Fissures in a Front

Print edition : January 05, 2002

Three constituents of the Congress(I)-led Democratic Front in Maharashtra pull out of the alliance following the government's failure to deliver on pro-poor programmes.

EARLY in December, five-year-old Damini Patil spent an afternoon behind bars at the Mahim police station in Mumbai. Her crime? Being present during a protest against the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) ongoing effort to eliminate the tens of thousands of people who, like Patil, make their living selling fruits, vegetables, food and snacks on Mumbai's pavements. A few hours after Damini was let out of jail, the Maharashtra Assembly passed legislation granting 100 per cent tax exemption to multiplexes, or multiple movie theatre complexes, for the first three years of their operation, and a further 75 per cent exemption for another two years. In multiplexes, the tickets start at Rs.100, an amount the five-year-old would be lucky to make in a week.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee presents a memento to NCP chief Sharad Pawar on his 61st birthday in Mumbai on December 12. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal are also seen.-

Two years after Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh took power on the basis of an election manifesto that proclaimed "eradication of poverty is the single most important objective of national development", the State's poor are starting to lose patience. On December 18, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) pulled out of the ruling Democratic Front (D.F.), after similar actions by the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Bahujan Mahasangh. "The Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance," CPI(M) State secretary Prabhakar Sanzgiri said, "had increased the State's debt burden through all kinds of outrageous schemes. The Democratic Front is now making the poor pay the bill."

Although the CPI(M)'s decision has not exactly sent alarm bells ringing, since the party has only two representatives in the Assembly, the signs are that the State government ought to pay attention to such developments. The Congress(I) performed poorly in the December elections to the 167 municipal councils, a part of local body elections that will continue in phases until February 2002. Deshmukh had to suffer the humiliation of seeing his nominee for the head of the Latur (his home town) council defeated by his alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party(NCP). The Congress also fared miserably in the key regions of Konkan, Vidarbha and Khandesh. More disturbing, the Shiv Sena- BJP alliance, although dented by the NCP in some areas, managed to increase its share of votes.

It is not hard to see the reasons for the Congress(I)'s eroding popularity. Sharp increases in electricity tariffs and irrigation levies, effected in a desperate effort to cut the State's debt, have alienated voters. If this was not bad enough, Deshmukh seems determined to make Maharashtra the first State to legalise hire and fire employment policies, policies the Congress(I) opposes in New Delhi. An agitation by cotton farmers led by Sharad Joshi dominated newspaper headlines through November. The farmers were demanding immediate payment of minimum support price of Rs. 2,300 a quintal, cash the State government claimed it simply did not have. While the cotton farmers managed to get their dues - a December 6 meeting between Deshmukh and Sharad Joshi saw a commitment to give them 90 per cent of their dues up-front and post-dated cheques for the remaining 10 per cent - even more vulnerable sections of society continue to be hard-hit by anti-poor policies. Consider, for example, the State's Public Distribution System (see following story). The Centre recently enabled Maharashtra to increase the number of families entitled to special prices meant for those below poverty line (BPL) from 600,000 to 650,000. The State government then laid down a family income of Rs.15,000 a year as the ceiling for entitlements under this scheme, and has since focussed its efforts mainly on eliminating potential beneficiaries using this income criteria, irrespective of actual need.

Absurdities have proliferated under the new regime. Those among the rural poor who have tiled roof or pucca homes, thus, are not entitled to BPL subsidies - even if these were provided to them by poverty alleviation projects like the Indira Awas Yojana. Another favoured tactic is simply not to issue fresh BPL ration cards to the sons of a father holding such benefits after they attain the age of majority. This means families of up to 20 people are supposed to subsist on the 20 kg of food materials that is the entitlement on a single card. Demands to carry out ground level surveys to determine the numbers of those in need of cheap food, an obvious approach to the issue, have been rejected. As a result, reports of malnutrition-related child deaths continue to appear in newspapers in affluent Maharashtra.

OFFICIAL performance in other areas in which the D.F. had made key commitments has been no better. The Front's core platform was related to the need to confront communal forces, and the implementation of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry's report was central to the 51-point charter that bound together its partners. Things started off in the year 2000 according to plan, with Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal ordering the arrest of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray on charges of inciting communal hatred. But the State government has since been dragging its feet on the matter. Only one of the senior police officers charged by Justice Srikrishna with having abetted the Shiv Sena-led anti-Muslim pogrom of 1992-1993, former Commissioner of Police Ramdeo Tyagi, has so far been prosecuted.

Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.-AKILESH KUMAR

More important, none of the dozens of second-rung Shiv Sena and BJP figures indicted by Justice Srikrishna has been arrested. As a result, communal forces have again been flexing their muscle throughout Maharashtra. The communal clashes in Malegaon in November spread rapidly to 132 taluks because the State police proved ineffective in acting against grass-roots Sena cadre. Village-level clashes were witnessed in the districts of Nashik, Nandurbar and Dhule, a sign of just how fragile communal peace has become in the State. Growing frustration with the D.F's failure to confront the Hindu Right has, in turn, given worrying legitimacy to Muslim communal organisations. Concern on this issue was one of the major reasons that compelled the Samajwadi Party to pull out of the D.F.

Other Left members of the Front accept the fact that little has been done to implement the 51-point programme, and also complain that meetings of the coordination committee meant to address these issues have been increasingly erratic. The only issue on which the alliance partners' demands were met was a judicial investigation into the Enron deal and that too only after the Peasants and Workers' Party (PWP) threatened to bring the government down. PWP politicians, however, seem unwilling to join the CPI(M)'s new Lok Morcha-type Third Front, saying that a decision will only be taken at the end of the zilla panchayat and panchayat samiti elections. The party, like the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Communist Party of India, presumably hopes to strengthen its position using its representation in government.

THESE tactics could, however, backfire. A world separates the big-time industrialists and politicians invited to grace NCP leader Sharad Pawar's 61st birthday celebration in Mumbai from people like Damini Patil. But it is becoming clear that Pawar is setting himself up to capitalise on the atrophy in the D.F. government. No one missed the fact that Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi avoided the ostentatious December 12 celebration, citing previous commitments. Pawar had earlier told journalists that he had not exchanged "even a single word" with her at an iftaar dinner in New Delhi organised by veteran CPI(M) Member of Parliament Somnath Chatterjee. He pointedly added that he had issued no invitation to Sonia Gandhi for the celebration, but that former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar had sent one in his capacity as convener of the function.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee gave meaning to this arctic state of relations in his address at the birthday function. "Whether on the rehabilitation of the earthquake victims of Gujarat," Vajpayee said, "or the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO), Pawar's views have established that he not only has independent thought but a vision as well." He added that Pawar, unlike the Congress(I), had backed POTO, and had made some suggestions which the government felt "should be taken seriously and incorporated wherever possible". It is impossible to mistake the political content of this prime ministerial certificate: the National Democratic Alliance would be delighted to give Pawar a shot at the main chance, a berth in the Union Cabinet.

Although the NCP simply does not have the numbers to break the D.F. and ally with the BJP just yet, this is clearly a prospect that Pawar is considering. The Congress(I)'s decision not to ally with the NCP in the February elections to the BMC could precipitate a larger showdown soon. Says CPI(M) leader Ashok Dhawale: "We have made it clear we will continue to offer issue-based support to the government, and that we will not do anything that will enable communal forces to return to power."

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