The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- What the UPA must do when the left snarls or bares it fangs

When the United Progressive Alliance and the left put together their common minimum programme, there must have been lengthy discussions among the constituents of the UPA and the left about the limits to which the government could go on various issues ' what it could do with regard to, say, disinvestments and privatization, and what it could not, or what it could do with regard to poverty alleviation programmes or with regard to further steps in liberalizing the economy.

The definitions of these limits would have been argued over again when the national advisory council was set up, when the left set up its own advisory council to 'supervise' the working of the government. None of the parties, or groups, has been very articulate as to what these limits are, obviously to give themselves political space. The UPA has bravely given public assurances that there are no differences between them and the left, except on some minor matters; that the support the UPA gets is constructive, even though it may be critical. The left has used less casuistry; it has said, through its spokesman, Sitaram Yechury, that it is a 'watchdog' which will bark when it thinks necessary, and, when it thinks necessary, may even bite, and if the watchdog bites 'it can bite really hard'. Doubtless, in between there will be everything else a watchdog does ' it may snarl, growl or bare its fangs.

What all this translates into is that the UPA has taken a rather conciliatory attitude, while the left is more rigid and dogmatic about what it feels government policy and decisions should be. We have seen this in what's happened in the last year. We have seen how the consultants appointed by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission were virtually driven out by the left; we have seen how the initial reduction in the interest being paid on employees' provident fund was reduced, so that the element of subsidy would go, relieving some of the pressure on the government's finances, and then raised again on the insistence of the left. Above all, we have seen the pugmarks of the watchdog all over the budget.

The odd thing is, of course, that the Left Front government in West Bengal is much more flexible and practical on all these matters than the left as an ideological group is at the Centre. Some of the same consultants, who were seen as creatures of capitalism, advise the government in that state; foreign capital is welcomed, industrialists invited to set up units in the state for which tempting concessions are offered.

Why is there this Jekyll and Hyde act by our socialist friends and comrades' They have their reasons for it, obviously, but that need not detain us here. The point of this essay is not the seemingly incomprehensible behaviour of the left, but the manner in which governance is to be carried on in the Centre. If we leave aside the unprecedented rise in the Sensex, and the huge amount of foreign exchange reserves (though that actually started before the UPA government came to power), what is there really to celebrate in the last one year' I agree it's too short a time, and that there are many proposals that will take time to become reality, such as the gas pipeline, or the new initiatives taken by Mani Shankar Aiyar to get the ONGC to acquire rights in prospective oil and gas fields all over the world. The minister of civil aviation has also got some very heartening plans, and has begun the process of opening up civil aviation to private enterprise. All these are welcome developments.

Unfortunately, the image of the government is that of a person trying to draw a plan, but being repeatedly pushed from behind by someone so that the plan does not get drawn up or is drawn up in a manner that is totally unsatisfactory. This is not a situation that can be tolerated for too long.Yes, the left can bring the government down. But it will do so only if it is left with no alternative, if the UPA pushes it to do that by adopting policies and taking decisions that the left simply cannot be seen to support. But then, will the UPA go on being harried by the watchdog, adopt watered down, weak policies whose primary aim is to appease the left'

It is necessary for the leaders in both the UPA and the left to seriously think about the consequences of this. They must try to look ahead for the next four years and see if this kind of functioning is going to mean the effective, dynamic governance that it promised. Politics does mean compromise, but that compromise needs some definition. It cannot mean appeasement, and it cannot mean taking outside support for granted. The ground rules have to be laid, and laid with frankness and after plain-speaking on both sides. The UPA must be prepared with their formula, and be prepared to resign if they are asked to jettison it completely or in its essentials. The left must persuade the UPA to see how far it can go and how far it cannot, and at what point it will withdraw support, whatever the consequences.

This kind of carefully worked out, agreed formula was conspicuous by its absence in earlier governments where a whole lot of parties and combines got together to form a government, like the one formed by the Janata Dal. But the National Democratic Alliance did manage to work out a formula; they, too, had a formidable party giving them outside support, the Telugu Desam Party, but they found the middle path on most matters and provided the country with a stable government for five years.

The nature of the government, the evils of saffronization, for example, is not the issue. What is needed is a realistic, firm compromise on policies and action that must keep as its first priority good governance in all its aspects. That means programmes to provide health, education and employment in rural areas, it means improving the infrastructure to facilitate the growth of private enterprise, it means an unequivocal decision to get the government out of areas where it has no business to be, like making cakes and bread, running airlines, television and radio, hotels and so on.

It's not a question of enterprises that are running at a loss or at a profit; it is a question of whether the government should be in that business at all. There is an ideological conflict here, admittedly, but that must be resolved. The nature of our polity ' which, whatever it is, is not totalitarian ' means there must be compromise. Certainly we should have trade unions, but not unions that are giant mafia outfits where dissenters disappear or are publicly 'punished' as examples to other members. They exist only in two states, true. But there are other kinds of mafia outfits in other states also controlled by politicians. In Bihar, for example. They cannot be allowed to hold the population in thrall, taking shelter behind the rhetoric of freedom and democracy and being elected representatives of the people. This is the kind of compromise that both must strive to agree on, and implement. If they can, this government can do a great deal. If they cannot ' well, we've had wobbly coalitions before and we know what happened to them. Except that it'll be ordinary people, for whom everyone professes such concern, who will pay the price.

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