Devi Lal, the Haryana stalwart and former deputy prime minister under V P Singh, had a very earthy wisdom. Confronted by an abstruse exercise in ideological hairsplitting before the 1989 election, he asked: 'Who reads manifestos?'
It's a piece of political advice that many Indians are hoping Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will heed during his tenure.
It was bad enough for the soft-spoken economist to suffer the ignominy of being nominated to the top job by Sonia Gandhi rather than being elected by the Congress Parliamentary Party. He had to suffer the additional slight of not having the prerogative of choosing his own council of ministers. He had to silently undergo the humiliation of the DMK flaunting an agreement on the distribution of portfolios that had been negotiated by N Janardhan Reddy, on behalf of Sonia Gandhi.
Now, to compound his disabilities, he is hamstrung by a document called the Common Minimum Programme, whose release had the stock markets voting with their pockets.
Lacking any pre-poll understanding about the future, it is understandable that the United Progressive Alliance had to forge an agenda of governance. What seems less obvious is why the Congress had to capitulate almost all the way to a Left that refuses to assume direct responsibility for the backroom power it wields. In its final shape, the CMP is more akin to a Communist Minimum Programme than a document that reflects the rather convoluted mandate of Election 2004.
Those familiar with the history of Communism will see unmistakable traces of the Popular Front approach of the 1930s. It reflects what CPI-M Politburo member Prakash Karat has identified as the Left determination to 'counter the dominance of ruling class policies.' This is a more refined version of what West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya told a Left Front victory rally in Kolkata last week.
The implications for the direction in which India will move are quite horrifying. The CMP is a regressive, 1960s-style document that has the potential of blunting the competitive edge of India, reintroducing a high-cost economy with inbuilt inefficiencies, diluting national security, and derailing India's distinctive role in international relations.
If the CMP is pursued in letter and spirit, the first casualty is likely to be the economy. The Congress, some of its allies, and the Left appear to have equated the defeat of the NDA with a categorical rejection of economic reforms. In 1996, the A K Antony report of the Congress blamed Manmohan Singh's reformist policies for its defeat. This means that it is not only the Left that opposes reforms, but a substantial body of Congressmen too.
What matters is not so much that divestment -- the strategy of unlocking national resources for infrastructure and social sector development -- have been put on indefinite hold. Far more worrying is that the CMP will introduce a high tax, high inflation and high inefficiency regime. The 2 percent cess on education and health is only the beginning of a policy aimed at squeezing the small section that pays income tax.
With minimal government set to be replaced by intrusive State intervention, we can expect the UPA to come down hard on the middle class and the corporate sector to bankroll its high-cost schemes. This will lead to an inevitable return of tax evasion, patronage politics, and pilferage of government resources.
It is not that these ills were not there under the NDA. However, the policy direction was towards fewer controls, greater transparency, and a modicum of ethical capitalism. This seems set to be reversed, not least because the Congress believes that politics is all about having the greatest hold on the cash-generating sectors of the economy. With militant trade unionism also receiving a boost and strictures imposed on labour flexibility, India's global competitive edge will be blunted.
The real beneficiary of this retreat from sensible economic policies will be China -- a turn of events that should not displease the Left. Their lack of commitment to India is legendary.
This backward slide seems set to be replicated in India's global role. Under the NDA, India inched forward in the direction of evolving its own strategic doctrine that combined regional clout with economic potential. India sought a significant role as a strategic partner of the US and as an economic counterweight to China.
Judging by the CMP, this approach is certain to be junked. With its emphasis on anti-American grandstanding, the CMP is pressing for a return to the good old days of non-alignment. It is an absurd approach. Apart from the fact that there is no alternative superpower to accord tacit protection, India has built enough strategic bridges with the West to prevent Pakistan from leveraging its post-9/11 clout in Kashmir.
The CMP proposes to squander that advantage. From an aspiring great power, the UPA seems intent on pushing India back to its pre-1998 Third World status.
Already the new government is showing alarming laxity in the realms of internal security. The CMP has glorified Naxalites to the level of social bandits by calling extremism a 'socio-economic problem.' And the problem of the illegal Bangladeshi influx into eastern India has been categorised by the home minister as a humanitarian problem. With the LTTE likely to regain its respectability and presence in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the Congress' willingness to corner Jayalalithaa at any cost, India seems set to recover its status as a soft and permissive state, a state that is unmindful of its own self-interest.
None of these developments, however, is inevitable. Once the full implication of the CMP sinks in, Manmohan will have two choices. Either he can, like Indira Gandhi did in 1969, decide that the future lies in veering sharply Left. Alternatively, he can emulate the rustic wisdom of Devi Lal and, perhaps, conveniently forget that there is something called the CMP. He can also do what his political mentor P V Narasimha Rao did -- pursue national interests over dogma.
Unfortunately, you have to be in self-destruct mode if you mention Rao's achievements in the earshot of the Gandhi household.