Editorial 1/Trading up
Editorial 2/Jailhouse rock
The Centre holds on
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/TRADING UP 
 
 
 
 
The Indian government edged a little closer to acknowledging it has a major stake in the success of a new millennium round of the World Trade Organization. Speaking at the world economic forum at Davos, the Union finance minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, declared India was in favour of another WTO ministerial conference to “consider” launching a new round of trade talks. Following the failure of the WTO to put together a negotiating agenda at Seattle, many governments have warned the world trade system is itself in danger. The United States president, Mr Bill Clinton, preceded Mr Sinha with ringing, if conditional, support for a new trade round. The Singaporean prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, pointedly warned during a visit to New Delhi that if the WTO faltered, the world trade system would break up into exclusivist, regional trade blocs. The result, he said, could be a two tier world order in which developed countries traded goods and technology only with each other and the third world was left to fend for itself. Mr Goh could have added that the only developing nations that will survive in a world of trade blocs are those aligned with either the US, the European Union or Japan. In other words, India, which is not a member of any major bloc, would be one of the worst sufferers if the WTO began to lose control of world trade.

It is a matter of wonder that New Delhi is so mealymouthed in its support for the WTO and the millennium round. At one point it loudly declared its opposition to a new round of trade talks. It was only after its attempts to rally other developing countries to this position failed that India grudgingly talked of participating in a millennium round. Mr Sinha’s speech indicates a certain but minimal evolution in policy terms. The Indian government should endorse a new round, loudly proclaim its faith in the WTO. This is in its own interests. A study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development on the likely benefits of a millennium round has concluded India would be a major beneficiary. That is in the short term. In the long term, India needs to be out there defending the WTO against anti-free trade protestors and protectionist sentiment in India. India accounts for less than one per cent of world trade. The multilateral trading organization gives India the same voting power as other countries as well as a neutral tribunal to handle disputes. Being a trade midget, India is in no position to fight off unilateral trade action by a more powerful country. To talk of withdrawing from the WTO is absurd. But being lukewarm about the WTO is also myopic. Time for Mr Sinha to tell the world and the Indian nation where its interests actually lie.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/JAILHOUSE ROCK 
 
 
 
 
It used to be said once upon a time that a jail record is the best recommendation an Indian politician can have. Generations of leaders have flaunted “jailed by the British” as an important entry in their curriculum vitae. In independent India, things have changed somewhat but not completely. The arrest of a politician is taken as evidence of his ability to protest and take to the streets in defence of a cause. That arrest means violation of law and order is often overlooked in the case of politicians eager to win their agitational spurs. Ms Sonia Gandhi, who became president of the Congress with no political record whatsoever, has decided that the best way to win political credibility is to court arrest. She did this on Sunday in front of the prime minister’s residence on Race Course Road. This may have won her a few cheap points from her shrinking brigade of admirers. But she, as a potential prime ministerial candidate, might pause to ponder the implications of her actions. At one level, she set two arms of the law and order machinery against each other: the special protection group responsible for protecting her and the police who had cordoned off the residence of the prime minister. If Ms Gandhi is serious about taking to streetwise agitational politics, she should perhaps decide first to do away with the SPG. At another level is the question of the quality of political practice that she is trying to project for herself and the Congress. There already exists the Lok Sabha for articulating legitimate grievances against the government and its policies. Will the disruption of law and order help democracy to mature in India?

Ms Gandhi’s taking to the streets can only be seen as a desperate step to win back for herself and her party the political leverage that is fast slipping out of her hands. The Congress’s electoral showing under Ms Gandhi’s leadership has been miserable. In the post-election scenario, there have been no signs that the Congress is seriously trying to get its act together either at the organizational level or at the level of political opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress’s position has been further weakened by the fact that many of the policies being executed by the government, especially in the economic sphere, are a continuation of the policies initiated by the Congress. This has left the Congress without an agenda. The plight of the party has not been helped by a certain lack of decisiveness on the part of the leadership. Nobody denies that Ms Gandhi’s — and more importantly, the Congress’s — political future is at stake. The way out does not lie through thoughtless gimmicks. A style of politics that brought dividends to a previous generation of Congress politicians may not be exactly what the doctor has ordered for India in the new century.    


