Editorial 1\Will to choose
Editorial 2\Law of might
Look out, it’s changing
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1\WILL TO CHOOSE 
 
 
 
 
The results of assembly elections in Bihar, Haryana and Orissa could have brought little joy to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Its own only consolation is that its principal rival, Congress, has done even worse. But even that cannot compensate for the increasing importance being acquired by the allies of the BJP. Both in Haryana and in Orissa, the main allies of the BJP are in a position to do away with its support altogether. In Orissa, Mr Naveen Patnaik has led the Biju Janata Dal to victory; and in Haryana, Mr Om Prakash Chauthala’s Indian National Lok Dal is in a position to call the shots since his party has won 47 seats to the BJP’s six. In Orissa, the BJD has bagged 68 seats and the BJP trails with only 38. In Bihar, the BJP and its allies have divided the seats equally. This trend is significant. It suggests that in the alliance that rules India, BJP’s position and influence is not on the rise. This cannot in any way strengthen the BJP’s claim to be a national and all-India party. It is quite clear that there are regions in India where the BJP derives its strength from the alliance that it makes. These allies are all regional parties in the sense that they have no standing outside a specific region like the BJD in Orissa or the INLD in Haryana. This rise in the strength and influence of regional parties will not help the BJP’s efforts to impose a monolithic state and ideology on the whole of India.

It has been quite clear since the results of the last general elections that there is an underlying tension within the BJP and the sangh parivar, the wider political family to which the BJP belongs, between the imperatives of a coalition government and the demands of a Hindutva driven programme. The BJP, under the leadership of Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee and for the nonce, has opted to play the coalition game. Mr Vajpayee recognizes that the BJP can be in power as long as the National Democratic Alliance exists. Hindutva has thus been put on the back burner. It is obvious from the election results that staying in power is not advancing the BJP’s cause and position. This can only aggravate the existing tension between coalition and ideology. In many ways, this puts Mr Vajpayee in an unenviable position. He has been trying valiantly to distance the BJP from the more extreme proponents of Hindutva within the sangh parivar. His position has come under attack because of the vandalism of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad et al in Varanasi and in Kanpur. There might arise the demand within the BJP and the sangh parivar that no gains, either electoral or ideological, are being registered by honouring the coalition. It is obvious that the eclipse of the Congress has not led to a brightening of the BJP’s future. Now the BJP will have to take a fresh look at its future: staying in power or ideology.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2\LAW OF MIGHT 
 
 
 
 
Stone-throwing mobs are not a rare sight in India, but stone-throwing lawyers probably are. True, the police turned water cannons and fired tear gas shells first, and followed up the lawyers’ rocky fusillade with a now infamous lathi charge. But there are two points to be made here. One, the lawyers, professedly on a “peaceful” march to Parliament, had been asked to stop and go back a little before they reached their destination. They were making a statement by disobeying the law, and the violence was its result. And two, throwing stones at the police is surely not quite exemplary behaviour on the part of lawyers. In a few cases, some are less equal than others. Lawyers making a public spectacle of breaking the law is neither inspiring nor confidence generating. A significant cause might have made such a step seem meaningful. But to go on a demonstration and a strike to protest against the proposed amendments to the civil procedure code and the possibility of overseas law firms entering the Indian terrain is not something that is likely to draw a lot of sympathy. Although it may be argued that the lawyers are fighting for a people friendly cause. The proposed amendment to the CPC that has raised hackles would not allow appeal to a higher court division bench after a defeat in a lower court. Only the Supreme Court would have the right to hear appeals. The argument against this is that it makes things terribly difficult for litigants. The rationale behind it, according to the government, is that it will help curb the dilatoriness of judicial proceedings. Whatever the merits of either side, the street is surely not the arena to fight this out. And the entry of overseas firms into the business is certainly not a cause for which dignified professionals should go berserk.

