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THE BATTLE LINES

Print edition : Feb 27, 2004

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In a hurry to take electoral advantage of the perceived `feel good' factor, the Bharatiya Janata Party gets the Lok Sabha dissolved prematurely and attempts to appease influential sections of society at the expense of the exchequer.

in New Delhi

CONVENTIONAL wisdom dictates that a wooden pot cannot be put on the fire twice in quick succession. But the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is trying to do just that by putting the alliance pot on the election fire to bring to a boil once again the development broth that gave it victory in the Assembly elections in three States in December. It wants to do this before the fire can burn a hole in the pot and char the chances of the NDA. Nothing else can explain the need for an early round of elections, particularly when there are eight more months for the term of the 13th Lok Sabha to end and when there is no constitutional crisis or threat to the government's stability.

It is only the fourth time in independent India that a government in majority has recommended early dissolution of the Lok Sabha. The first was in 1971, when Indira Gandhi sought a fresh mandate in the aftermath of the Bangladesh war. The second was in 1984, after Indira Gandhi's assassination, and the third was in 1989, after Rajiv Gandhi's government lost the vote on a Constitution amendment Bill, on Panchayati Raj, in the Rajya Sabha. In all these cases, the respective governments advanced the elections only by a couple of months and had strong reasons for doing so. The 1971 India-Pakistan war, which resulted in the birth of Bangladesh, was reason enough for Indira Gandhi to seek a fresh mandate. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister under tragic circumstances and he sought a mandate for his government. So was the case in 1989, when there was a question mark over his government's majority status. No such circumstance exists today.

"They are playing a gamble, trying to ride on the euphoria generated by their victory in three States. They think if they wait till the scheduled time, their feel-good bubble will burst. That is why they are in a hurry. But they will get exposed anyway," says Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, summing up the opinion being voiced in several quarters.

The BJP's hurry to go in for early elections finds a parallel in the business term insider trading. It is like someone having inside information on the movement of a particular share price and taking advantage of that information by trading those shares at a premium. In the current case, the government has taken advantage of its majority status: it announced measures that could help it consolidate its vote bank and then recommended dissolution. Political observers describe the BJP's hurry as political opportunism.

"Such a request from a majority government can only imply two circumstances: refusing to govern further knowing no one else can, which amounts to political blackmail, and timing the election to suit the party or parties in power, which amounts to political opportunism. Neither blackmail nor political opportunism is consistent with Indian democracy, which speaks for free and fair elections. An election, the timing of which is biased, is neither free nor fair," says constitutional expert Rajeev Dhavan.

The NDA government's strategy is simple: Weave the magic of sops, dangle promises, create a hype about "India Shining" and "feel good" and ride its way to victory, but do it fast before its claims of development go bust and it starts getting exposed in those States where it rode to victory on the promise of development.

The Congress(I), on the other hand, seems to have been caught napping. It is confused about its political agenda and has no `road map' to offer the voters except criticising the BJP for the "feel good" hype. The Congress(I) too has taken the route of coalition politics, realising that it can return to power only with the help of allies. The party's strategy revolves around identifying potential allies and working out the electoral arithmetic with them.

With the stage set for the electoral battle, the contours of a hyped-up campaign have started emerging. The BJP flagged off its campaign with a "Vijay Sankalp" (victory pledge) at its National Council meeting in New Delhi on February 6, aiming for a two-thirds majority. The Congress(I) positioned itself to take an aggressive stand against the NDA government vis-a-vis the Delhi High Court clearing Rajiv Gandhi's name in the Bofors case. Congress(I) strategists believe that the court ruling in the Bofors issue has provided the much-desired emotional peg for their campaign to counter the BJP's "feel good" slogan.

THE BJP, to begin with, went full tilt at sops for voters. The party realises that it cannot enlarge its voter base; that a large part of rural-agrarian India still remains out of bounds for it. To consolidate its existing vote bank of middle and upper-middle classes in urban areas and the neo-rich, it decided to dangle the carrot so that these classes have a stake in voting in larger numbers than they have done so far. Their indifference to the electoral process has been a big handicap for the BJP and the vote-on-account presented by Finance Minister Jaswant Singh on February 3 was full of sops for them.

For Central government employees, numbering over a million, 50 per cent of their dearness allowance (DA) will be merged with their basic salary. This will have a cascading effect on the house rent allowance and other allowances. The move will cost the exchequer an extra Rs.3,500-4,000 crores a year. There are also promises to revise the standard deduction and income tax exemption limits for salaried employees.

Investors have been given candy in the form of exemption from paying capital gains tax for three more years. There will be no duty on goods worth Rs.25,000 brought from abroad and for goods worth more than this amount the duty has been brought down to 40 per cent from 50. These measures are essentially to please the middle and upper-middle classes in urban areas.

