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Bid to correct ‘pro-rich tilt’

New Delhi, Aug. 1: The Narendra Modi government’s refusal to sign the WTO trade facilitation agreement is not a sudden afterthought, BJP sources insisted, adding that it was aimed at “correcting a perception” that the BJP “pandered to the rich”.

A clear signal that the BJP was opposed to the pact had come in a blog by Arun Jaitley as Rajya Sabha Opposition leader in December 2013, after the Bali ministerial conference on trade where India was represented by UPA commerce minister Anand Sharma.

Jaitley, now finance and defence minister, had contended that Sharma and the other negotiators had “compromised” the underpinnings of the food security programme by signing a “peace clause” that could challenge and impact state nutritional support to the poor even as they granted the developed countries their wish list of better trade in developing nations.

“This wrong has to be set right by us. We have been elected to foster social and economic inclusion and not to pander to the self-perpetuating interests of a small cabal of the elite,” a BJP source said. He added that till the WTO focused on the “critical” issue of India’s rights for its farmers and the poor, New Delhi would not budge from its stated position.

Modi government sources said they were keen to “correct” the perception that, in contrast to the “pro-poor” Congress and the UPA, the BJP was keen to address the more affluent sections.

“The loud backing from the corporate sector and business in the run-up to the 2014 elections reinforced the image of the BJP being a party more interested in pandering to the rich and the powerful. This is rubbish. We could not have won our mandate unless the poor and the aspiring middle class voted for us. We have to keep this majority class in mind while crafting our policies and strategies,” the source added.

Jaitley’s blog — ferreted out by the BJP now principally to answer such criticisms — is being cited to argue that the government’s position in the latest WTO talks ought not to have surprised anybody.

The blog — titled The Bali Ministerial: Has India really Gained? — had slammed India’s negotiators for recanting on its stand on the food security programme.

“After this (Bali) agreement, our food security programme has become more vulnerable to interference by the WTO member-countries. There would be greater international scrutiny because of the strict compliance norms stipulated by the WTO. There would be external pressures to adjust and size the public food stockholdings in India,” Jaitley wrote.

He had cited two clauses of the agreement to shore up his charge. According to Jaitley, the clauses “prima facie” were “very mischievous and loaded against India”.

“It has the potential to expose India’s food security programme to a host of challenges. It may extend to issues such as who should be regarded as poor in India, what should be the nutritional support that should be extended to such poor people, what should be the quantum of subsidy that should be given and many other related issues,” he wrote.

Jaitley’s conclusion was that while the West “gained better market access without conceding on its subsidy programme (for its farmers)”, India, by agreeing to the peace clause, forfeited its right to negotiate for a total and permanent exemption from any challenge to its food security programme under the WTO’s agreement on agriculture.