| The orbit of reality
The poll results from Bihar and Jharkhand declared last Sunday are certainly of greater national significance than the contents of the annual budget placed before parliament by the finance minister the day after. In any case, with round-the-year announcements of economic measures favouring the rich and the foreigners, the ritual of the budget day is getting increasingly irrelevant. Between May last year and now, the United Progressive Alliance regime has initiated steps which promise to alter the face of the economy to a much more drastic extent than the changes effected in the preceding 13 years of liberalization. This republic has always existed only for the rich. The present finance minister has, however, added a new note to the proceedings; putting in the shade the performance of his predecessors, he has succeeded in giving to the national economy an explicitly compradoresque shape.
The philosophy underlying this policy of serving the cause of predatory foreigners is not to be under- estimated. Foreigners and their domestic cronies, it says, should be pampered all the way, the vastly increased opportunities thereby made available to the foreign fat guys will have a trickling-down effect from which the majority of the Indian community too are bound to gain. And if perchance, they fail to gain, as has happened in most countries where such pro-rich, pro-foreigner prescriptions were applied, the advice will be to look the other way.
The minor gestures in the budget towards the direction of the common minimum programme are merely for the sake of manners. The rural employment guarantee scheme will be confined to only 107 districts and the increase in financial allocation over the year, if account is taken of the inflation factor, is pure fiction. There is apparently a 50 per cent increase in the education budget, but most of the proposed extra outlay is related to information technology and allied telecommunications courses. The overall allocation for agriculture, irrigation, rural infrastructure, and so on remains unchanged. The ersatz concern for new employment opportunities in the countryside goes ill with the proposal to de-list as many as 108 items from the small-scale sector.
The finance minister has repeated his threat to take a hard look at the subsidies on food and fertilizers. Defying the wishes of the left, company tax rates have been further lowered. The intention to encourage foreign investment in mining and trade has not been discarded; on the contrary, the middle and poorer classes have been served notice: their right of survival will be further circumscribed in these areas. If the finance minister has his way, both retail and wholesale trade may be taken over by giant enterprises from the United States of America and elsewhere; they will be magnificently labour-saving. The mines may be thoroughly mechanized by select foreign groups, again leading to a squeeze on employment. All this apart, the decision, proclaimed a couple of weeks ahead of the budget presentation, to raise the ceiling on foreign investment in telecommunications to 75 per cent typifies the official obsession to hand over the sensitive sectors of the economy to external elements. Aiming a clean uppercut at the left, the budget talks of allowing foreign parties to come in and take control of the nationalized banks, too.
Even the most optimistic-minded amongst the left should now be able to appreciate the meaning of meaning: as far as economic issue are concerned, despite the CMP, this government does not have the least desire to deviate from the line chalked out by the Washington Consensus in that cataclysmic July dawn of 1991. Come what may, the level of foreign equity in civil aviation, telecommunications and banking will be raised. The guaranteed rural employment scheme will be diluted, and the bulk of its financial burden transferred to the state government. Direct taxes on the rich will be lowered and not raised.
The finance minister will have as his first priority the welfare of stock exchanges and that of the minions of international finance capital; even provident fund accumulations will be up for grabs of speculators. The capital gains tax will not be re-introduced, nor will there be any clamping of controls on current-account activities. The latest gesture of solidarity with foreign carpet-baggers ' one hundred per cent FDI in construction ' is going to be a luscious gift beyond imagination: unfettered construction involves unfettered control over real estate; large chunks of the geographical expanse known as India will begin to belong to foreigners; moreover, speculation in real estate is about as good as share market frolics.
The left will routinely post vocal protest; but so what' For they have made the commitment, not once but on dozens of occasions, that, whatever the circumstances, they will not vote out the government, for otherwise secularism will be in peril. Buoyed by this undertaking in advance, the government led by the Congress is not the least bothered whether the left is happy or not with the regime's economic programmes. The left are welcome to shout their disagreement, but harsh words break no bones.
The Congress's calculations obviously go further. There is actually no apprehension of the government's falling even if the left were to vote against it on this or that economic issue. Since on such matters the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party think alike. Should the left threaten to vote against the government, the BJP could conceivably come to its rescue. In fact, a mutual arrangement of aid-in-distress has been operational between the Congress and the BJP since the early days of liberalization. The BJP MPs lent support to the P.V. Narasimha Rao government to ensure a substantial reduction in government equity in the State Bank of India and other nationalized banks. Similarly, in the late Nineties, the BJP government could pass legislation enabling the introduction of the World Trade Organization's TRIPS regime with solid support from Congress MPs. The determination of the UPA ministry not to drop the Patents Act amendment ordinance nor to review the 2003 Electricity Act must be based on assurance of similar reciprocal support from the BJP.
Should not the Bihar and Jharkhand polls nudge the left into entering, howsoever reluctantly, the orbit of hard reality' They may be desperately anxious to nurture secularism and prevent the return to power of the BJP. The Congress clearly is not. Its thirst for ego-trips is unending. Regional parties are not its cup of tea, because they stand in the way of the return of its political hegemony in northern India. It would rather give a bloody nose to Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and apply the same medicine to Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar. It does not matter to the Congress leadership if, in the process, the BJP returns to power in Jharkhand and displaces the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.
The left may want the UPA regime to continue for the sake of the nation's anti-sectarian credentials. The Congress is, however, not particularly interested in this secularism business. Its major concern is the return of its feudal terrain. It would not mind conceding an advantage to the BJP if that causes inconvenience to secular regional parties or, for that matter, to the left where the latter are powerful.
We are back to the biblical lament. How shall the earth be salted if the salt itself has lost its savour' Besides, the Congress was never really the salt of the earth. Many of its stalwarts have considered the BJP as an anger chamber and used it for temporary migration; the compliments have been returned. It would do the left no harm if they occasionally reminded themselves that the progeny of such towering Congress personalities as Govind Ballabh Pant and Lal Bahadur Shastri are now with the BJP; a great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru himself keeps them company. In such circumstances, and given the on-going mayhem with the government's economic programme, what should the left do' Organize another morcha at the Jantar Mantar ' and write some more fiery articles in party journals'