Parties speak

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh releasing the partys manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections in New Delhi on March 24.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh releasing the partys manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections in New Delhi on March 24.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THE election manifestos of the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) make interesting reading, both individually and in mutual comparison (see pages 131 to 134). It is a reflection of the prevalent paradigm of discourse in the media that these manifestos have received little careful attention. A major section of the media in all forms has tended to focus on high decibel verbal duels among key protagonists in rival formations rather than look at the substantive issues facing the electorate.

The Congress, facing the electorate after five years in office as the leader of a coalition and having lost quite a few of the coalition partners in the run-up to the elections, is strident about its performance, dismissive of its rivals and opponents and very generous in its poll promises.

The BJP, weakened by the exit of many erstwhile allies but having had the advantage of releasing its manifesto well after the Congress, seeks to outdo the Congress in terms of promises while also bringing on board its core Hindutva agenda.

The CPI(M) manifesto provides a systematic critique of the ideology and performance of both the national parties, spells out the role of the Left during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime and sets out its policies on a number of important issues before the people. It does not follow the Congress and the BJP in providing a long list of promises but sets out an agenda of what it would fight for, and seeks popular support for this agenda.

The Congress manifesto makes a series of what come across as somewhat arrogant assertions. It claims that it is ... the only party that is forward-looking, the only party that believes a better future is the right of every Indian. Claiming that it is the bulwark against communalism, linguistic chauvinism, regional parochialism and casteism, the manifesto dismisses the BJP as narrow, divisive and communal.

Notwithstanding the fact that it was the Left that enabled the Congress to be in power for most of the last five years, the manifesto accuses the Left of being responsible for the electoral growth of the BJP, an accusation inconsistent with the fact that the BJP has grown mostly in the Congress-ruled States. It lists as the achievements of the Congress the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Right to Information Act (RTI), though it is well known that these laws were the result of struggles of the Left and other social movements and that their final forms reflect to a considerable extent the inputs of these forces.

It highlights increases in public expenditure on health and education, the farm loan waiver, Bharat Nirman, the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), all of which taken together imply a step-up in government expenditure. It is, however, deafeningly silent on its pursuit of liberalisation measures in the areas of finance and foreign investment as well as health and education. It claims to have done a lot for the benefit of weaker sections such as tribal people, Dalits and women, and to have been impartial and generous to State governments.

Significantly, it does not list the nuclear deal with the United States as one of its achievements though it talks of civil nuclear agreements having been entered into with many countries, allegedly entirely on our terms. Predictably, it claims that the Indian economy has been resilient in the face of the global economic crisis and attributes this resilience to Congress policies more specifically to Nehru-Indira-Rajiv policies. The repeated invoking of a few leaders mostly belonging to the Nehru family is a striking feature of the manifesto, and one that one would hardly associate with election manifestos in most modern democracies, especially those of the parliamentary type.

The Congress manifesto promises faster and more inclusive growth if returned to power, conceding implicitly that the growth so far has not been sufficiently inclusive. It also promises at least 100 days of work at a real wage of Rs.100 a day for everyone as an entitlement under the NREGA. It makes a pledge to enact a Right to Food law that guarantees access to sufficient food for all people, but qualifies this immediately by the phrase particularly the most vulnerable sections of society. It adds by way of elaboration that every family living below the poverty line either in rural or urban areas will be entitled, by law, to 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs.3 a kg. This hardly inspires confidence, given the way the government has played around with definitions and measurement of poverty to the detriment of the poor.

These promises are followed by a series of promises pertaining to education, health, agriculture and farmers, small and medium industry, weaker sections, local body funding, and so on. The rather disingenuous claim is made that, while rejecting blind privatisation, the Congress believes that the Indian people [sic] have every right to own part of the shares of public sector companies while the government retains majority shareholding(emphasis added). It is difficult to see the aam admi making a bid for a nice chunk of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited shares. On energy, the manifesto promises a very significant increase in the share of nuclear power, both through domestic and imported technology, which has now been made possible by the civil nuclear agreements. This is a recipe for disaster, given the exceptionally high costs of nuclear power based on imported plants.

The BJP manifesto has a long preface that abounds in sweeping claims about Indias past that need not detain us, though they serve as a useful pointer to the perspective of the BJP being mired in a rather romantic vision of Indias past. In its substantive part, the key slogans of the manifesto are good governance, development and security. Good governance is assumed to hinge on the need for a ...determined leader who can restore Governments credibility and the peoples confidence in themselves. No prizes for guessing who, the manifesto says, fills the bill.

