A performance deficit

Print edition : October 08, 2004

In a meeting at the Prime Minister's residence on September 18, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi with CPI(M) leaders Jyoti Basu, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Sitaram Yechury. -

The general feeling of the United Progressive Alliance government's first 100 days in office is that it is paying little attention to the National Common Minimum Programme and that some of its decisions, taken without consulting the Left parties, smack of highhandedness.

HUNDRED days may be too short a period to judge a government, but the indicators for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre are anything but promising. The government has failed to carve a clear path for itself and deliver to the constituency that brought it to power, and has given the impression of pulling in different directions. The measures it has announced, whether in the fields of education, trade or economy, have invited criticism from its major partners, the Left parties, for not conforming to the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) and for failing to address the concerns of the common man.

The stint of the UPA government has been marked by the rising prices of essential commodities; an indifferent stock market; a rising inflation rate (which crossed 8 per cent from 5 per cent three months ago) and umpteen political controversies, be it on Savarkar, the national flag or the issue of `tainted' Ministers. On crucial political matters, too, the Centre has given the impression of not being in control: whether on the issue of Punjab terminating the river water sharing treaty it signed with its neighbouring States, the unrest in Manipur over the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the flip-flop by the Karnataka government following Uma Bharati's arrest, or Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Shibu Soren trying to evade arrest as a Union Minister.

The policy initiatives announced so far have left political observers wondering whether they would actually benefit the common man that the government keeps talking about. The most important among the decisions have been the ones to cut the interest rate on the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and increase the cap on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the insurance, telecom and civil aviation sectors. The government will have a tough time convincing the Left parties about the inevitability of these decisions and pushing them through.

The cut in interest rate on EPF to 8.5 per cent from the 9.5 per cent would affect about four crore workers, for whom this is the only social security net. If their families are also taken into account, it means around 12 crore people. The Communist Party of India (CPI) brought to light the fact that the Labour Ministry was not managing the EPF scientifically; there was no regular income and expenditure account and neither was there any double accounting system. The CPI's Gurudas Dasgupata pointed out in the Lok Sabha that the government's excuse of increased interest liability was not true because there was an overstating of the interest liability.

"In 2003-04 the actual balance on which interest was to be paid was Rs.55,816 crores but in effect interest liability was calculated on Rs.64,763 crores. This means they are overstating their interest liability," Dasgupta said in the Lok Sabha, adding that the government could very well pay a higher interest rate than it proposed. This point was also borne out by the CAG report, which pointed out that interest earnings every year were in surplus of liabilities towards the interest to be credited to members' account. The government could very well afford to pay a higher interest on EPF than it proposed, but it reduced the rate to be in sync with the "market" at the cost of the common man.

Increasing the cap on FDI in insurance, telecom and civil aviation has been proposed to make these sectors more "market-oriented". It is debatable whether this will benefit the common man, a point highlighted by the Left parties. They have taken exception to this proposal on the grounds that these are strategically crucial sectors where increased FDI will not be in the national interest. Increased foreign investment in these sectors could drive out domestic players, affecting adversely the economy as a whole.

Besides, the Left parties oppose these two decisions on the grounds that they do not form part of the NCMP and the government did not consult them in advance. "Our support to the government is based on the CMP and any deviation will invite trouble," Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet had said in an interview to Frontline. The Left would never compromise on its "people-oriented" policies, he said.

Releasing the Common Minimum Programme in New Delhi on May 27, leaders of the Left parties and the United Progressive Alliance.-AJIT KUMAR/AP

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sees nothing wrong in the contradictory stands of the Left parties and the government and says that "a dialogue is going on and I am hopeful of a consensus". Nevertheless, the government appears directionless at the moment.

Another sticking point has been the government's decision to appoint representatives of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and McKinsey, a private consultancy firm, on the consultative committees of the Planning Commission for a mid-term appraisal of the current five-year Plan. Though Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia has justified the move saying these representatives would only review projects with which they were associated, the very rationale for associating them appears to be faulty. "There is a whole range of expertise available outside the government which we should make use of," Ahluwalia said in a letter to the leaders of Left parties, who, however, remain unconvinced. "Institutions like the World Bank and the ADB have always been opposed to the concept of planned development. Would their recommendations strengthen the Planning Commission or weaken it? We have all seen what they did to ruin the Latin American and South East Asian economies," said senior CPI leader Atul Anjan.

The Left parties declared unanimously that including representatives of international agencies and private companies in the review of the planning process "was an unwarranted step and the... Manmohan Singh government must explain why it wants World Bank representation in the Planning Commission". They said these agencies had their own agenda and were not accountable to the Indian people, hence their inclusion in the committees of the Planning Commission cannot be justified. They demanded that the government "reconsider" its step.