Strikes bring incalculable losses and inconvenience in every case. It is amazing that lawyers should strike work when the piles of waiting cases have become one of the major sources of concern for those wishing to reform the judicial system. No action can be seen without its context. It has to be remembered that lawyers comprise one of the most powerful professional groups, socially, politically and financially. The concern expressed by all parties in Parliament and the speed at which the inquiry commission is being formed are indications of the kind of power lawyers wield. They provide an essential, highly skilled and learned service, and are duly respected for it. In this context, the lawyers’ action cannot but be regretted. It has damaged the dignity of the profession. If their cause gets special attention because of their action, it will be all the more regrettable. Yet lawyers could have formed one of the most effective — and transparent — pressure groups had they so wished.    


 
 
LOOK OUT, IT’S CHANGING 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Be reasonable, the parties, now in the opposition, braying against the Union government’s decision to set up a commission to review the Constitution, are palpably on weak ground. Especially since 1977, these parties had themselves been demanding a restructuring of Centre-state relations with a view to ushering in a more democratic and decentralized polity all the way down.

The Congress regime ruling the roost at the Centre at the relevant time, had, it was vociferously complained, procrastinated about implementing the recommendations of the Sarkaria commission on Centre-state relations. But, then, these parties and political groups had their chance during 1996-98, when their representatives constituted the Union cabinet, to repair the damage. In fact, the minister for home affairs in that cabinet happened to one of the top leaders of the Communist Party of India. Two years is a long enough time.

Had that government been smart enough and alert enough, it could have firmed up proposals for amending the Constitution in a manner close to its liking. The reservation these parties have with respect to the manoeuvres of the present Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is not so much that the Constitution is being sought to be amended. Such a stance would be patently irrational. After all, the Constitution has already been amended on nearly 80 occasions in the past.

What is bothering the parties in the opposition — and presumably the president too — is the nature of influence the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have over the BJP-led regime. Howsoever unexceptional the composition of the review commission and howsoever broadminded the amendments suggested by it might turn out to be, the apprehension is widespread that only the recommendations sympathetic to the Hindutva cause would be pushed through.

The pertinent question cannot be brushed aside though: how come the two successive regimes, presided over by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral, with Indrajit Gupta installed as home minister, failed to legislate those recommendations of the Sarkaria commission which broadly reflected the progressive cause. To express outrage at the BJP government’s running away with the initiative is largely an instance of sour grapes.

This does not mean that every step of the present government should not be watched with care. The RSS-Bajrang Dal-VHP trinity has enough clout to totally emasculate the civilized segment of the BJP coalition regime. Unless some kind of counter-pressure is kept up from outside, the possibility exists of mischief-mongering, such as altering on the sly the main features of the Constitution and thereby rendering India an out and out sectarian, authoritarian. quasi-fascist Hindu kingdom. The left and their friends therefore deserve to be reprimanded for their lotus eating during the hazy days of 1996-98.

That is only part of the story. The Centre has in recent weeks taken a number of steps which have far reaching implications for Centre-state financial relations. Pundits from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have long persevered in the effort to induct New Delhi into the secrets of authoritarian fiscal management. These two external financial institutions have, on a number of occasions, advised the ministry of finance to improve its own financial health by denying to the states resources which, according to a strict interpretation of the Constitution, ought to devolve to them. Such subversive suggestions have included the reduction of plan assistance to the states and of even grants in aid earmarked for the states as per the dictum of the Constitution.

The states have been hustled into accepting a uniform sales tax administration and uniform rates of sales tax, blatant examples of overbearingness on the Centre’s part. This has been followed by a decision concerning a specific recommendation of the 10th finance commission. This commission had assigned to the states 29 per cent of the gross collections from income tax and corporation tax. New Delhi had dillydallied in the matter for nearly three years. A communique has now been issued claiming the Centre’s acceptance of the commission’s recommendation.

What has actually been proposed is however an instance of pure hokum. Instead of agreeing to the devolution of 29 per cent of the gross collections from the two direct tax heads, New Delhi has chosen to allocate to the states 29 per cent of only the net realization from these taxes. The difference between gross and net collections amounts to several thousand crores: the sum the Centre intends to shortchange the states each year.

Should not reference be made to yet another issue here? Guided by Article 270 of the Constitution, the president constitutes a finance commission at the end of every five years. Given the claustrophobic constraint of Article 74, here too the president has to abide by the advice of the Union council of ministers. Representations have been made from several quarters in the past that the Centre should take the advice of the state governments into account while constituting the finance commission.

