The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Behind negative mask lies Left’s positive face

New Delhi, May 26: The Left will not sign the common minimum programme but will “endorse” it. The Left will not join the government but will be part of the steering committee — or whatever the ruling alliance’s co-ordination mechanism is called.

As it walks the thin line between being a part of the ruling combine and being in the Opposition, the one fact that is coming out loud and clear at this point of time is that it will do nothing to destabilise the government.

It also has differences with the Congress on the common minimum programme (CMP) but, unlike in the immediate aftermath of election results when various leaders went public with views on economic policy, the Left is talking with caution. The effort is not to highlight the differences but the much larger area of concurrence.

“We have certain areas of reservation about the CMP. We are not part of the United Progressive Alliance. It is led by the Congress. We will not be signatories to the CMP but we will endorse it,” senior politburo member Prakash Karat said.

Karat, known to hold somewhat conservative views about relations with the Congress, made it clear that the CMP is not a “maximum” but a “minimum” programme. The statement would imply flexibility on either side. While it suggests that the Congress can go beyond the programme, by the same token the Left would appear to be reserving its right to accept or oppose once that happens.

It chose to stay out of government because of conflict of interest with the Congress in Bengal and Kerala. In economic policy, it seems to be leaving a grey area where it is not ready to pronounce any radical judgement yet.

Quite the contrary, really. Karat was confident the final programme document — put together with amendments suggested by the Left — would be acceptable to his party. “We have studied the Congress draft and have found it acceptable. It can however be improved with further discussions,” he said.

This positive attitude is also reflected in the way the Left is dealing with the more radical trade unions. It declined to accept the unions’ demand to stall sale of shares — as distinct from outright sale of a company — in public sector units and government-owned banks.

In a note sent to the Congress today, the Left said: “There should be a clear commitment not to privatise profitable PSUs and those in the core sector. The reference to public-private partnership in infrastructure need not be there.”

It clearly makes a distinction between privatisation, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too has opposed in profit-making public units, and divestment, which the Congress wants.

Finance minister P. Chidambaram is also playing down the differences. “I have spoken to the Left. What they want is to go forward but take along the sections of the people who have been neglected... No one wants a rollback (of reforms),” he said on TV.

The Left has saved the Congress acute financial embarrassment by not insisting on a new pay commission for government employees, though it is due and the unions want it. The reason is not that a round of salary revision would leave the Centre alone bankrupt.

State finances, in most cases, are in a shambles and not the least because of the previous pay commission during the United Front government’s time, when too Chidambaram was the finance minister. Left-ruled states Bengal and Kerala are no different.

It is not happy with the Congress offer, though, of setting up another commission on Centre-state relations to sort out the severe financial problems of states. The Left wants direct loan write-offs and a higher share of Central taxes.

The stock exchanges that had gone into unprecedented convulsions will be happy to learn the Left is not opposing a further opening up of the capital market. It has only asked the Congress to delete from the programme document the expression “encouraging foreign institutional investors”.

The Left objects to privatisation of power utilities because it believes the experiment has failed but does not think the Congress will accept this argument in full.

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