The manifesto devotes a lot of space to the issue of security and proposes a wholly law-and-order-driven approach to tackle external and internal threats to security. It says that the Prevention of Terrorism Act will be revived and strengthened. It says that the Chhattisgarh Model will be applied to counter the Maoists. This is a reference to the notorious and thoroughly discredited Salwa Judum operations under BJP dispensation in Chhattisgarh. On foreign policy, the manifesto says that the BJP believes in a multipolar world.

Interestingly, the manifesto accuses the Congress of fooling the people on the India-U.S. nuclear deal by claiming that it will light up homes. It points out that nuclear power is enormously expensive. It argues that the deal disempowers India by making it dependent on the U.S. for nuclear supplies and tying India to discriminatory treaties. The manifesto proposes a constitutional amendment making it mandatory for the government to seek Parliaments approval/ratification by two-thirds majority before signing any bilateral or multilateral agreement that impinges on Indias strategic programmes, territorial integrity and economic interest.

Like the Congress manifesto, the BJP manifesto makes a long list of promises concerning youth, women, Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) and also minorities, although it accuses the Congress of using the politics of fear to gain minority support while keeping Muslims underprivileged. There is no shortage either of promises on health, education, welfare of senior citizens, and so on.

The unique agenda of the BJP manifesto surfaces in the very last section on Preserving our cultural heritage. This has a strident assertion that the BJP will not allow anybody to touch the revered Ram Sethu. It also asserts the BJPs commitment to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya, removal of Article 370 and the status it confers on Jammu and Kashmir from the Constitution, relentless pursuit of cow protection and cleaning of the revered Ganga.

The rhetoric of communal or economic growth apart, the promises in both the Congress and the BJP manifestos strain ones credulity, given that both these parties have been in power at the Centre for one or more terms and in a number of States as well over the years. Consider, for instance, the Congress and BJP promises on food security. The Congress promises 25 kg of rice or wheat a month for poor households at Rs.3 a kg, while the BJP promises 35 kg at Rs.2 a kg.

But what was the record of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and UPA governments on food security? The BJP, which now talks of a universal public distribution system (PDS), increased the issue price of grain through the targeted PDS to the so-called above poverty line, or APL, households so sharply in 2000 that most APL households left the PDS. As a result, offtake from PDS fell dramatically, stocks with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) rose, and the nation saw the tragedy of 65 million tonnes of grain stocks with the FCI deteriorating while millions starved in the drought years of 2002 and 2003.

Worse, the NDA government exported millions of tonnes of grain at very low prices between July 2002 and September 2003 through private trade. The record of the UPA is not much better. It refused to procure wheat at affordable prices from farmers but allowed private trade including multinational agribusiness outfits to corner the wheat output, and ended up importing wheat at much higher prices just a few months later.

The Prime Minister and other spokespersons of the UPA government have, even while the UPA was gifting generous tax reductions and exemptions to the corporate sector, repeatedly called for a reduction of food subsidies, though the food subsidy has never crossed 1 per cent of Indias gross domestic product (GDP).

Despite clear evidence that the targeted PDS excludes a large proportion of poor households from access to subsidised grain and that a universal PDS would not be much of a strain on the governments budget, the UPA government has refused to consider the restoration of the universal PDS.

The CPI(M)s manifesto is in two parts. The first reviews the performance of the Congress-led UPA government against the commitments under the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) of that government. The second part sets out the CPI(M)s policies pertaining to important issues facing the people.

The manifesto argues that the Congress/UPA policies of liberalisation and privatisation have greatly harmed the interests of rural and urban workers, peasants, artisans, small entrepreneurs, women, students and youth. It points out that the agrarian crisis, of which the large number of farmers suicides is a particularly tragic manifestation, has not abated. It traces the crisis to neoliberal policies that have increased input costs, led to great volatility in output prices, denied farmers adequate institutional credit, raised the real rate of interest, lowered rural development expenditures as a share of the GDP and dismantled the PDS in large parts of the country. It notes that the dismantling of the PDS has led to a large number of poor people being excluded from access to food.

The manifesto highlights the rise in food insecurity that has occurred under both the NDA and the UPA regimes. It also points out that the NDA and the UPA regimes have doled out numerous tax and other concessions to big corporations, Indian and foreign, even while seeking to slash food and other pro-poor subsidies. It reminds the electorate that even as the government claims that inflation has been coming down rapidly in recent weeks and months, the prices of essential commodities, especially food articles, remain prohibitively high for a large segment of the population, both rural and urban.