The Finance Minister followed up these sops the next day by announcing the setting up of a venture capital fund for graduates, targeting the over three crore youth who graduate from colleges every year. To this end he provided a corpus of Rs.100 crores with the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) in order to encourage start-ups and promised to enhance the fund size to Rs.500 crores in the future. The venture capital fund will encourage self-employment opportunities in areas such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and engineering. SIDBI will bear the risk and the scheme will become effective from April 1.

Yet another measure aimed at enhancing the "feel good" factor among urban middle class voters was the move to regularise over 1,250 "unauthorised" colonies in the National Capital Region, a move that will please middle class voters in Delhi who were under the constant threat of their buildings being demolished as they were built on unauthorised land.

There have also been other decisions taken and promises made with an eye on urban middle class voters. Among them are: the Human Resource Development Minister's move to slash the fee by 80 per cent in the Indian Institutes of Management, bringing it down to Rs.30,000 a year from Rs.1.5 lakhs; the doubling of seats in the IIMs to 1,800; the proposal to double the number of seats in the Indian Institutes of Technology and to set up six more IITs; and the announcement that six new institutes on the lines of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences would be set up in six States and six existing institutes would be upgraded to the level of the AIIMS.

What, however, takes the cake is the decision to raise the income limit for inclusion in the "creamy layer" for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to Rs.2.5 lakhs from Rs.1 lakh. This could give the BJP a huge advantage over other political parties as it would bring under the purview of 27 per cent reservation a large number of OBCs who are politically and financially strong. It was a recommendation of the National Commission for Backward Classes that the government accepted. It also accepted the Commission's suggestion that the creamy layer criterion be revised every three years. In the caste-riddled politics of India, the decision, coming as it did after the government had declared its intention to dissolve the Lok Sabha, can only be described as politically motivated.

The BJP has tried to extend the "feel good" hype to rural areas as well. In the vote-on-account the Finance Minister announced measures that provide for cheaper credit to farmers; the strengthening of rural cooperative banks by providing a package of Rs.15,000 crores; extension of the kisan credit card scheme to a larger number of farmers; extension of the Antyodaya Anna Yojna, which provides free grain to 15 million rural families now, to an additional five million families living below the poverty line; and distribution of foodgrains to people without work.

At the organisational level, the BJP has formed two panels to realise its dream of getting a majority on its own. One, headed by Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley, will prepare the Vision Document 2020, and the other, headed by Pramod Mahajan, will oversee campaign and poll management. Its slogan would obviously be development and stability, in order to pre-empt the Congress(I)'s claims of being the only party that can provide a stable government. This was clear when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee targeted the Congress(I) at the BJP National Council meeting by saying that "it was unfit to rule". "Is there no place for principles in politics?" he asked. "When the Congress was in power and had a majority it was negligent and now it is not fit to rule the country," he said, setting the pace for the BJP offensive. By all indication at the meeting, the BJP will go at full throttle on the issue of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin. "I can understand that she does not feel the feel-good factor. It can only be felt by those who are Indian. If a gold mine was discovered in Italy, obviously I will not feel good about it," said Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu said the party was clear about its stand that only an Indian-born citizen should hold the post of Prime Minister.

The BJP has also firmed up alliances with its existing partners and with newly acquired ones. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have decided to contest the election as allies. Its alliance with the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa will continue as will its alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. In Bihar, an alliance with the Janata Dal(U) is almost in place, barring minor hiccups. In Haryana, the NDA suffered a setback when the Indian National Lok Dal on February 9 announced that it would snap its ties with the NDA and go it alone in the coming elections.

In Uttar Pradesh, where the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has played hard to get, the BJP managed a coup of sorts by getting former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh to return to the party and tender a public apology for his mistakes. Kalyan Singh was the architect of the BJP's rise in Uttar Pradesh in the early 1990s, during the Mandal-Mandir phase of politics, and is expected to take the party's tally to its previous high of 50-plus seats. "Our target for U.P. is 50-plus seats," BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar said after a party meeting on Uttar Pradesh. The party won 52 seats in the State in 1996 and 51 in 1998, but its tally fell to 29 in 1999. The party attributed the fall to sabotage by Kalyan Singh and expelled him. Now, with Kalyan Singh professing loyalty to Vajpayee's leadership, he is expected to take the party to its old glory by adding the substantial OBC votes (especially the Lodh and Kurmi votes) to its kitty.

THE Congress(I), too, has tried to match step with the BJP by going the extra mile to procure allies. Though the party has yet to announce its political agenda and economic road map, it has set into motion the process of forging alliances, a first-time experience for the party in Lok Sabha elections. In Tamil Nadu, the party has tied up with the front formed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Left parties and the Pattali Makkal Katchi, posing a formidable challenge to the AIADMK-BJP combine. In Maharashtra, the party has buried the hatchet with Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, who has also decided to keep in abeyance Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin issue, in order to take on the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. In Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati's stalling tactics have put the party in a spot in respect of making an overture to the Samajwadi Party. Though Sonia Gandhi has been wooing Mayawati for some time, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader is not yielding. "I will take a decision at the right time, which will be in the interest of the Bahujan Samaj," Mayawati declared at a press conference recently, denying that she had decided to go with the Congress(I).