The commission, it has been maintained, plays the role of an arbiter while allocating the proceeds of income and corporation taxation between the Centre and the states; an arbiter ought to be equidistant from the parties to the arbitration; it is therefore only appropriate that the views of the states too be sought at the time the commission’s composition is decided upon. Such representations have been treated with disdain by the Centre; finance commissions have invariably consisted of pliable members invariably toeing the Centre’s line.

A finance commission obligated to the Centre had yet recommended the allocation of 29 per cent of gross proceeds from income and corporate taxation to the states. That recommendation has been further slashed down by the Centre to 29 per cent of net proceeds.

Unless this decision is reversed, the consequence will be a further squeeze on resources available with the states, leading to a further weakening of their development efforts. Here are the rudiments of a continuing story. Union ministers and editorial writers in newspapers fail to analyse the reasons for the failure of the state governments to complete — on many occasions, even start — new development projects. They attribute the failure to the alleged profligacy and incompetence on the part of the state governments. The actual reason may be altogether different, such as deliberate withholding of funds by the Centre that should legitimately flow down to the states. The denial of funds to the states leads to a cutback in outlays on schemes initiated or envisioned by state, district, and village level planning administrations. The inability of the states to implement development programmes according to priorities that have received the imprimatur of approval from the community at large adversely affects the integrity and stability of the system itself. The Centre fails to hold, because the Centre is unable to comprehend the crucial significance of devolution.

A final point. Ever since Keshavanand Bharati, the consensus in the nation has been along the lines that howsoever crucial the issue involved, no change in the basic features of the Constitution is to be permitted. If that be so, is there any legitimacy at all in the Centre’s decision to abolish additional excise duty on sugar, textiles and tobacco and tobacco products and merge this duty with the basic excise duty in substitution of sales tax which, according to the Constitution, the states were entitled to levy on these commodities?

In the name of increasing the efficiency of tax collection, the Centre passed legislation some 30 years ago precluding the states from collecting sales tax for these three items; as nominal compensation, they were allowed to receive the proceeds from additional excise duty imposed on these commodities. Now, this concept of additional excise duty is going to be abolished. By whose authority, one might still ask? If the Constitution says that the states are entitled to levy taxes on the sale of sugar, textiles and tobacco and tobacco products, can a parliamentary resolution take away this entitlement from them?

Could not a move of this nature be tantamount to an alteration of the basic structure of the Constitution? Will any of the state governments, if not a non-governmental organization, care to file a public interest case with the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the Central legislation? Or is it that all passion is spent ? Or the proposals in the Union budget presented this week have thrown the mind so out of gear that issues of substance can no longer be distinguished from those of triviality?    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

They all need sixth sense

Sir — Manoj Night Shyamalan has bagged six nominations for the Academy awards. This creates a sense of deja vu, for it was only last year that Shekhar Kapur had nearly as many nominations for his directorial venture, Elizabeth. And yet, it ended up with a solitary award for best costumes, little more than a consolation prize. Will Shyamalan meet with the same fate? That too, when the film has won the race already at the box office and topped the charts everywhere? His victory, in case there is one, will make Indians proud not only because he was born in India but also because the film resonates with a powerful Indian sensibility. As his producer, Frank Marshall, points out: “Shyamalan’s insight into human behaviour and imagination is awe inspiring.” But if the expected does not happen on the great night and The Sixth Sense is sidelined because it doesn’t promote any obvious cause, then the loss would not be Shyamalan’s, but purely Hollywood’s. It would merely show up the West’s inability to recognize the birth of a new talent.

Yours faithfully,
Tapankumar Mohanta, Baripada

Money plant

Sir — In today’s Central budget, the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, must reflect on the aspirations and demands of the poorer sections. Since the National Democratic Alliance came to power, economic policies formulated and implemented have benefitted only the capitalists, landlords and the upper middle class, while completely ignoring the rest of the population. Pro-rich economic policies have been pursued in the name of economic liberalization.