 
 
THE CENTRE HOLDS ON 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
A fin de siècle story, or you can even call it an essay in contemporary morality. Some may now feel embarrassed by its memory; 1977 was nonetheless a charismatic year. The people of India rose in unison against the authoritarian regime Indira Gandhi had set up two seasons ago. Democratic elections drove her out; the Janata Party, a party which was no party, a ragtag coalition of political groups which had come together to oppose the whimsical ways of Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, assumed power in New Delhi following the fresh Lok Sabha polls. Congress regimes collapsed like ninepins in state after state within the next few months. Out with authoritarianism! It was time for a new beginning for India’s marvellous democratic experiment.

This huge, complex country — if it is to survive in peace and prosperity — must have, it was argued, an administrative-constitutional foundation which allowed the states the fullest opportunity for self-expression and growth. True, the Constitution drafted in 1949 did offer symbolic homage to the federal concept. Its articles were however masterpieces of obfuscation; once you unravelled its roots, unitary instincts were discovered working full time to smother the urges for a decentralized system.

How do you escape from the harsh reality though? The Centre cannot hold. The Constitution is bound to be shoved aside if it ignores crucial facts. This complex nation is a ménage of languages, sects, religions, ethnicities.

Apparently eager to respect these diversities, the sixth schedule of the Constitution trots out three lists, the Union list, the state list and the concurrent list. The Union list sets down items over which the Centre will have exclusive power of administration and law-making. The state list covers items over which the states supposedly have exclusive jurisdiction. The concurrent list, as the name implies, lists items over which the Centre and the states are in a position to exercise concurrent jurisdiction, but in case of a difference of views between the Union government and a state administration, the Centre’s views will prevail.

At first glance all this seems to add up to a lovely picture. It is however, a comprehensive fake. One article of the Constitution takes away the prerogative granted to the states by another article. For instance, even in the arena of land reforms, which supposedly comes under the exclusive jurisdiction of the states, legislation enacted by the state assembly will have to be referred to the president for his consideration. Since, in terms of Article 74, the president has no eyes or ears of his own and has to go by the advice of the Union council of ministers, in effect even a bill on land reforms has to await the nod of the Union government.

The financial arrangements spelt out by the Constitution are equally grossly tilted in favour of the Centre. With the exception of land revenue and sales and entertainment taxes, the rest of the tax items, including levy on individual and corporate incomes and on foreign trade, belong to the domain of the Union government. No state government has the prerogative to borrow from the market unless the Centre approves, nor can the states indulge in deficit financing.

The set-up could hardly be more claustrophobic. The states are kept on a tight leash; discontent inevitably mounts every day. The problems are right here, the state government too is right here, but both resources and administrative prerogatives happen to be with the Centre — a remote, distant entity.

The priorities decided upon in the national capital, more often than not, have no relevance to the felt needs of the people in a state. Forces rearing their head in the post-1977 period were instrumental in unleashing a powerful campaign urging a total reconstruction of Centre-state relations. What was considered to be particularly repelling was the manner in which Nehru’s daughter had availed herself of Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss at will dozens of state chief ministers who, for whatever reason, had annoyed her or a member of her family.

An upsurge of patriotic passion brought under one common plank, in that phase, parties with disparate programmes and a heterogeneity of class background. They nurtured separate views on many social and economic issues. They nonetheless unitedly raised their voice for a drastic realignment of Centre-states relations, including financial relations, and the abrogation of such quasi-authoritarian provisions in the Constitution as the nefarious Article 356.

The constituents of the Janata Party soon began to squabble among themselves, their government collapsed, and Indira Gandhi succeeded in returning to power. But the movement to realign Centre-state relations continued to gather momentum.

