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Applying the brakes

Print edition : Jul 28, 2006 T+T-

The DMK's opposition to disinvestment in NLC gives a fillip to the Left campaign against neoliberal policies.


ON July 7, a day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the announcement to "keep all disinvestment decisions and proposals on hold", Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission, came up with the pithy comment that "there is more to Indian economic reforms than divestments". Obviously, Ahluwalia was trying to make light of the Prime Minister's backtracking on the disinvestment of NALCO and Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) and assure the votaries of economic liberalisation that the government would stay the course on reforms.

Ahluwalia's statement could, technically, be utterly factual. But there can be little doubt that the message he was trying to send out would no longer be conveyed as strongly or effectively as in the days prior to July 6. The developments of July 6, irrespective of whether one supports reforms or not, have altered significantly perceptions about the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and its Prime Minister as well as the coordination and understanding between the constituents of the UPA. In the process, the conflicting streams and thrusts in the government's policy-making and implementation lie exposed as never before. Unmistakably, the developments have put the advocates of neoliberal economic reforms in the government and related organisations on the back foot.

July 6, 2006 showed that the smaller parties in the UPA could have their way with the Congress, the leader of the alliance, just as smaller outfits like the Trinamool Congress had their way in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government between 1999 and 2004.

Apart from this, at the policy level, the line advocated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front has gained greater recognition among the non-Congress parties in the UPA. And if the happenings in the Congress in the days following July 6 are anything to go by, the acceptance of the Left line has increased even in that party.

Overtly, the July 6 developments were about the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the main partner from Tamil Nadu in the UPA, questioning the proposal to divest shares in the NLC, a profit-making public sector undertaking (PSU) based in the State. At the end of a round of inner-party confabulations, DMK president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said the party was contemplating reviewing its participation in the UPA government on account of differences with the government leadership on the NLC issue. Promptly, Manmohan Singh announced that all disinvestment decisions and proposals were being put on hold.

Initial reactions to the developments condemned the "political blackmail" of the "upright and dedicated" Prime Minister by a junior partner, explained how the Congress organisational hierarchy was bent upon scoring self-goals, lamented how electoral and vote base compulsions were forcing UPA partners to depart from the path of imperative economic reforms, and highlighted how the Left parties, which had time and again opposed the government's plans on disinvestment, had started influencing the smaller parties in the UPA. There were even analyses of how the DMK has in one deft move overtaken the Left on disinvestment, an issue it has championed for a long time.

Over and above these immediate, and perhaps knee-jerk reactions is the larger context of the developments of July 6. Three weeks before July 6, at a UPA-Left Co-ordination Committee meeting, the Left parties presented a detailed note raising a number of issues relating to the two years of the Manmohan Singh government. Listing 11 crucial areas of governance, the note contended that the UPA government had not been able to improve the material conditions of the majority of people and pointed out that problems such as price rise, the agrarian crisis and unemployment needed urgent attention from the government. It questioned the neoliberal thrust of the economic policy, with specific references to the disinvestment process. The Left parties demanded a discussion on the issues raised by it, followed by corrective measures.

Leaders of the DMK and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which too came out against the disinvestment policy following the events of July 6, admitted privately that the context created by the initiative of the Left parties inspired them to make their opposition public. Left leaders like Atul Kumar Anjan of the Communist Party of India (CPI) told Frontline that there had been interaction with the DMK on disinvestment ever since the NDA government advanced the idea.

"In fact," added M.K. Pandhe, president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau, "the UPA government had first backed out of NLC disinvestment in June 2005 owing to the combined opposition from the Left parties and the DMK." He said the opposition now was a continuation of the joint struggle of 2005. Though this cooperation was not as part of a concrete political arrangement, the fact remains that it does exist.

Central Minister and DMK leader T.R. Baalu added more weight to this argument when he told Frontline that though the DMK did not oppose the concept of disinvestment in toto, it had stressed the need for going about it carefully and with great discrimination. He pointed out that the DMK had questioned the move to divest shares of Salem Steel plant even when it was part of the NDA government.

By all indications, signals from the Congress forced the Prime Minister to react the way he did. Apparently, Congress president Sonia Gandhi was upset with two recent actions of the UPA government: the dismissal of Dr. P. Venugopal, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and the mismanagement of the disinvestment process. In both matters, Sonia Gandhi reportedly perceived loose handling by the Prime Minister. On disinvestment, she was apparently upset about the government's claim that it had the clearance of the Left parties on NALCO and NLC. Senior CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury refuted the claim.

In the context of these developments, Congress leaders opposed to Manmohan Singh have become active once again. Some Congress leaders, including former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, have been running a campaign against Manmohan Singh's leadership for some time. These leaders failed the first time round and this time their efforts led to rumours that Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had sent in their resignations to Sonia Gandhi.

The Left parties, meanwhile, continue to focus on the issues they have raised through the June 15 note. Reacting to Ahluwalia's comment, veteran CPI(M) leader and Lok Sabha member Varkala Radhakrishnan said the "Planning Commission Deputy Chairman should also remember that there is more to the Left's struggle against neoliberalism than opposition to the disinvestment of profit-making public sector units". Given the CPI(M)'s fastidious adherence to "organisational norms", Radhakrishnan's comment cannot be treated as an official statement of the party but it is indicative of the thinking in the Left parties.

In essence, Radhakrishnan's comment makes it clear that the Left's campaign against neo-liberal thrusts would continue on other issues and in other areas of governance. The Left, according to Atul Anjan, does not see the Prime Minister's July 6 decision as a "decisive victory and realises the need [for the Left] to persist with its struggles against neoliberal policies". Anjan added that efforts to downplay or trivialise the July 6 decision as well as its context were tantamount to overlooking many grave realities of the Indian socio-economic situation and the serious dangers that the pursuit of neoliberal policies posed to society.

The reality is that the determined struggle of the workers at the NLC against disinvestment created a political problem for the DMK at the ground level in Tamil Nadu, especially because the party's main rival in the State, the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), was making inroads into the hitherto DMK-led workers of NLC.

Whatever the compulsions that motivated the DMK, there is little doubt that it would give a fillip to the Left parties' campaign against neoliberal policies. Many observers perceive the beginning of a new anti-Congress, anti-BJP political realignment in these developments. What shape such a realignment would take is, for now, in the realm of conjecture.

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