An unclear agenda

Published : Apr 04, 1998 00:00 IST

The National Agenda for Governance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies appears to be a set of sketchy promises from the BJP, intended to keep together the coalition of parties that it heads.

THE function that marked the formal release of the National Agenda for Governance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies at the Atal Behari Vajpayee's residence on March 18, revealed the precarious nature of the alliance. Of the 13 senior leaders who were seated on the dais, Mamata Banerjee (Trinamul Congress) and Ramakrishna Hegde (Lok Shakti) refused to stand up along with others holding a copy of the National Agenda to pose for cameras. Others present, besides Vajpayee, were BJP president L.K. Advani, Samata Party leader George Fernandes, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalitha, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader S. Ramadoss, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko, Shiv Sena leader M. Sarpotdar, Shiromani Akali Dal leader Surjit Singh Barnala, Haryana Vikas Congress leader Bansi Lal and Biju Janata Dal leader Navin Patnaik. Tamilaga Rajiv Congress (TRC) president Vazhappadi K. Ramamurthy and Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy, two signatories to the Agenda, were conspicuous by their absence.

It was not as if Hegde and Mamata Banerjee did not agree with the contents of the Agenda, which had been purportedly signed by them and 15 other members of the National Agenda Drafting Committee. Hegde, who looked grim throughout the press conference, and Mamata Banerjee, who took notes as Vajpayee gave an outline of the Agenda in English, probably had something to tell the press. However, the convener of the committee, Jaswant Singh, had announced, reportedly on the advice of George Fernandes, that only Vajpayee could answer questions. The implication was obvious: a cacophony of contradictory statements just on the eve of the swearing-in of the Ministry had to be avoided.

Advani had told Frontline in an interview during the election campaign that the BJP's pre-poll allies numbered only seven, and this excluded all the minor allies in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamul Congress, with whom he claimed the BJP had only a seat-sharing arrangement. (Frontline, March 6). However, the National Agenda claims that the constituents of the pre-poll alliance number 13, and they include the Trinamul Congress, the TRC, the Janata Party, the PMK, and the MDMK. This shift of stance was because there was an apparent need to consider even these parties as the BJP's allies owing to the arithmetic of the 12th Lok Sabha.

The BJP had made fun of the United Front as a post-poll hotch-potch arrangement consisting of several minor parties. Ironically, the BJP now depends on even one-man parties for the survival of its Government. At least three of its pre-poll allies (the HVP, the TRC, and the Janata Party) have one member each in the Lok Sabha.

The BJP has not thought it necessary to seek the support of its post-poll allies such as the Haryana Lok Dal, five MPs of the regional parties of the north-eastern India and independents such as Maneka Gandhi and Buta Singh for its National Agenda. It is not clear whether all these allies, some of whom are part of the Government, agree with its contents.

The BJP and its allies enjoy one clear advantage the U.F. did not have: they do not have to depend on the outside support of a major political party to carry out their agenda. However, it appears that the BJP may have to seek the outside support in the form of abstention by several Opposition members.

THE eight-page Agenda is, of course, free of the contentious issues that dominated the BJP's election manifesto, such as the building of a Ram temple at the Ayodhya, deletion of Article 370 of the Constitution and the enactment of a uniform civil code. Aware of the fact that most of its allies disagree with it on these issues, the BJP took the pragmatic course of abandoning these issues. U.F. spokesperson Jaipal Reddy asked: "Why did the BJP and its pre-poll allies not release the National Agenda before the elections? Obviously the BJP wanted to exploit the people's sentiment on the basis of its agenda. If the President's address prepared by the 13-day BJP Government is to be the basis, why did the BJP not adhere to it after its Government fell? Why did they revert to the Hindutva line in the 1998 manifesto?"

The Agenda, Vajpayee claimed, would ensure "peace, unity, well-being, prosperity" and rid the country of hunger, poverty, disease, fear and corruption. But when it came to the specifics, he was evasive and vague and had no blueprint on how the promises would be implemented. The Agenda and Vajpayee sought to accommodate the allies' demands, which threatened to destabilise the coalition even before its government came into existence. Full of generalities and bereft of any specific commitments, the Agenda seeks to balance the pulls and pressures from the allies, and also from the hardliners within the party.

