Editorial 1/Partial view
Editorial 2/General say
What the budget could be
Letters to the Editor

Indian politicians have an unfailing knack of achieving a whimper after promising a bang. Nothing can exemplify this better than the 11 member panel set up to review the Constitution. The list of names, some better known than the others, somehow does not seem to portend the kind of reassessment of determining features of the Constitution as had been suggested by the high pitched debates. Neither is the agenda for review being now proposed by the government remotely focussed. The review committee has been given a year’s time to look into the “working of the Constitution” in the light of 50 years’ experience, without changing the basic feature and structure of parliamentary democracy. It can only be hoped that to the members of the panel these words mean something, because to an informed and interested citizen they can mean precisely nothing. It is a mere form of words which reduces the much publicized review to little better than a ritual. By stating at the outset what the review will not include — which appears to be pretty much everything — it seems that the government is into a major reassuring exercise. It would be interesting to speculate what the outcome of the review is expected to be. It might just suit the prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, if nothing much came of it. Mr Vajpayee has been carefully juggling the demands of the hardcore members of his party and the extreme branches of the sangh parivar against the demands and fears of his political allies for quite some time now, often with a fair bit of success. The vague agenda might be his way of giving the whole review question a quiet burial.

The composition of the panel suggests that those who run the country believe a Constitution review is best carried out by judges and lawyers. Constitutional experts may well be lawyers, but it does not follow that the legalistic approach is at all the way in which to look afresh at the Indian Constitution. The document was made by people with vision, who were, in their own context, trying to evolve the best means to govern a newborn republic. The philosophy of law may have much to do with such a vision — though not all — but certainly not law in practice. The panel is bound to give the feeling that the whole idea of the review is somewhat misconceived, based on a completely wrong notion that the Constitution has a close relationship with legal expertise.

The inclusion of persons known to be hostile to Ms Sonia Gandhi has not helped. It is not merely a question of whether practising politicians should be included in the panel or not. One principle should have been obvious. Including people who will be seen as prone to prejudging issues, like the debate over whether a person of foreign origin should hold high office in the country or not, is a big mistake. It is bound to destroy the committee’s credibility. Even if the panel does come up with something concrete after all, it will always be suspected of having ulterior motives. It is sad that the review committee seems to be the product of shoddy thinking. Yet it could have provided the government with the opportunity to bring up some serious and constructive questions about the Constitution and its fitness in a changing India.    

The Indonesian president, Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, has handled his first showdown with his military with a traditional Indonesian mix of consensus and face saving. There was concern Indonesia’s fledgling democracy was about to die stillborn. During a 16 day foreign tour which included a stopover in India, Mr Wahid publicly ordered the resignation of his minister for security affairs, Mr Wiranto. Mr Wiranto, the former armed forces commander, is the army’s man in the cabinet. He refused to step down, defying follow up orders by the defence minister. A showdown between the nearly blind president and his generals seemed inevitable. In the end, a compromise was stitched together before Mr Wahid returned to Jakarta. Mr Wahid had called for Mr Wiranto to resign following accusations by an investigating commission that the army was linked to human rights atrocities in East Timor. Now the president has said Mr Wiranto will be suspended from the cabinet while the charges are looked into by the attorney general. Mr Wiranto has agreed, even saying it is Mr Wahid’s “right” to suspend him.

The situation was never as black and white as it seemed. Mr Wahid knows he cannot push the military too hard. Civilian rule is still too young. He also needs the military to control the centrifugal forces that now threaten Indonesia. Following East Timor’s secession, several islands are threatening to follow suit. As a precursor, Muslim-Christian sectarian violence has swept outlying islands. The military, whatever its failings, is above ethnicity and religion. Indonesia’s generals, on the other hand, know staging a coup would mean an immediate collapse of the still frail economy, international isolation and domestic insurrection. Mr Wahid is not only an elected president, he also heads a Muslim organization with tens of millions of members. While the relationship is uneasy, Jakarta’s two centres of power know they have to work in tandem. Mr Wahid is clearly far from being all powerful. But the standoff makes it clear civilian power is on the ascendant. At this early stage he will have to cut deals with the military — just as many civilian rulers in ex-dictatorships like Argentina, Nigeria or Chile did. But in such political circumstances, the focus should be on ends rather than means.    

