The excitement, always somewhat ersatz, over the Union budget proposals is nearly abated. The budget in any case is a bit of a hoax, an exercise in public relations on the part of the government. It draws attention to what the regime considers it worthwhile to draw attention to. The new government’s supposed anxiety to derive appropriate lessons from the poll outcome and concentrate on fostering rural welfare was made the keynote of this year’s exercise. The media have responded in the Pavlovian mode: they have gone overboard to record the breathtaking rural transformation which the budget is seemingly determined to usher in.
In this raucous milieu, one runs the risk of being considered a pariah by mentioning, with or without temerity, such facts as that while the allocation for the ministry of agriculture was Rs 3,170 crore according to the revised estimates for 2003-04, the allocation suggested for 2004-05 is Rs 4,192 crore, an increase of merely around Rs 1,000 crore; or that the position is much worse with regard to the ministry of rural development, in whose case the revised allocation of Rs 19,200 crore in 2003-04 has actually been slashed to Rs 1,600 crore in the current year’s budget. Equally revealing is the comparison between the Central plan outlays in the two years: these were Rs 12,238 crore and Rs 3,671 crore respectively for rural development and agriculture in 2003-04; and are down to Rs 9,239 crore and Rs 2,643 crore respectively in 2004-05.
Given the surcharged atmosphere, ground reality has to stand aside and offer homage to vacuous hoopla. The media have little time to comment on the nearly 30 per cent jump in the allocation for the ministry of defence, from around Rs 60,000 crore last year to roughly Rs 77,000 crore this year, and the defence minister has already hinted at a further upward revision in the latter figure.
Unalterable India, unalterable the reign of the establishment in New Delhi. The colour of the government changes; the defence lobby though goes on forever. And rest assured, in the parliamentary debates, members of parliament will make themselves hoarse praising or condemning this or that teeny-weeny bit of allocation for the rural sector and split hairs over the merit or demerit of a couple of crore of rupees marginally allocated for, say, mid-day meal schemes. The defence budget, however, for all one knows, will be guillotined and passed within a space of ten seconds. Even if it is not guillotined, an aura of hush-hush will descend on Sansad Bhavan: the issue of defence is sacrosanct, the very security of the nation is involved, therefore tread softly, do not raise your voice, and, please, do not stray into posting patently unpatriotic questions about this or that item of expenditure.
Any query which challenges, even remotely and indirectly, a proposed outlay with a high-import content will be dubbed a sensitive matter; members will be privately advised to be demure. They can only watch from the sidelines even as actual allocations for the two ministries that are crucially relevant for amelioration of rural poverty, those of the ministry of agriculture and the ministry of rural development, get reduced in the net over the year, while the allocation for the ministry of defence is raised heftily. The allocation for defence is almost four times the amount set aside for the two agriculture-related ministries.
The story does not quite end here. Budgetary funds being placed with the ministry of home affairs include large chunks of money for purposes of security operations. This is really a second front for defence outlay. There are a number of other secret niches which conceal funds allotted for purchase of weaponry and espionage operations. On a conservative estimate, the total funds currently doled out under several heads to the military and security establishments will easily amount to a neat Rs100,000, or even more, each year.
It is in this context that one is impelled to refer to the daunting, unfinished agenda of Kashmir. The valley remains unquiet despite the temporary détente worked out with Pakistan and despite the fact, tacitly acknowledged by New Delhi too, that across-the-border infiltration of men and arms has declined considerably in recent months. In fact, such infiltration can be said to be almost a matter of the past, at least for the present. That has not however led to any cessation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Unhappy incidents continue. Fiercely committed militants, whom many across the globe will regard as devout local patriots, persist with their activities; several amongst them embracing what, whether we like it or not, most Kashmiris hail as a martyr’s death.
The recent Lok Sabha polls have been a sobre eye-opener. A change in the complexion of the government at the state level 18 months ago has not restored the faith of a majority of Kashmiris in the Indian polity; votes cast in the parliamentary elections this year have been barely 35 per cent of the total electorate as against 43 per cent in the last assembly election. In constituencies such as Srinagar and Anantnag, the proportion of votes polled has actually been as low as 20 per cent or less.
Clearly, whatever the nature of reverie indulged in in New Delhi, the problem of Kashmir will not go away. Should an honourable peace in the valley be the key objective, army occupation, indefinitely extended, will be of no avail; additional appropriations for augmenting defence and security measures are also unlikely to strike any extra terror in the hearts of the insurgents.
To ruminate over how the great divide has come about is neither here nor there. A meaningful first step for bringing peace to the valley is recognition, with some humility, of the reality of Kashmir being an alienated persona. The need, no question, is to start on a clean slate. The United Progressive Alliance government, the prime minister has gone on record, will be open to having free-ranging discussions with Pakistan on all issues, including Kashmir. Is there then any need, within the domestic contour, to stand on ceremony and keep postponing direct parleys with the so-called extremists in the Hurriyat Conference'
The Centre can here easily take a leaf from out of the Andhra Pradesh government’s gesture towards the People’s War: pre-conditions have been shed on either side, accompanied by the declaration of a ceasefire. Kashmir is of as much grave import to New Delhi as the Naxalite rebellion is to Hyderabad. And if Hyderabad can afford to take certain risks, why cannot New Delhi' If emotions are past, and inhibitions a roadblock, they deserve to be at least suspended for the present.
True, there is a further problem beyond run-of-the-mill sentiments and prejudices. The jacked-up budgetary allocation for purposes of defence and security packs into itself a grisly datum. Some determined groups are around who would like to log on to Kashmir for eternity; the persistence of the imbroglio in the valley amounts to prolonging the discord with Pakistan and thereby encouraging rising defence expenditure. Foreign merchants and their local agents will not willingly give up Kashmir, one of their major lifelines over the past five decades. It is not for nothing that scandals such as those of Bofors and coffins keep recurring.
May not an appeal be made, and with some ardour, to the country’s left' Kashmir is an issue which should occupy the top of their agenda. Between the end of World War II and the Gorbachev-Yeltsin joint act of skulduggery that drew the curtains on the Soviet system, the left was in the forefront of the battle for global peace. Kashmir provides them an opportunity to re-explore the source of the idealism. To speak up on behalf of the valley and its people is no betrayal of patriotism either: a lowering of defence spending and the transfer of resources thus saved to worthwhile directions such as health, education and rural development could be a significant blow for accelerated economic development cherished by every patriotic Indian.