The Cauvery water dispute is sought to be resolved by "adopting a National Water Policy that provides for effective and prompt settlement of disputes and their time-bound implementation." Although the Agenda does not mention the Cauvery dispute and the dispute over raising the height of Periyar dam, as demanded by Jayalalitha, she is satisfied with the Agenda's resolve to adopt a National Water Policy. Obviously, her demand for the nationalisation of all river waters has not been conceded. This pleased the Lok Shakti and also the BJP's Karnataka unit.

Jayalalitha's demand to make Tamil an official language of the Union has not been conceded. The Agenda promises to set up a committee to study the feasibility of treating all 19 languages included in Schedule 8 of the Constitution as official languages. It is not clear whether its recommendation would be binding on the Government.

The Agenda is silent on reserving seats in Parliament and in the State legislatures for women of Other Backward Castes (OBC), although it has promised reservation of 33 per cent of the seats for women. Jayalalitha raised this demand, but Vajpayee said that the Government would explore whether reservation for OBC women within the 33 per cent quota is needed. The BJP did not endorse this demand; it had reprimanded its own leaders for raising this issue. The Agenda offered to bring in "legal protection for existing percentages of reservation in educational institutions at the State level." It fulfils the AIADMK's demand to ensure that the 69 per cent reservation in Tamil Nadu continues despite the Supreme Court's ruling that reservation should not exceed 50 per cent.

Vajpayee sought to mollify the leaders of the BJP's other allies, such as Mamata Banerjee and Navin Patnaik, with a promise that the Government would soon announce "packages for States", including West Bengal, although it is not clear whether only those States where its allies come from would be considered. The Agenda promises to grant full statehood to Delhi and create Uttaranchal, Vananchal and Chhattisgarh States. The Congress' additional spokesperson, Ajit Jogi, who hails from the Chhattisgarh region in Madhya Pradesh, said that the BJP would never fulfil these promises. "The BJP wants to play with the people's sentiments there and break the Congress'influence. The BJP knows that it will not be able to implement the promise as it will open a Pandora's box and the Government would be under pressure to concede similar demands from Vidarbha, Bundelkhand, western Uttar Pradesh and Telangana," he said.

The Agenda, however, offers nothing for the States in general, unlike the U.F.'s Common Minimum Programme (CMP). The CMP had a major thrust on federalism, which promised to advance the principles of political, administrative and economic federalism. In particular, it promised to examine the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission and implement those on which there was a broad consensus. The U.F. Government had appointed a high-level committee to review and update those recommendations. It promised to amend Article 356 of the Constitution, which provides for the dismissal of State governments by the Centre, in line with the Supreme court's orders and to prevent the misuse of the provision. The U.F. Government could not live up to its commitments, particularly with respect to U.P. and Gujarat, two States ruled by the BJP.

The National Agenda, on the other hand, has just one paragraph for the States, and there is no mention of preventing the misuse of Article 356, which observers say may be a concession to the BJP's allies such as the Samata Party, the AIADMK and the BJD, which have demanded the dismissal of the present Governments of Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Orissa respectively. The Agenda says that the alliance is convinced that there is a clear case for the devolution of more financial and administrative powers and functions to the States, without elaborating on how it could be done. The Agenda promises suitable steps to ensure harmonious Centre-State relations in the light of the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission.

THE BJP has managed to push its hawkish agenda on Defence by vowing to exercise "all available options" to ensure the security, territorial integrity and unity of India. To achieve this, the Agenda has declared that the Government will re-evaluate the nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons. Vajpayee, however, refused to suggest a time-frame for exercising the option. Defence Minister George Fernandes' view that the nuclear option may have to be exercised if necessary to ensure security partly dilutes the Agenda's promise.