Yashwant Sinha has seen good times and the not so good times. His first innings as finance minister was perhaps even worse than that of the Indian team during their recent tour of Australia. He had to revise so many of his budget proposals that he earned the title of “Rollback Sinha”. In the next year, Sinha’s task was an extremely onerous one. He had inherited a whole host of problems, including a sharp drop in the overall growth rate of the economy from 7.5 per cent in 1996-97 to only five per cent in 1997-98, a rising fiscal deficit reflecting the penurious state of government finances, crucial infrastructural bottlenecks and falling exports. His own government proceeded to make matters worse by conducting nuclear tests which must have acted as a severe drain on the country’s resources.

Sinha had to perform a near miracle by formulating a budget which would reverse the recessionary pressures in the economy without putting any additional strain on the government’s finances. At the very least, this called for a series of bold and innovative measures which would raise resources from new sources, trim the fat in existing public expenditure, and encourage both domestic and foreign investors to undertake massive investments in important sectors of the economy.

Perhaps, an extraordinarily gifted finance minister might have pulled it off. Unfortunately, Sinha proved himself to be a very ordinary mortal. The budget for 1998-99 did not reveal a single iota of originality. It relied heavily on the traditional weapon of most Indian finance ministers — financial jugglery by increasing projected receipts and decreasing future expenditures.

But, almost everyone will agree that the finance minister has grown in confidence and stature over the last year. Although there were still very few innovations, the budget for 1999-2000 certainly exhibited a fair amount of competence. During the course of the year, he has improved his standing by refusing to succumb to populist pressures. He has spoken out quite boldly in favour of the continuation of economic reforms. He has probably been quite successful in persuading his ministerial colleagues about the desirability of reforms since the government has recently taken several bold steps. Come February 29, Sinha will once again be the man in the limelight. He is probably sleeping better than most finance ministers do during the month of February because this is not a bad time for making a budget. After two years of relatively poor growth and depressed stock markets, we seems to be flooded with good news. The Bombay Sensitive Index is hovering around historical peaks, while most surveys of the Indian economy indicate that the economy is poised to take off for a high growth path, with industries across a wide spectrum doing rather well.

There are also strong signs that Indian exports will soon revive after several years of near stagnation. News from the agricultural sector is not particularly promising. But after several years of very good harvests, to hope for another good agricultural year was expecting too much. In any case, the overall outlook for the economy is brighter than it has been at any time during Sinha’s tenure as finance minister.

A booming economy is obviously very good news for the finance minister since this translates into higher revenues. There will also be less pressure on him to offer special “revival” packages for different sectors as most of them are managing quite well without government assistance. But, Sinha cannot afford to be complacent because the state of the public exchequer continues to be a source of major concern. A glaring symptom of this is the galloping fiscal deficit.

The budget for 1999-2000 projected the fiscal deficit to be four per cent of gross domestic product. This was after making adjustments for the loans to be made to the different states from small savings mobilization. But the latest estimate of the fiscal deficit is significantly higher, at 5.5 per cent of GDP.

The finance minister may have some valid excuses which provide a partial explanation for the failure to attain the budgetary target. He could point to the increased pension bill and the unanticipated expenditure caused by the conflict in Kargil. However, the latter may not have been very significant in quantitative terms during the current year. It is quite another story that the conflict, as indeed the general hostile atmosphere between India and Pakistan, may lead to much higher long term defence appropriations.

Perhaps, changes in the revenue side of the budget provide a better explanation for the higher fiscal deficit. While tax revenues may not be much lower than anticipated, some non-tax items have fetched significantly lower revenues than budgeted.

