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Rediff.com  » Business » Stir against Reliance: Some candour please

Stir against Reliance: Some candour please

Last updated on: September 01, 2007 14:12 IST

Mukesh Ambani doesn't need my support but the agitation against Reliance shops in UP and West Bengal does draw attention to a certain sneaky trait in Indian life. While the Forward Bloc and Trinamul Congress have no inhibition about shouting (screaming/shrieking would be more appropriate for the latter) their views from the housetops, nary a squeak can be squeezed out of Congress lungs.

Presumably the party in power at the Centre approves of government policy. If so, why so mealy-mouthed about it? That also goes for the Bahujan Samaj Party and the CPI-M. The absence of categorical endorsement of liberalisation at the mass political level from any of these organisations suggests three possibilities: They are ashamed of what they believe in, they don't really believe in liberalisation, or they do but dare not take on voters who are committed to the public sector. Also, no one in this land of virtuous poverty thinks it right publicly to admit merit in making money.

I took the liberty once of telling P V Narasimha Rao that Lee Kuan Yew faulted him for not making liberalisation a campaign issue in 1996. It was possible to put the question to him because when someone expressed fears about foreign investment after his 1994 Singapore Lecture, Narasimha Rao boldly identified two gains of globalisation: Indians, too, could invest overseas, while foreign money would enlarge the cake at home with much bigger slices for everyone. But that sparkle had gone when we chatted in his Motilal Nehru Marg bungalow later on. "One doesn't talk of things like that in elections," he replied a little huffily.

But why doesn't one? It's surely the politician's job to inform and instruct. If he doesn't educate voters who will?

The logical corollary of reforms -- special economic zones, fast food chains, retail stores -- would not have been impeded at every step if the reforms themselves hadn't been surreptitious to start with. Perhaps it was understandable in the climate of 1991 that Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh felt obliged to be discreet. Congress veterans had given Rajiv Gandhi a tough time when he tried to modernise economic policy, and his successors feared that transparency would mean alarmist newspaper headlines, a hue and cry in Parliament and resistance in the ranks. So, instead of discussing reforms in the Cabinet, the Congress prime minister and finance minister discussed them with Lal Krishna Advani who, of course, gave wholehearted, albeit private, support.

So far as legitimacy was concerned, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh armed themselves with Rajiv Gandhi's 1991 election manifesto. Buried in its platitudinous prose were such nuggets as promises to cut wasteful expenditure, encourage banks to raise offshore funds, expand and strengthen the service industries, invite foreign investment and technology, promote toll highways and bridges, and replace a "lethargic, inefficient and expensive" public sector with a "leaner, more dynamic and profit-oriented" one.

This was superb tactics but not very enlightening. We were told for more than 40 years that businessmen were crooks, that foreigners were out to loot and pillage, and that the US was the sinister "foreign hand" whose mischief was responsible for all our social, political and economic troubles. India's salvation lay in socialism. By extension, the philosophy also covered non-alignment. Rightly or wrongly, socialism and non-alignment were the keywords of the creed in which an entire generation steeped.

No wonder the Forward Bloc's Ashok Ghosh can declare the closure "a victory for the working class, the toiling peasants and the small traders involved with retail of agricultural products." It is a great mistake not to recognise that large sections of the public, and not just in Marxist-ruled West Bengal, do see entrepreneurs -- like zamindars in olden times -- as exploitative, and the state as the small man's only protector.

No one propagates the opposite point of view. The Youth Congress should be out in the streets with posters, banners and loudspeakers to countermand adverse propaganda and convince people that everyone has something to gain from pragmatic policies. So, in UP, should BSP activists unless, of course, Mayawati has reneged on Mulayam Singh Yadav's policies. The need for coherence is the greatest in West Bengal where the suspicion dies hard that many of the armed and uniformed men who attacked resisting villagers and Mamata Banerjee's stormtroopers in Nandigram were not the police but Marxist cadres.

The use of violence means words have failed or been abandoned. But it's only through words that the CPI-M can hope to persuade people of the wisdom of its innovations. The sense of something being wrong only grows and takes root if Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's men expect to achieve their no doubt worthy ends through clandestine force instead of persuasion.

I daresay the civilian nuclear agreement with the US would also profit from greater candour. People should have been helped in advance to overcome their fear of the foreign hand and what Prakash Karat calls its "strategic embrace". An intelligent electorate deserves an intelligent leadership. If voters are asked to change their mind after decades of indoctrination, they must be given convincing reasons. People are not dumb driven cattle. 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray in New Delhi
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