It castigates the Congress for pursuing foreign policies completely deviating from the promise of mutipolarity in the NCMP. It flays the nuclear deal with the U.S., pointing out that the Congress went ahead with the deal despite the majority opinion in Parliament being against it. Noting the continuity between NDA and UPA foreign policies, it warns the people against the danger of India becoming a junior partner of the U.S. and of the pitfalls of the Congress governments pursuit of the U.S.-Israel-India axis, initiated by the BJP earlier.

Dismissing the claim that the India-U.S. nuclear deal will light up rural homes, it reminds us that the cost of electricity from nuclear power will be a forbidding Rs.8 per unit. It provides a critique of Congress/UPA policies that violated the spirit of federalism, as for instance, in the terms of reference for the Thirteenth Finance Commission. It argues that the Congress gave parliamentary norms short shrift by extending the monsoon session of 2008 until December and then doing away with the winter session altogether, not wanting to face a confidence vote after manufacturing a majority in July 2008. It points to the telecom and other corruption scams that surfaced during UPA rule and the refusal of the government to order probes into these scams, even as the impression emerged that it was using the Central Bureau of Investigation for partisan purposes.

Turning to the role played by the CPI(M) during UPA rule, the manifesto notes that it was able to intervene effectively, together with other Left and progressive forces, to improve the draft versions of the RTI, the NREGA and the Scheduled Tribes and other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act so that the final Acts in all these cases were of greater value to the socially and economically vulnerable sections.

The manifesto recalls the role of the party and the Left in stalling many drastic measures of financial liberalisation that the Congress initiated, such as the Banking Regulation (Amendment) Act, which would have facilitated the takeover of Indian private banks by foreign banks, the Bill to increase the foreign direct investment (FDI) cap in insurance to 49 per cent from the present 26 per cent, and the Bill to privatise the management of pension funds. It is now widely recognised that the fact of limited financial liberalisation and the large presence of the public sector in finance have helped moderate the negative impact of the global financial crisis on the Indian economy.

The CPI(M) manifesto is also very critical of the BJP, describing it as a regressive, backward-looking party based on an obscurantist ideology. It notes that both the BJP and the Congress have pursued the same neoliberal policies over the past 10 years. In addition, the BJP has been rabidly communal, while the Congress has been inconsistent in combating communalism. In the view of the CPI(M), both parties have been following similar foreign policies, pursuing strategic partnership with the U.S., as its subordinate ally.

The CPI(M) manifesto argues for uncompromising secularism.

It proposes an alternative economic policy framework that includes:

Annual Plan Expenditure amounting to 10 per cent of Indias current GDP;

Halt to further tax concessions to corporates;

A drive to unearth black money, especially those stashed in Swiss banks and other offshore tax havens;

Strong regulation of the financial sector and revival of development finance;

Expanding minimum support price coverage to more crops and reviving commodity boards to set floor prices for commercial crops;

Ensuring institutional credit to the agricultural sector at a maximum 4 per cent rate of interest;

Universal PDS and supply of 14 essential commodities including sugar, pulses and edible oils under the PDS;

Reduction of retail prices of petrol and diesel by cutting customs and excise duties on oil;

Speedy and comprehensive steps for implementing pro-poor land reforms;

Strengthening and expansion of the public sector, and no disinvestment and privatisation of profit-making and potentially viable public sector undertakings;

Protection of domestic industry from indiscriminate lowering of import duties and takeover by foreign companies;

Encouragement to the private sector to invest in manufacturing and services sectors;

Prohibition of FDI in retail trade;Regulation of domestic corporate retailers;

Reversing FDI guidelines to prevent backdoor entry of FDI;

Protecting Indian interests and that of developing countries in the ongoing Doha Round of World Trade Organisation.

The manifesto seeks to strengthen democracy and federalism, including devolution of 50 per cent of tax revenue to the States. It proposes the pursuit of an independent, non-aligned foreign policy, with greater attention to building relations with developing countries and with China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa. It seeks a reworking of the India-U.S. nuclear deal to remove harmful provisions and enable the pursuit of self-reliance in civilian nuclear energy.

It seeks an increase in public expenditure on education and health to 6 per cent and 5 per cent of the GDP respectively. It proposes specific measures to ensure equality for and empowerment of women, S.Cs and S.Ts and minorities. It calls for the expansion of employment guarantee to urban areas as well, providing employment under the NREGS to all those seeking it, and decent minimum wages. The manifesto supports free/open source software and ...promotion of knowledge commons across disciplines such as biotechnology and drug discovery. It also calls for a National Judicial Commission to ensure the accountability of the judiciary, and a Media Council to act as an independent regulatory body.

Taking an overall view, the CPI(M)s manifesto offers a viewpoint and perspective that is distinctly different from those of the Congress and the BJP.

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