Barring the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, almost all the other political formations in the country joined hands to strengthen the demands articulated by the non-Congress state governments and parties in the opposition. A number of national conventions, seeking immediate measures for restructuring Centre-state relations, reverberated across the polity.

The two dismissals of state governments in the post-1980 period engineered by Indira Gandhi and her advisors — the ejectment of Farooq Abdullah from the chief ministerial slot in Kashmir and the attempted coup to get rid of N.T. Rama Rao from the Andhra Pradesh administration — brought the country on the verge of open revolt against the evil designs of the Centre. Indira Gandhi was scared no end. She hastened to set up a commission to review Centre-states relations in the light of the demands voiced by state governments and political parties.

Indira Gandhi departed from the scene, her successor son and his advisors dilly-dallied on taking action on the recommendations of the commission on the Centre-state relations presided over by R.S. Sarkaria. The issues did not disappear; it was nonetheless ebb time.

The governments that came to be formed at the Centre one after another during the past decade were, each of them, admittedly lacking in clout; the emergence of a crop of state-level political leaders further confused the picture. The fact that Article 356 came in handy to get rid of the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh following the demolition of the Babri Masjid sowed seeds of doubt in the minds of several past enthusiasts on the advisability of scrapping wholesale Article 365 from the Constitution.

A one hundred degree turn took place in the thoughts and views of state governments and politicians from what these were barely a decade ago. There has been no clamour of late for permitting states to have separate borrowing powers of their own, nor has there been any vigorous reiteration of the plea that the states be permitted some kind of administrative control over banks and public financial institutions.

The gradual relaxation of exchange controls has in any case enfeebled the relevance of the demand that the states be accorded the privilege of availing themselves of a part of the nation’s accumulated foreign exchange resources for their own purposes.

The campaign for allowing the states a larger share of direct taxes is also marking time, the recent recommendation by a finance commission to transfer 29 per cent of the receipts from all tax heads to the states has been shoved aside for the present without much demurral on the part of the state governments. All passion would appear to be spent. Certainly, the state governments have moved away from the stance of permanent confrontation with the Centre.

This lapse into passivity on the part of the states has revived the Centre’s authoritarian pretensions. In a total reversal of what even the Constitution did not dare to suggest, the administration of sales tax has been centralized with effect from the beginning of the new year and a uniform structure of rates has been introduced.

The very concept of uniform sales tax rates should scandalize purists who believe in a federal financial arrangement. For instance, why must West Bengal, which has a left-leaning regime, permit the same rate of sales tax on refrigerators, motor cars and such luxury commodities as Delhi or Punjab prefers to impose?

The plea of the desirability to avoid trade diversion is by now a cliché. Besides, if you have confidence in your ability to apply an alternative formula of growth and fiscal management, the threat of trade diversion should not bother you.

To discourage this kind of diversion, the state chief ministers, at a conference in the mid-Eighties, had in fact unanimously recommended the introduction of taxes on consignment transfers, with the proceeds of such taxation shared equitably between the different states; the law commission had earlier made a recommendation for a constitutional amendment along similar lines. The chief ministers had forwarded their unanimous recommendation to the Union government with the request that the necessary legislation be enacted as early as possible. Nothing happened.

Even that is not the complete story. Times change. One or two state governments — that were, in their earlier incarnation, zealots for revamping Centre-state relations — recently took the lead to introduce a centralized, uniform structure of sales tax in the country; states which will refuse to fall in line have been threatened with punishment.

