Not the time for cheap thrills
Letters to the editor


Left foot forward

Perhaps the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal has decided it is now grown up. The announcement of the state secretary, Mr Anil Biswas, that the chief minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, will not contest the assembly elections in 2001 indicates the party’s decision to step out into the fray without Mr Basu’s charismatic presence. It must be noticed that the party has built up to this announcement carefully. Mr Basu himself had made clear last year that he wished to retire because of his age and ill health, but his insistence merely evoked the party high command’s request that he continue for some more time. Soon after, the West Bengal home (police) minister, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, was made deputy chief minister, the anointing accompanied by vague noises of the mantle descending in future. So the build-up was there. What was a little startling about the announcement was its timing, and, in spite of its expectedness, the fact that it was made to a television channel by the state party secretary. It could well be a way of asserting the supremacy of the party’s will. However senior a politician and leader, Mr Basu could not even be thought to have made the decision. This is bound to strike the ordinary urban voter as ironic, because it is Mr Basu’s personality that has been perceived as having welded the Left Front together for more than two decades.

The CPI(M) in West Bengal offers a peculiar set of contradictions. The iron grid of party organization and its cadre base lie at the basis of its early achievements in the state. But Mr Basu has been its public, popular face: the Bengali gentleman and communist, the draw for a large section of the urban vote and, more important, the unseen figure in the background for the rural voter. His presence can spill out New Delhiwards in rumoured possibilities of prime ministership, an achievement no left politician can match.

That Mr Basu’s personality has overflowed the limits of the party’s identity while reinforcing and strengthening the party’s image on the national plane is simply because he is an acceptable leader. It would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of this even in West Bengal, because the Left Front is not quite as harmonious a group as it would like to appear. The recent lather over the Communist Party of India wanting to leave the front was a dramatic manifestation of the kind of tensions which keep simmering among the different constituents. Disagreements with the Forward Bloc have often made news, and violence among workers of different left parties has even led to deaths in certain districts. Mr Basu’s contribution in keeping the front together is most valuable now. The CPI(M)’s unqualified majority — by virtue of which it could do without its other partners in the front — could now come under attack. The popularity of Ms Mamata Banerjee and dissension within the CPI(M) itself are damaging to the party’s popular base. In this context, Mr Basu would be perceived by the uncommitted electorate as a symbol of unity, a face to address and use as reference point.

This is not quite the appeal of Mr Bhattacharya, and the CPI(M) would have to reckon with that fact as with the contending, alternative presence of Ms Banerjee. The timing of the announcement, a couple of months before the state civic elections, suggests that the party is working towards a fresh popular identity. The civic polls constitute a dress rehearsal. There was a time when Mr Basu’s stature could have brought to the left in India a larger role than could be expected at this historical juncture. But, for that, the CPI(M) would have had to transcend its doctrinaire rigidity — often a facade for plain blue funk or narrow power equations — and think in different ways. It remains to be seen in which direction the CPI(M) will go once it has tried out its paces without Mr Basu as a bait for the electorate.    

One of the more interesting programmes on television is The Big Fight, aired on the Star news channel. It brings together people representing vastly different points of view, who try to score debating points on topical issues. By and large, the participants are very accomplished speakers, and they contribute to some rather interesting and lively debates. Some of them indeed turn out to be big fights.

This being the budget season, economic issues in general and Yashwant Sinha’s budget in particular have featured on the programme several times in recent weeks. One of these programmes focussed on second generation reforms and the National Democratic Alliance government’s recent policy pronouncements. The speakers represented different political parties.

The representative from the Congress was a wellknown freelance journalist who has been a consistent advocate of reforms. Even during the programme, he argued convincingly for hastening the reform process. In fact, his statements were glaringly different from the recent posture of the Congress itself, which has suddenly rediscovered its socialist roots. This was obviously too good an opportunity to pass up. The moderator asked him to explain why the Congress had suddenly become so critical of the current party’s reforms initiatives, especially when some of these were logical corollaries of policy changes brought about by the last Congress government itself.

“Well, it is the right of opposition parties to oppose,” was the reply. While being refreshingly candid (perhaps because the speaker was not yet a professional politician), the answer also reeked of blatant opportunism. There was no attempt to justify the Congress’s role in stalling the reform process in terms of methodological arguments or economic logic. “The voter is king” was the obvious philosophy being touted.

All this came back to me as I looked at the recent headlines blaring out the campaign of the Congress as well as the regional allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party to reverse the finance minister’s decision to raise the price of urea as well as the issue prices of foodgrains sold through the public distribution system. There is little doubt that this campaign is motivated solely by the desire to garner political support, because the facts speak out loud and clear.

Year after year, successive central governments have failed to satisfy budgetary targets insofar as the fiscal deficit is concerned — even when the budgeted figure itself has been on the wrong side of prudence. Virtually everyone agrees that the burgeoning fiscal deficit is probably the most important economic problem confronting the government. Most economists will also agree that the only way in which the government can control the deficit is by curbing expenditure — there is also an obvious need to raise government tax revenue, but that is not going to succeed in the short run.

How can the government control expenditure? Interest payments, defence, and subsidies account for the bulk of the government’s non-development expenditure. There is very little the government can do as far as the first two items are concerned. Pakistan (or is it the fallout from Pokhran?) and Kargil have ensured that defence expenditure will only climb up in the next couple of years, while interest payments represent payments for the sins of previous governments.

Clearly, the only option open to the government is to launch a bold frontal attack on subsidies. Unfortunately, every attempt to raise prices of subsidized commodities or services seems to fail. We import the bulk of our needs of petroleum products.