Another important reason for the higher fiscal deficit must be the abject failure to meet the disinvestment target. Somewhat foolishly, the 1999 budget had set a target of Rs 10,000 crore as the amount which would accrue to the government from disinvestment. The finance minister must have known that this was never going to be achieved because decisions on disinvestment were more or less kept in abeyance until the general elections. So, it is not surprising that the disinvestment exercise will only bring in less than Rs 600 crore to the government’s coffers.

Fortunately, there are reasons to believe that the government will do much better in the next financial year. The government seems to have finally got its act together in so far as the disinvestment programme is concerned. It has already disposed of a substantial chunk of its holding in Modern Foods, and announced intentions of reducing its stake in Indian Airlines. Unconfirmed newspaper reports mention that the government is also contemplating offloading its holdings in public sector banks. At least some of these will actually be achieved during the course of the next year.

Another rather unexpected source of additional revenue is the stipulation imposed by the World Trade Organization agreement on quantitative restrictions on imports. Over the next couple of years, the government will have to remove the QRs and replace them by suitable tariffs. Of course, if the tariffs are set at prohibitively high levels, then they will completely shut out imports and bring no revenue to the government.

On the other hand, low tariff rates will bring forth howls of protest from domestic producers. So, the government will have to perform a delicate balancing act, setting the tariff rates so as to achieve some protection but also bringing in some additional customs revenue.

There does not seem much scope for major innovations in this budget. Over the years, major reforms in indirect taxes have already taken place. Perhaps, the finance minister will attempt further simplification in the structure of tax rates. The thrust must be on expanding the tax base. However, to a large extent, this is more an administrative rather than a legislative issue.

In other words, the existing tax laws provide ample scope for implementing an enhanced tax base. Perhaps, the only initiative which the finance minister can take is to provide the revenue authorities with more manpower and greater resources in order to speed up the process of computerization. The expenditure side of the budget provides much greater scope for change.

Sinha simply must rein in expenditure. In particular, no reform of Indian public finances can succeed if subsidies are allowed to grow without any check. Should the urban middle class continue to get access to subsidized food? Should large farmers continue to buy inputs below cost price? Hopefully, Sinha will discard old fetishes and be refreshingly new.

The author is an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi    


Keep sex out of it

Sir — Nalini Netto should be lauded for her courage in bringing charges of sexual harassment against the Kerala transport minister, N. Nadar, that ultimately cost the minister his job (“Minister quits over sex abuse charge”, Feb13). It is heartening that women are beginning to receive justice after bringing charges of sexual harassment against a boss following directives against sexual harassment formulated by the government a couple of years ago. Such an incident will encourage more women to actually take resort to the law. But Netto’s “success” should also indicate that women are still confused about “identifying” sexual harassment in the office. Unless the harassment is as overt as in Netto’s case, women never seek legal help. This is also an unusual incident, since Netto holds a high position in office. What about the mute voices of thousands of women who keep sulking everyday because being as courageous as the Indian Administrative Services officer will cost them too dear?

Yours faithfully,
Subhra Sen, Calcutta

Constitutionally imperfect

Sir — The National Democratic Alliance at the Centre has deemed it essential to make some provisions for changing the Constitution. This might be an occasion to incorporate some much needed policies. Members of the parliament and state legislatures must have “some” educational qualification; MPs should be graduates, while members of the legislative assemblies would do well to pass at least the secondary examinations.

Prior to the assembly elections, the state cabinet should cease to function from the day the election dates are declared to the date when elections are actually held. The entire administration during this time should be supervised by the governor. This will prevent the state governments from taking any policy decisions to entice the electorate. Those candidates elected from more than one constituency can retain the one of his choice. An amendment must be brought in so that the seat vacated is filled by the candidate who had come second. Else the entire cost of conducting the byelections must be borne by the former candidate.

