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Only two cheers for the UPA
June 02, 2004
After a historic election that sent the Bharatiya Janata Party packing, Manmohan Singh has put together a council of ministers that reflects India's immense regional diversity and cultural plurality. The composition of the new United Progressive Alliance government is particularly reassuring, and indeed empowering, for India's religious and ethnic minorities, comprising over 250 million people, who experienced a sense of insecurity and marginalisation, if not outright victimisation, under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. But it is no less satisfying for the religious majority, itself highly diverse and differentiated, most of whose members have never had an iota of sympathy for the BJP's retrograde and communal politics.
Even the name of the new ruling coalition, with its felicitous reference to progress or people's empowerment and unity or social cohesion, is a pleasant departure from the viciously divisive policies of the NDA. More importantly, the UPA's self-appellation is a reminder of its mandate, itself an act of self-assertion by India's poor. Broadly speaking, the Indian voter has put the issues of equity and distributive justice firmly on the agenda. She has pronounced an unambiguous verdict against managerial-style politics based upon economic elitism, a corporate takeover of policy and pitiless disdain for the underprivileged. And she has delivered a powerful rebuff to communalists and inciters of hatred.
The UPA's mandate is not just for growth or development. It is for equitable growth and for development that has people at its centre. It is not just for 'detoxification' or the cleansing of the many institutions that the BJP corrupted and communalised. It is for healing and repairing the secular fabric of India, which has been severely damaged by the NDA over six years. It is for reintegrating the values of humanity and decency into the very core of Indian politics and for reasserting the centrality of the principle of popular sovereignty.
This is a highly positive and broad-ranging mandate from the people. Regrettably, the selection of personnel and allocation of portfolios by Singh does not adequately reflect its progressive nature. This is not because the Congress party has kept all the prestigious high-profile portfolios for itself -- including finance, home, foreign affairs and defence. Rather, it is because its choice of ministers is mixed and in many ways conservative. It falls short of what is needed.
To be fair, we must first look at the upside. The appointment of Natwar Singh as foreign minister and the allocation of human resources development to Arjun Singh, of agriculture and food to Sharad Pawar, information and broadcasting to S Jaipal Reddy, and petroleum and panchayati raj to Mani Shankar Aiyar are all very welcome.
Natwar Singh will hopefully bring his strongly non-aligned perspective and his experience in multilateral diplomacy to bear upon our foreign policy. Under the NDA, this became obsessively pro-US to the point that India almost sent troops to Iraq. A year ago, L K Advani made a commitment to this effect during his US visit. In the absence of popular protests against that unjust war and occupation, the NDA would certainly have despatched Indian troops. Under Singh, we can expect some progress in normalisation of relations with China, Pakistan and other neighbours.
Pawar, an able administrator, faces a massive challenge in revitalising India's crisis-ridden agriculture and, even more important, beefing up our collapsing food security. Reddy will hopefully make a sincere, purposive effort to establish Prasar Bharati as a genuinely autonomous corporation and to regulate the media fairly.
And Arjun Singh will doubtless try to purge the education system, the NCERT's textbooks, and the national research councils system of toxic Hindutva influence. This is a subject close to his heart. Throughout his career, Singh has never wavered on secularism.
Aiyar will undoubtedly put an end to pernicious attempts to sell off India's cash-rich public-sector oil companies, although he must take unpleasant decisions like raising the retail prices of diesel, kerosene and petrol very, very soon because of the high world prices of crude.
Equally significant are second-rung appointments such as those of Dayanidhi Maran (IT and communications), the Northeast's P R Kyndiah (tribal affairs), Sibu Soren (coal; mines and minerals), the dalit leaders Meira Kumar and Selja (respectively, social justice and empowerment, and urban employment/poverty alleviation), and Prithviraj Chavan (minister of state in the PMO). Chavan is one of the Congress' most serious and thoughtful young leaders.
However, one does get the impression that individuals like Laloo Prasad Yadav and Kapil Sibal have been given lighter portfolios than they deserve. By contrast, a relatively poorly known leader like A Ramdoss (PMK) has been given a weighty ministry like health and family welfare and Kamal Nath has been rewarded with both commerce and industry. Nath didn't distinguish himself as environment minister in the 1990s.
The commerce minister will be called upon to play a crucial role in the coming round of WTO negotiations in which India's stand, like that of Brazil and South Africa, as well as the least developed countries', will matter a great deal. At stake is unrestricted trade in services, which will be disastrous for the Third World. Successful negotiations will need high integrity, acute comprehension, and an understanding of the national interest.
The appointments of Messrs P Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil raise even more disturbing questions given their past record. Chidambaram is an ideologically driven neo-liberal who, like many other Harvard Business School (note: not Harvard University) graduates, especially in Latin America, remains dedicated to 'free-market' dogmas. These are the very same policies which increased poverty and income disparities in India and were resoundingly rejected by the electorate.
There is a difference in the 'reforms' advocated by Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh. Singh triggered India's neo-liberal turn in 1991 because he then believed there was no alternative to this after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he is not a 'free-market' zealot. He opposes the privatisation of the public sector or its dismantling 'for ideological reasons'; he says it should be 'allowed to grow if [it] can compete on an equal footing with [the] private sector.' Today, Singh would be far more cautious and responsive to people's needs. It would have been preferable if he had kept finance himself. Chidambaram's appointment seems to be a panic response to the recent stockmarket crisis, which was in part deliberately rigged to solicit pro-business signals from the government.
Neither Mukherjee nor Patil can even remotely be accused of being imaginative and boldly innovative, or firm in adhering to principle. That's precisely what's needed today in defence, which cries out for streamlining, deep cuts in wasteful budgets, and action against extensive corruption. Similarly, home holds the key to bringing the culprits of the Babri demolition to book. Its role will be vital in resolving the Ayodhya dispute through a temple-and-mosque formula, abolishing POTA and other draconian laws, and outlawing Togadia-style hate-speech and VHP-Bajrang Dal-style hate acts. Patil does not exude much hope in this regard. Mukherjee has been very close to certain manipulative business houses. In the past, he adopted hawkish positions on the nuclear issue and on Pakistan.
The present moment offers a unique opportunity for historic reconciliation with Pakistan. Peoples of the two countries have invested great energies -- and hope -- in the peace process. The regional and international circumstances are also ripe for a major breakthrough. Manmohan Singh himself will have to take the initiative and push through bold new proposals. Peace with Pakistan will be a huge gain. It will qualitatively improve India's security and free resources for investment in public services and in development.
Equally important, it will remove a major plank from the communalists' demonology, which blames Pakistan and the ISI for all of India's domestic problems as well as terrorism, and which vilifies Indian Muslims as Pakistan's fifth column. Peace with Pakistan is a precondition for India's realisation of its true potential globally, regionally, and domestically.
Manmohan Singh has a huge challenge on his hands. His government's policy orientation and performance will determine to a large extent the direction of India's own evolution in the coming years: Will India become a subordinate, passive component or camp-follower of an unequal, unjust global order in politics and finance and will it further enlarge its domestic cesspools of grievances and discontents while keeping the poor insecure and wretchedly unhappy? Or will India move towards liberating its people from poverty, ill-health, illiteracy and the multiplicity of injustices they suffer, so that it can contribute to making the world a better place?
Singh can turn the challenge into opportunity -- but only if he resolutely and consistently favours high principle and the public good over pragmatic and parochial considerations. But as of now, we must say two cheers, perhaps two and a half cheers, to his team.