Moreover, the Organization of the Petrol Exporting Countries cartel has succeeded in cutting back production, and raising prices to unprecedented levels. This has meant a substantial deficit on the oil pool account. Not surprisingly, there was much talk before the budget that prices of kerosene and liquid petroleum gas cylinders would be increased. But, one fine morning, newspapers proclaimed that N. Chandrababu Naidu had persuaded the prime minister to postpone the oil price hike because of municipal elections in Andhra Pradesh. Although the government has subsequently increased prices of some petroleum products, certain questions regarding the initial impulse remain to be examined.

I will not raise the obvious question of why it should be more important to ensure a win for an ally rather than to take decisions which are best for the country as a whole. Perhaps, what is more interesting is to ask why the voters in Andhra Pradesh are so easily won over by blatantly wrong and myopic decisions. And it is here that the philosophy of “it is the right of opposition parties to oppose” has done incalculable harm. Opposition parties of all hues have over the last decade consistently opposed the policies of the government of the day.

Neither the nature of the party nor the kind of policy has made the slightest difference. Thus, both the BJP and the other parties preached against the reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh. When the United Front came to power, they carried forward essentially the same policies which they had decried so vehemently while in the opposition. Now, it was the turn of the Congress to rail against these policies. The wheel was completed by the BJP when it came to power and tried to implement polices which were anathema to it only a few years ago.

Of course, all these actions of the government are always criticized on the ground that they are “anti-poor” or “anti-people”. This has been said so often that a gullible public has actually come to believe the propaganda. The merits of the case are seldom argued in detail.

Nothing substantiates this better than the case of the PDS, which has been an integral part of India’s safety net system for a long time. The PDS attempts to provide food security by providing rice, wheat, sugar and edible oil at subsidized prices to millions of consumers. Given the sheer size of its operation, there is no doubt that it has played an important role in promoting food security in the country. However, the PDS has come under severe scrutiny in recent years because of doubts whether the benefits are commensurate with the mounting costs of running the system — the PDS now costs over 0.5 per cent of the gross domestic product.

One of the more vociferous critics has been Kirit Parikh, who questions whether the PDS has had the desired distributional impact. Using household level survey data on consumption expenditure of the national sample survey, Parikh shows that in the state of Maharashtra, which is “more or less an average state as far as PDS is concerned”, nearly 50 per cent of the population does not get any subsidy at all. Since this is also true for the poorest 85 per cent of the population, the coverage of the PDS is more or less distributionally neutral. Moreover, the implicit subsidy is also very small, being less than four rupees per person for 30 days.

Clearly, there must be better ways of providing income support to the needy. For example, it may well be true that a system of distributing food stamps may be a more efficient mechanism for providing food security because this would reduce costs incurred on account of the inefficiencies of the Food Corporation of India. Similarly, rationing the quantity of fertilizers which can be bought at controlled prices can ensure some degree of progression since the average price paid by richer farmers would be higher. Unfortunately, the practice of opposition for the sake of opposition has never encouraged any serious discussion of these alternative safety nets.

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


Art of straitjacketed thinking

Sir — Herwig Steiner, artist and now Calcutta sceptic, should have been warned about a Bengali habit cultivated over the past two decades and promoted by the powers that be — thinking in a straitjacket (“Don’t hang the pictures, just lay them out”, March 22). Pictures at the Academy of Fine Arts cannot be put anywhere else but on the same wooden panel they have always been hung on and files in government departments cannot move any faster than the pace they have always been cleared at. And more than 22 years later, Bengalis cannot think of any other people in power than the dhoti clad ones that have been inhabiting the Writers’ Buildings. Should we blame it all on the poverty of imagination?

Yours faithfully,
Malini Sanyal,

Classic discord

Sir — After Khushwant Singh’s debunking of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, one has also to suffer his uninformed comments on the appreciation of Western classical music in India (“They also serve who only sit and listen”, March 13). It will probably be news to Singh that Nirad C. Chaudhuri was not an anglicized brown sahib when he got married more than 70 years ago, neither did he dream of settling down at Oxford. But the first parley this Bengali babu had with his newly wed wife was, “Have you heard of Beethoven?” Not in the least affluent at that time, Chaudhuri had already collected a respectable stock of 78 RPM discs of classical Western music.

I can think of several persons, including some illustrious ones, who were neither anglicized nor had been abroad, but were keen listeners and collectors of Western classical music. Bishnu De was one such. He had select pieces of symphonies and chamber music conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and Weingartner. Ray, long before his first visit to England, used to play for his friends on his old gramophone records from his own collection such as the Symphony No. 9 conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Nearly four decades ago, Yehudi Menuhin visited India and played Beethoven’s violin concerto at Calcutta’s New Empire theatre. Orchestral support was provided by the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra. Jawaharlal Nehru was present. Among those who listened raptly were some babus with their shirts tucked under their dhotis. I was surprised by their knowledge of Western music, and borrowed from some of them rare pieces of Gregorian chant.

Let me add, for the information of Singh, not all Western classical music is orchestral. .

Yours faithfully,
Manojendu Majumdar,

Sir —Khushwant Singh obviously has no reason to fear K.S. Sudarshan. Otherwise, in these days of “Mera sanskriti mahan”, he would not have been advising people to tune in to Western classical music to be able to clap better during live performances by sahibs from abroad. Singh might prefer Western classical music, but do Indians really need to “get hooked” to “enrich their lives”? As Singh himself admits, it is all a matter of “preferences”.

Yours faithfully,
S. Chandra,

Sir — The Indian sense of courtesy, punctuality, duty and discipline now seems part of a vanished culture. We don’t even have the aesthetic sense to appreciate these essentials of our culture. Witness the raunchiness of Hindi film songs and the standard of modern poetry. Classical Indian music has been overtaken by pop, rap and rock music. This can only end if we regain our sense of aesthetics.

Yours faithfully,
S. Jamal Ahmad,
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