Only sitting members of legislatures should be included in the cabinet. The speakers of legislatures must be given full authority to control unruly members. It is time the government realized that people’s representatives simply do not have the right to disrupt discipline in the house and waste precious time by disturbing parliamentary proceedings. The elected members must also submit a statement revealing their assets and liabilities to the speaker, besides sending a copy to income tax authorities. Permission from the governor need not be required to initiate legal proceedings by authorities such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, against MPs and MLAs since there is no reason to treat them differently than other citizens. Moreover, no individual should be allowed to contest more than four elections.

Yours faithfully,
Gaurangya Bhattacharya, Midnapore

Sir — The prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had declared in the Lok Sabha that the uniform civil code, building the Ram mandir at Ayodhya and Article 370 would never be part of the agenda of the NDA government. He further asserted that there were no differences between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the NDA on issues of national importance. However, in spite of such assurances, Adityanath, a BJP member of parliament from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, tabled a private member’s bill on December 17 in the Lok Sabha calling for the enactment of a uniform civil code. This in itself is ample proof that the BJP has not forgotten its “hidden agenda”.

The idea behind the uniform civil code is against the spirit of the Constitution. It is an infringement of the personal law of Muslims and that of other minority communities; it is also a violation of the concepts of secularism and justice. It is against the basic tenets of fundamental rights, Articles 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29 of the Indian Constitution, which have to do with the freedom to profess and practise religion and with the rights of the minorities. It is essential for the protection of the interests of the minority communities that the uniform civil code is not imposed.

Yours faithfully,
G. Hasnain Kaif, Bhandara

Positive steps

Sir — It has been reported that there are 3.5 million persons suffering from AIDS. Countrywise, India now has the highest number of HIV positive cases.

It is high time the authorities made the ELISA test mandatory for registration of marriages. The step would ensure, to some extent, a disease-free future generation.

Yours faithfully,
Kausik Guha, Calcutta

Sir — A division bench of the Supreme Court has rightly decided to seek technical medical assistance from the Indian Medical Association and the National AIDS Control Organization for passing the verdict in cases like the marriage between HIV positive persons following “full, free, and informed consent” from both (“Notice on AIDS marriage rights”, Feb 8). Giving consent to the marriage of HIV positive partners on the basis of fundamental rights is tantamount to an infringement of duty, both national and international. Since laws are always enacted for human welfare, the apex court’s decision is well considered. An instinctive urge should not be allowed to gain supremacy over reason.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

Sir — It would seem that our society is unable to see that ill people are not necessarily mad. In all cultures, “full, free and informed consent” would be taken as a conscious and public acceptance of responsibility. Controversy over whether or not there should be marriages between HIV positive people assumes that such people do not know what is good for themselves and others. One cannot but feel that there is a penal element in the attitude of society. Those who shudder at the sexual origin of the illness should know that most of the infection in this country is caused by impure blood transfusions and used needles.

Yours faithfully,
Bikram Bose, Calcutta

Sir — The report, “Government discovers smoking is injurious to health” (Jan 8) naturally brings to mind the fact that the government is also fully aware of the contribution of the tobacco industry to the state’s revenues and towards employment. The industry cannot be shut down overnight. Smoking must be contained to ensure minimum social damage; in this education should be used to help. Indian beedis have taken the Western world by storm. Being paper free, they may be promoted with qualitative improvements so that India earns more foreign exchange. Smoking cheap cigarettes needs to be discouraged.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Music is the food of beauty

Sir — “I deserved this honour several years ago...if there is any award for sitar in India, I must get it first.” These words were said by the sitar maestro, Vilayat Khan, and they reflect his desire for fame (“Slighted Vilayat spurns award”, Feb 8). What is most disturbing about the words is that they suggest the award is the main goal and there is nothing beyond it.

Music is spontaneous and free from all desires. I have utmost respect for ustadji but this statement has left me almost speechless. After all, music is not a commercial transaction wherein you give something and wait for the return.

However, he also said that the “love and respect of my admirers are far superior to the Padmavibhusan award”. This is contrary in spirit to his earlier statement. That was not expected of him.

Yours faithfully,
Anant Pasari, Calcutta

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