Therefore it is important that the budget for the financial year 2000-2001 be tailored in a way that the interests of the “have nots” are preserved. At least 25 per cent of the budget must be earmarked for the welfare of the poor, for providing them with subsidized food, clothing , shelter and education. Money must be allotted to set up small scale industries, for these labour intensive industries can help generate employment among large sections of our society. This will also increase the purchasing power of the people, thereby creating a demand for consumer goods which will propel economic growth more than the wholesale liberalization of the economy.

Yours faithfully,
Sanmay Ganguly, Calcutta

Sir — With the Central budget approaching, the fear of price hikes has gradually set in. During the last few years, the annual income of most Indians has remained unchanged while there has been a significant rise in prices of foodgrains, consumer goods and necessary services like railways and telephones. The finance must keep this alarming fact in mind while formulating the nation’s budget.

Yours faithfully,
Rakesh Bajoria, Calcutta

Sir — This year’s budget has to collect maximum revenue with adequate incentives given to saving. The exemption limit for income tax payers should be raised to Rs 60,000 per annum, the rebate granted under section 80L to Rs 20,000, and those under section 88 to Rs 80,000. On the other hand, duties on tobacco products, particularly brands of cigarettes, should be raised drastically.

Yours faithfully,
A.C. Chakraborty, Calcutta

Sir — It has become customary for so called progressive thinkers to support liberalization and globalization and frown upon any form of government control. But they are ignoring the experience of the east Asian countries. Korea and Japan have achieved rapid economic growth with relatively underdeveloped or repressed financial systems. A 1993 World Bank study on the comparative experience of these countries found that a mild financial repression may have been a major contributing factor behind the success stories.

For instance, Korea conducted credit programmes which allowed Korean exporters to obtain funds at low rates of interest, which may have helped in the country’s manufacture-export drive. Also, keeping the interest rates on bank loans lower than the market rates helped several countries of the region by creating an excess demand for credit. This in turn gave governments strong grounds to influence the behaviour of the firms.

Although the last months have seen a revival of the Indian economy, the fact that imports have been freed completely may backfire. It will reduce the balance of payments and domestic industries will be in the doldrums. It is useless to say that the indigenous car industry will benefit from competition, be forced to reduce cost and improve quality because the market is fast saturating. India may be reduced to a country of car retailers. The same is applicable to other consumer goods, like refrigerators and television.

Yashwant Sinha must handle these issues with care when he presents his budget today.

Yours faithfully,
Rajeev Bagra, North 24 Parganas

Wrong turn

Sir — Mita Mukherjee’s article, “Culture at the crossroads” (Jan 19) is based on misinformation. The land was not given on a 999 year lease to the Academy of Fine Arts, nor was the building ever mortgaged to Martin Burn.

Moreover, the academy’s officials or trustees have not said anything against the ruling communist government or hinted at their attempt to “take over the Academy”. This is a fabrication.

“Looking behind the scene” for the reasons of the students’ unrest at the academy, Mukherjee has overlooked the fact that the students are either misinformed or just misguided. The decision to continue or discontinue the visual art course does not depend on the academy alone.

Even with the best of intentions, the academy is finding it difficult to run a three year diploma course. On the one hand, it does not meet some of the criteria of affiliation. On the other, a letter issued by the West Bengal Council of Technical Education on August 17, 1999, instructed that all such three year courses, if unaffiliated, must close down — because of a Supreme Court order. The state government too has no provisions for a three year diploma course. What it has is a one year certificate course or a rapid course in vocational training for six months. Correspondence with the concerned government department is going on to see how the course can be made viable. But to date nothing has transpired. No inspection of the academy infrastructure has yet been done or any offer by the government made. So the question of rejection does not arise.

It is also far from the truth to say that the academy is being used for commercial purposes. The charges for the galleries are much less than the others. The charges of the auditorium are so reasonable that group theatres can still afford it.

It may come as a shock to many that an institution which for the last 66 years has become synonymous with Calcutta’s culture is now endangered by a severe funds crunch. The agitation by the students is in no way helping the situation. Unfortunately, at this critical juncture Mukherjee’s article has only furthered slogan shouting and postering.

Yours faithfully,
Pradipta Kanungo, executive committee member, Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta

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