It is doubtful whether such a threat will have any legitimacy till the Constitution is not appropriately amended, this time to allow the Centre to act as adjudicator of sales tax rates. Those state governments that have taken the initiative in the matter, are perhaps in the grip of a temporary phase of mindlessness, or, who knows, they have undergone a change of heart. The rampant zeal of new converts is evident all over.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Rebel without a cause

Sir — If the way Diego Maradona’s life and career have turned out is his idea of a successful rebellion, then the word that would best describe it is “sad” (“I am happy as a rebel, Diego tells Cubans”, Jan 20). Virtually the last skilful exponent of football, Maradona has destroyed himself with drugs. Football fans have got used to his recurrent bouts of addiction, followed by stints at rehabilitation centres and fervent vows to shun drugs. Maradona shot into fame from rather squalid surroundings of Buenos Aires. His football prowess was enough to see him through on the field but it did not equip him to handle all the fame and money. But he could have learnt a lesson or two from the equally sad decline of George Best. Best was arguably one of the most skilful forwards the world has produced but he too met with a smoky end. On the other hand, there is Johan Cruyff who had the courage to give up smoking the moment he realized it would take away everything football had given him. Instead of thanking the Cubans, Maradona should ask forgiveness of his fans for depriving them of a few more years of football magic.

Yours faithfully,
Romie Sarkar, Calcutta

In the people’s interest

Sir — Though the Indian chambers of commerce and industries have welcomed the government’s decision to reduce the interest on public provident funds by one per cent, it is in no way the best possible economic measure. Even when interest rates of banks, financial institutions and the market were significantly higher, the government did not raise the rate of interest on PPF schemes. Why should the rates now be cut on the logic that rates in other sectors have come down? True, the government faces a severe financial burden but it should reduce its expenditure and contain fiscal deficit. Finally, the government had mobilized funds under the 15 year PPF on condition it would pay a 12 per cent interest. No option was given to the account holders to withdraw money before the end of the sixth year and that too partly. So there is a kind of contractual obligation between the government and the PPF account holders.

If at all the government wants to reduce interest rates, it should do so on fresh deposits taken after January 15. If the government ignores natural justice and goes back on its word, then it should first amend the PPF so that account holders can withdraw the money they have already deposited.

Yours faithfully,
Keshav Das Binani, Calcutta

Sir — With the Union budget round the corner, the common man’s nightmare has already began. The government has dealt him the first blow by reducing interest rates on savings through banks and post offices. The prices of essential commodities like bread, milk, liquid petroleum gas, medicines, electricity and telephone have increased. Funnily enough, while the daily expenses of the common man are increasing, one hears the same stories of the dearth of government revenue and the ever-increasing fiscal deposit. What can be the reason behind this but bad governance and corruption? Therefore, items of non-plan and unproductive expenditure should be eliminated. Moreover, the government should see to it that subsidies do not get deflected midway or are misappropriated, but reach the people they are meant for — the poorer sections of the society.

Yours faithfully,
N.S. Ramakrishnan, Calcutta

Ambiguous origins

Sir — India celebrates the golden jubilee of the coming into force of the Constitution this year. There has been a lot of polemic on the Atal Behari Vajpayee government’s proposal for a review of the Constitution, which has already been amended 79 times till date. The Constitution seems to be disregarded in all the political, social and economic upheavals of the last two decades.

The nation is being faced with the ambiguities in the functioning of the legislature, judiciary and executive, inherent in its founding principles. The Constitution has provided for unlimited fundamental rights without any provisions for enforcing them. On the other hand, citizens have no fundamental duties that are mandatory. A citizen ought to be made to perform fundamental duties for the protection of his fundamental rights by the state. The nation, in the absence of such a provision, is heading towards a catastrophe.

The Constitution does not provide suitable educational or population policies. Rather, in the name of secularism and fundamental rights, it allows religious leaders to propagate population control measures such as abortion. Population control measures are, above all, a means of survival for society, which should be placed above religious ideology.

Yours faithfully,
Kulamani Mishra, Orissa

Sir — A discussion on introducing a citizens’ charter has been going on for quite sometime now.. The idea behind the law is that government departments, public sector undertakings and local bodies which deliver services like transport, electricity, telephone, water, et al should be responsible for a guaranteed quality of service. Deviations from that standard should be penalized.

The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh has also been considering the introduction of such a charter for certain services in the state. But nowhere in the country has it been implemented yet.