ON several other issues that are screaming for attention, such as the scheme to generate employment, there have been no initiatives so far. The much-touted Employment Guarantee Act is not in place so far. The Congress manifesto promised to bring it within 100 days of assuming office and it also occupies pride of place in the NCMP, promising employment for at least 100 days in a year for one able-bodied person in every poor family. The promised "massive food for work programme" in the interim is also yet to take off.

According to an estimate by the United Nations, in the period between 1987 and 1994 over 70 per cent of the youth in India (15-24 years of age) was unemployed. In terms of numbers, this meant 5.5-8.9 million people, which went up to a staggering 15.1 million in the period 1994-2001. According to Dr. Subhrokamal Dutta, a research scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, only 23 per cent of employable youth found jobs in 2001.

Even in the area of unorganised labour, which constitutes 93 per cent of the workforce, there has been no initiative so far, though the CMP promised "social security, health, insurance and other schemes for such workers". The same is the case with non-performing public sector undertakings (PSUs), for which the CMP promised effective steps to make them viable. There have also been no initiatives in education, health, infrastructure and administrative reforms, which have been demanding attention for long.

In education, though Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh took steps to weed out communal elements as part of his "de-toxification" campaign, and reconstituted the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) to advise the Central and State governments, more needs to be done to expand the reach and improve the quality of education. A National Monitoring Committee for Minority Education has been constituted, but it has no representation from the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) or the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It is difficult to imagine how minority education can be monitored if large States having a substantial minority population, such as Uttar Pradesh, ruled by a S.P.-led government, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, all ruled by the BJP, are kept out of its ambit.

Many other crucial issues, such as those concerning women and children, law and justice, power, drinking water, tribal affairs and agriculture, all of which found prominent mention in the NCMP, have been left untouched. Instead, non-issues such as the controversy on Savarkar and the arrest and release of BJP leader Uma Bharati have occupied centre stage. Though the Prime Minister said that the NCMP was a document to be implemented "over five years" and there was still time to work on many issues, it is apparent that the real issues concerning the common people are getting sidelined.

OBVIOUSLY, the Left parties, which provide life-support from outside to the government, are disappointed. At its national executive meeting on September 3-4 in New Delhi, the CPI expressed displeasure at the "slow pace of CMP implementation" and described the government's performance as "very disappointing". The party has decided to take to the streets from October 2 to 8 to demand that high-priority issues in the NCMP - the National Employment Guarantee Act, the legislation for unorganised workers and agricultural labourers, the expansion of education and health, the implementation of drinking water schemes, 33 per cent reservation for women and the repeal of POTA - be implemented on a priority basis.

CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan said the campaign would also focus on the government's failure to consult the Left parties on major issues such as reducing the interest rate on EPF, increasing the FDI cap and foreign trade policy. Incidentally, the new foreign trade policy, unveiled by Commerce Minister Kamal Nath on August 31, replacing the earlier Exim policy, has attracted the Left parties' ire because they view it as being against domestic industry and as one that will make India a dumping ground for second-hand capital goods. Besides, they are also piqued that they were not consulted on it either.

Surjeet described the government's performance as "lacklustre" but blamed it on the politics of the NDA, saying that it did not allow the government to function because of its frustration arising out of its defeat in the Lok Sabha elections.

Whatever the reasons, the unanimous feeling is that the government has little to show after 100 days in office. And most of the decisions smacked of highhandedness as they were taken without consulting the Left parties. There is also a feeling that the UPA government is paying little heed to the NCMP, the document that the Left parties describe as the "Gita, Koran and Bible" of this government.

"They still seem to believe that this is not a coalition government but a government run by the Congress party alone. They will have to come out of this mindset and internalise the coalition dharma, otherwise they will invite trouble for themselves," warn senior Left party leaders. The Left parties have made no secret of the fact that they will criticise, oppose and take the government to task if it diverted from the NCMP and did not listen to them. "It is the responsibility of those running the government to ensure that they discuss crucial issues with us. By not doing this, the Prime Minister is inviting trouble for himself," warned Atul Anjan. This may well be the warning bell for the UPA government, which will have to walk the tightrope, balancing the compulsions of coalition politics with market-oriented dynamics.

The non-performance of the UPA government has given the BJP reason to rejoice. BJP leaders say the longer the government lasts, the better it is for them. "This government, because of its internal contradictions, will have a short lifespan. But as long as it lasts, it is good for us. We are getting issues on a platter," said BJP general secretary Rajnath Singh. In his opinion, the more this government dithered, the more the people would want the NDA back. He said it was intriguing that prices started rising the moment a Congress government came to power. The BJP is planning to hold dharnas and demonstrations all over the country on the issue of price rise.

Tough times lie ahead for the UPA government because it will have to contend with criticism from both within and outside. Its last 100 days have been marked by a mismatch between promises and performance, and the next 100 days promise to be its most challenging phase.

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