The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has described the National Agenda as a hoax on the people. Calling it a string of homilies and platitudes, the party wondered whether the BJP had resorted to this vague statement in the hope that it could smuggle in its own agenda later if it could consolidate its power. It condemned the statement in the National Agenda that a commission would be set up to review the Constitution. "The BJP wants to use the pretext of a review to subvert the republican, secular Constitution," the Polit Bureau said. It feared that the Vajpayee Government would advance privatisation and liberalisation and dismatle the public sector. The party has described the promise to exercise the nuclear option as a wrong and dangerous step. The National Agenda's silence on India's commitment to non-alignment has also been criticised by the party.

THE Agenda vows to continue with the reform process, give a strong swadeshi thrust to ensure that the national economy grows on the principle that India shall be built by Indians; reappraise and revitalise reforms by giving primacy to the removal of unemployment, and accelerate the development of infrastructure, particularly for power production. In particular, the Agenda promises to bring the growth of gross domestic product (GDP) to the 7-8 per cent bracket, and control deficits, both fiscal and revenue, while not fixing any targets. The CMP, on the other hand, while expressing its commitment to faster economic growth so as to ensure an annual GDP growth of over 7 per cent per year for 10 years, had promised to bring the fiscal deficit to below 4 per cent of GDP.

On globalisation, the National Agenda has offered to analyse carefully its effects and calibrate its process by devising a time-table to suit Indian conditions and requirements so as to strengthen the national economy, the indigenous industrial base and the financial and services sectors. The Agenda does not explain how it would achieve the target of earmarking 60 per cent of Plan funds for effective investment in agriculture, rural development and irrigation, and how, by diverse incentives, including tax shelters, achieve a quantum leap in agricultural production. Effective crop insurance schemes will be introduced, says the Agenda, keeping in mind the huge losses suffered by farmers across the country owing to damage to crops by unseasonal rain and pest infection. The Agenda seeks to restrict foreign equity holding in private television broadcasting to 20 per cent and prevent cross holding to avoid the emergence of monopolies in the media.

The Agenda talks about "genuine secularism" and promises that the alliance will "truly and genuinely uphold and practise the concept of secularism consistent with the Indian tradition of 'Sarva panth samadara' (equal respect for all faiths) and on the basis of equality of all." It is not clear whether the alliance will abide by the concept of secularism as enshrined in the Constitution, even though the Agenda makes a passing commitment to help the "economic and educational development of the minorities and to take effective steps in this regard". On corruption, it does nothing beyond promising legislation on constituting a Lok Pal with adequate powers to deal with corruption charges against those holding high offices, including the Prime Minister. Asked what would happen to the corruption cases filed against leaders of some of the BJP's allies, Vajpayee merely said that they had to be speedily investigated. On Bofors, he refused to fix any time-frame within which the investigations into the alleged pay-offs would be completed.

The Communist Party of India's national secretary, D. Raja, accused the BJP of duplicity in talking of "genuine" secularism and interpreting secularism to suit its convenience. He alleged that the nuclear policy outlined by the National Agenda would encourage confrontation with neighbours and lead to arms race. On economic policy, he felt that swadeshi was a cover for aggressive privatisation. "The BJP wants to support the local monopoly, whereas our position is that India cannot remain in isolation," he said. The National Agenda, according to him, does not acknowledge the role of the public sector and makes no mention about land reforms or improving the situation of agricultural workers. The CMP had a time-bound, specific and concrete approach whereas the National Agenda was a deceptive document, he said.

Jaipal Reddy agrees:"The National Agenda is important for what it conceals and not for what it reveals. It is full of innocuous inanities. The BJP's role will have to be judged by what it does and not by what it says. The Agenda is only a sop for the consumption of its alliance partners."

The Congress(I) has joined issue with the Agenda's promise to increase spending on education to 6 per cent of GDP from the present 3.8 per cent. The party's stand is that a mere increase in spending is unlikely to make any significant impact unless the States and local administrations are geared up for the task.

On the whole, the National Agenda is seen to be a notional agenda, with sketchy promises made by a disparate coalition on the eve of assuming office.

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