade high of 6.1 per cent to 3 per cent during its tenure.
Intrinsically linked to the vision on job creation, is an overhaul of India’s education system, which has to find place in the CMP. Our education system, primary or graduate level, is not producing employable workers and that is at the root of the jobs crisis. The CMP could announce the setting up of an education reform task force, helmed by credible technocrats with a firm implementation deadline. Budget outlays for education need to be augmented significantly.
A comprehensive farm sector policy should be the other pillar of any CMP. And this cannot hinge on promises of farm loan waivers, however politically expedient they may be. India’s problem of falling farm prices and yields is structural and has been left unaddressed during the Modi tenure. The CMP can hold out a promise of “temporary” income support relief but introduce a longer-term plan to address the problem. Else it would be walking into the same trap that the NDA fell into. And if the opposition parties have set their hearts on a Universal Basic Income plan, then the CMP must include a promise to have such a plan vetted by the best economic minds on the subject before implementation. This is too important a subject to be left to the whims of politicians and bureaucrats.
The CMP also needs to promise a comprehensive relook at our reservation policy. Without resorting to a reckless “everyone will be included” kind of promise, a progressive, equitable and inclusive reservation policy should feature prominently in the list of objectives. In addressing all this, the Opposition should not forget to dispel any notion that corporate India will get the wrong end of the stick — that will be a colossal mistake. In an attempt to prove that it isn’t a “suit boot ki sarkar”, the Opposition has to be careful not to go to the other extreme. A word of assurance in the CMP about a stable tax regime and fiscal rectitude will allay such fears.
In addressing all these issues which are economic at core, the CMP cannot lose sight of its key social objectives, as this is what will separate it from Modi’s tenure at the helm. A clear, unequivocal promise has to be made of zero tolerance to any kind of communal divisiveness. Violence against any minority — Dalit, Christian or Muslim — will be dealt with severely by the state. Hindus need not fear, they can hardly ever be discriminated against in India, but the government will not turn a blind eye to injustices — such as cow vigilantism — meted out using religion as a pretext. Every leader of the Opposition has to endorse this promise. India’s social fabric does need some stitching.
Finally, the electorate has to be assured that this will be a stable government. This is the mother of all manifesto promises as it is precisely this fear that keeps voters away from coalition formations. All prominent leaders have to take a pledge that they will not use their position in the government as a bargaining chip and hold it to ransom with threats of pulling the coalition down, on any disagreement. There will always be differences, but they will never be bigger than the interest of the nation. If the CMP cannot agree on this, there is no deal. Modi will use his powers of oration to seed doubts about stability and snatch away another term. If the Opposition wants Modi out, then they will have to tolerate each other, and the CMP has to demonstrate that.
This is a watershed election for India. A lot of Indians want to desperately believe that there is another alternative. The CMP will be the litmus test.
Mukherjee is consulting editor, CNBC and author of the novel Dark Circles