The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Market, seductress & leveller

It took a lot of money to keep Gandhiji in poverty, it was said.

But it was important for Gandhi to live ' or to be seen to live ' in poverty. Draw a line from Gandhi and it will run through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Communist Party of India, with and without the (M).

The political being of India’s three major parties has an austere past. But, since 1991, the language of the Congress, the BJP and the CPM has been changing and changing in one direction.

Recently, Narendra Modi’s government decided to drop Gujarati and adopt English as the medium of instruction in science subjects and mathematics in schools.

Sounds familiar' Look no further than Marxist Bengal where Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee brought English language study back into primary schools from decades in exile.

Interests of opposing political forces are converging in more ways than they are diverging. The market is a great leveller, but the market is also a seductress.

The story of the last 15 years is a tale of seduction of the three parties. And the tale is the same in all three ' strong initial resistance followed by gradual collusion.

“The fact is that our reform policies have also won political acceptability. The Congress started it. But the BJP continued it and the CPM is doing it in Bengal,” said Jairam Ramesh, a member of the Congress think-tank.

He narrated how resistance within the Congress to reform had come from leaders who sought to give the impression that they were speaking in defence of Nehruvian socialism. Those leaders, like Arjun Singh, continue to be in the party but have conformed.

“They have not lost sight of the fact that we have progressed since we launched the reform policies,” Ramesh added.

Although the upheavals in the Congress in the initial years of reforms were far more serious, the BJP too had its moments of churning. Yashwant Sinha, who was finance minister for most of the BJP’s years in power, explained the struggle as between two definitions of swadeshi.

“In the narrowest sense, swadeshi was taken to mean everything we consumed should be produced in India. We interpreted swadeshi to mean India should be strong and able to defend its interests,” he said.

Perhaps, the most important comment he made was how the experience in power changed perceptions. Outside power, the BJP had opposed foreign entry in insurance. In power, it realised only two-three Indian companies had the money to run the insurance business.

“If we were to cast the net wide, foreign investment had to come in. So we went for 26 per cent and, thanks to that, we were able to create 70,000 jobs,” Sinha added.

Interests may be converging but the pace has been different for each party. Insurance is still a matter of contention for the CPM; the process of seduction is not complete.

“We oppose those reforms that are skewed and benefit only a minuscule section of people and marginalise the majority,” said MP Nilotpal Basu.

The CPM does not admit that when it opposes higher foreign investment in insurance it is only trying to protect organised labour, as it does when it resists banking or public sector reforms.

These are strictly middle-class interests, but the CPM denies such positions have anything to do with the class origin of its leaders. “The CPM is a working-class party,” Basu said.

The Congress initiated the reforms, the BJP understood their benefits in power. The CPM has not ruled in Delhi, but had reigned in Bengal for a quarter century. “The CPM and the Left Front in Bengal have supported reforms to the extent they have removed red tape and ended the licence raj,” Basu added.

At the recent party congress in Delhi, however, it appeared the CPM and the Left Front might be heading in different directions when a draft resolution on foreign capital faced a barrage of restrictive amendments that, if accepted, could hurt Bhattacharjee’s investment drive.

A party member present at the congress summed it up thus: “They (delegates who brought the amendments) don’t have to run a state.”

Keep your eye peeled on the direction this resolution takes.

The CPM has not yet run the course from garibi hatao to Congress ka haath garib ke saath to Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath.

Ramesh explained how Narasimha Rao made a “mistake” by distancing reforms from Nehruvian socialism by creating doubts in Congress supporters. “We have changed the language of the Congress. We have successfully projected the reforms as a continuation of the Nehruvian policies according to the requirements of changing times. That has vastly removed the comfort level of the Congress rank and file.”

After Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao slogan, Rajiv won over the middle class with his modernisation mantra, he said.

“The BJP tried to hijack the Rajiv agenda and our middle-class constituency after we lost power in 1996. We did not help ourselves when we returned to the Congress ka haath garib ke saath slogan.”

Another course correction followed to Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath. “It has worked. We have won back the middle class,” said Ramesh.

The BJP went too far in the other direction with India Shining and has to get the “packaging” (Ramesh’s word) right. But the language it speaks is the same as that of the Congress ' post-1991, the credo is not poverty alleviation but wealth creation.

“The greater the wealth that is created, the easier it is for the country to sort out its long-pending problems,” said Sinha.

Creation of wealth is a noble pursuit also in the books of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Wealth is an offspring of spend more and produce more.

Is that why politicians don’t mind being seen with the wealthy'

Jairam Ramesh laughs.

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