In Bihar, the Congress(I) has succeeded in getting Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan into its fold. Paswan has a lot of support in Bihar and, along with Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal, the combination could pose a serious challenge to the BJP-Janata Dal(U)-Samata Party alliance, which had won 40 of the 54 Lok Sabha seats in 1999.

Although the Congress(I) campaign line is not as emphatic as that of the BJP, its focus would be on exposing the "feel good" facade. The strategy is expected to click as the campaign gains momentum and the realisation dawns that there is nothing at the ground level to substantiate the "feel-good" factor. Except for a few indices, such as a healthy growth in gross domestic product (GDP, which is expected to be around 8 per cent) and over $100 billion in foreign exchange reserves, the feel-good factor that the BJP is crowing about actually represents the consumption-driven growth in the sale of mobile phones, cars and so on; the revival of the information technology sector; and the availability of cheap credit to buy almost anything.

In fact, the direction of growth as a result of such policies may be pushing the people into a hire-purchase culture. Availability of cheap credit for consumption exposes the lack of demand in the industrial and infrastructure sectors and a skewed economic growth, wherein everyone would be deep in debt over a period of time. "Their claims of feel-good are only for a minuscule section of the population, which is buying almost everything under the sun. What about the masses?" asks Surjeet.

Indeed, for the masses, there is nothing to feel good about. A look at the social sector indices exposes the BJP's "India Shining" propaganda. According to the first Citizen's Report on Governance and Development 2003 and the Social Watch India Report 2003 brought out by the National Centre of Advocacy Studies, public sector spending on social sectors such as health, education, housing, water, sanitation and poverty alleviation has fallen over the years. India is among the countries that are at the lowest level in health sector spending: public investment in health as a percentage of GDP dropped from 1.3 per cent in 1990 to 0.6 in 2002.

With regard to easy access to essential drugs, the World Health Organisation puts India in the fourth category, the lowest, where only 0-49 per cent of the people have good access to such drugs. Even Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar figure a notch above India. India has only 52 doctors per 100,000 population, a figure that rose from 17 in 1951 to 47 in 1991 and has been stagnant since. It has only 4.48 hospitals per 100,000 urban population, 6.16 dispensaries and 308 hospital beds. The scene in rural areas is worse: for every 100,000 population there are only 0.77 hospitals, 1.37 dispensaries, 3.2 primary health centres and 44 beds.

According to the Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), less than 50 per cent of the population in India has access to essential drugs; only 30 per cent use adequate sanitation facilities; 47 per cent of the children under five years of age are malnourished and underweight; and only 42 per cent of births are attended to by skilled health staff.

In the education sector, too, the figures are depressing. As per the Citizen's Report, every third illiterate person in the world is an Indian; only just over 50 per cent of all children in the 6-14 years age group get enrolled in schools; and only 60 per cent of them show attendance. Indonesia, Sri Lanka and China fare better on this score. India has the largest number of illiterates in the world and public spending on education, which was 30 paise per head in 2002-03, has declined further to 18 paise per head in 2003-04.

Employment growth, on an average, has been a dismal 0.87 per cent between 1993 and 2000, which is less than what it was in the 1980s. The rate of growth of employment is also falling: from 2.16 per cent during 1977-91 in both rural and urban areas, it fell to 1.55 in 1991-2000. In agriculture, the rate of growth has remained stagnant - 1.12 per cent during 1977-91 and 1.17 during 1991-2000. The non-agriculture sector, too, has not generated employment: the rate fell from 4.13 per cent during 1977-91 to 2.12 during 1991-2000. The study points out that the failure of agriculture emerged as the biggest cause of suicides in rural areas and that States like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh were the worst-hit. The study points out that instead of recognising the problems of the bottom half of the population, the government does not even seem to be admitting that almost half the Indian population does not have access to food, health care, education, water and sanitation.

THE role of the Left parties becomes significant, given the dismal backdrop. The Left parties, which have advocated "pro-people" economic policies and which form the third largest group in the Lok Sabha with 34 members, could prove decisive again in case the post-poll scenario sees the NDA and the Congress(I)-led formation grappling for power. The Left parties have already announced their intention to support a Congress(I)-led government, with Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin being a non-issue with them.

Criticising the BJP's "feel-good" claim, Surjeet said the feel-good factor was inside the homes of BJP leaders only. "They are bound to lose because the people have seen through their games. The economy is in a bad shape, yet they have announced such sops. They cannot fool the people any more," he said, adding that the impression that the Opposition was not united would get dispelled once the elections were closer. "We may not be part of the same front or morcha, but we are all united on the direction that the economy should take, and in due course we will all come together for the sake of national unity," he said.

Incidentally, the Left parties have stolen a march over everyone else by announcing their list of candidates. They have decided to contest 70 seats as against 72 in 1999.

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