Although making the charter obligatory might take some time, at least one measure, using information technology, can be immediately introduced in the large towns and cities. Authorities in the police, municipal corporation, telephone, transport, electricity and water departments should make themselves accessible to public opinion and complaints through modes of communication like voice-mail lines.

Technologically progressive ministers like Chandrababu Naidu are already beginning to lead the way. This raises hopes of the realization of the citizens’ charter idea.

Yours faithfully,
T.H. Chowdary, Hyderabad

That oasis again

Sir — The West Bengal secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Anil Biswas, held the police responsible for the recent killings of criminals in Kasba. He also mentioned that some police officers, in connivance with other political parties, have been indulging in anti-social activities for which they would have to pay a high price. But Biswas must be reminded that it was not very long ago, that the home (police) and deputy chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, had complimented the West Bengal police force for doing an excellent job. Thus, the CPI(M)’s sudden change in attitude towards the police is indeed intriguing.

Moreover, the CPI(M) is certainly aware that anti-social activities are not uncommon in Kasba. Moreover, in 1981, when 18 Ananda Margis were burnt alive on Bijon Setu, there were hardly any protests by CPI(M) party workers. The enquiry commission — set up at the behest of the chief minister, Jyoti Basu, to investigate this gruesome incident — is yet to submit its findings.

The Kasba murder was probably committed following internal squabbles within the CPI(M). Though Basu is being pressured by other political parties to initiate systematic investigations, it is pointless to set up an enquiry team if its findings are never published. It is high time the chief minister wakes up to the fact that it is the interference of political stalwarts that has reduced the police force to its present state, in which it continues to be an ineffectual spectator to crime.

If the state government wants to restore some order in the state, the police force must be given more power to deal with crimes independently and not be bogged down in the intricacies of political intrigue.

Yours faithfully,
Sankar Lal Singh, Calcutta

Sir — “Arson, raid on police after CPI(M) leader’s murder” (Jan 24), reveals the presence of a powerful underworld in the city. Any unnatural death is to be condemned by society; but when citizens take law into their hands, chaos is inevitable. Thus, the CPI(M) has added yet another bloody feather to its cap when a section of its cadre went on a rampage after Gurupada Bagchi, the secretary of its Kasba (south) local committee. It has forfeited the right to govern after allowing lawlessness of such proportions to reign.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Sir — Mob violence and lynching at Sonarpur, Kasba and Kudghat indicate the total failure of the Left Front government to control law and order in the city. And Buddhadev Bhattacharya has also shown his incompetence to this effect. Thus, the deputy chief minister with the help of the state machinery must take immediate steps to increase efficiency and curb corruption among the police, appointing effective police officers like Kiran Bedi and advisors like K.P.S. Gill. If the police force continues to depend on the CPI(M), there is little chance of order being restored in the city.

Yours faithfully,
Arjun Bharat, New Delhi

Sir — Finally Buddhadev Bhattacharya has admitted that Calcutta’s policemen are among the most unfit in the country (“Slow and fat wins the force”, Jan 24). Unfit police officials must be taken off duty till they receive proper training and are capable of undertaking the responsibility of maintaining law and order in the city, at present in a shambles.

Yours faithfully,
Sharmistha Nag, Calcutta

Sir — Jyoti Basu’s convoy never seems to get caught up in traffic jams — the police in this instance somehow manage to control traffic during peak hours at busy junctions such as Park Circus and Park Street. One wonders why the police cannot perform equally well during office hours — and control the inevitable bedlam in Dharamtala, Dalhousie and Gariahat?

Yours faithfully,
A.N. Nag, Calcutta

Sir — The lynching of 10 persons including two women in Sonarpur shamelessly exposes the CPI(M)’s exploitation of those they call “the people” in order to practise their peculiar brand of criminalized politics.

Yours faithfully,
B.K. Dutta, Calcutta

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Calcutta 700 001
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