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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 26, June 13, 2009

A Mix of Relief and Disappointment

Saturday 13 June 2009, by Shree Shankar Sharan

The Parliament elections have both been a relief and a disappointment A relief because it has ensured continuity and stability to a party that needs at least two terms to show results and distribute to the people the fruits of its policy. Also a relief because the voter gave the party he supported sufficient majority to follow its policy unhindered by arm-twisting by small parties that extracted to the full their pound of flesh for providing a majority cushion to the ruling party. In fact the ruling party had to operate under the pseudonym of the UPA and not as the Congress or as a Congress coalition. The Central Government has been allowed by the voter to have ideological cohesion and clarity. It will have no excuse not to perform by pushing the blame on its allies

The verdict was also an eye-opener because it revealed that the Indian voter has not lost patience with the pace of democratic change and prefers that change should take place peacefully and democratically rather than suddenly by violent means at the cost of their opponents’ blood. It tied well with a cultural value of the Indian poor, which most voters are, of having infinite patience with their miserable lot and of handsomely rewarding small acts of kindness or and some promise of relief from their grueling existence by doing them some good. There is no doubt that the belated policies of the Central Government—to start the NREGA in selected districts of the country and later extend it to all—has won votes because it has met a felt need for more jobs, though inadequately paid and for an inadequate period of 100 days in a year. The beneficiaries were also limited to one member of each family. They are now expected to be extended to every able minded member of each family.

The minimum rate is proposed to be Rs 100 a day. Some State governments had already raised it above this limit but Rs 100 would be a decent minimum and should be raised each time the Central Government raises its DA to its employees. Indeed public servants do not constitute a rare or special kind of talent to be rewarded beyond the means of the government in Delhi and specially of those in the States. The fiscal deficit would have been lower and India’s rating on that account higher had the Sixth Pay Commission’s report had not been implemented or made cushier like an election largesse. There should be a necessary correlation between the minimum and maximum pay of the government both for equity and the country’s political stability. The government should treat public servants with the same standards of means related parsimony as it does its poor citizens. Not a pound more should go to one before a penny goes to another even conceding the historical disparity in incomes and wages.

A second factor that has influenced the election is the write-off of Rs 60,000 crores of rural institutional debt which became unsustainable because of crop failure or inflated expectations of genetic seeds or collapse of prices in the global market of agri exports. The write-off put a stop to an alarming rise in farmers’ suicides and provided a much needed relief to farmers in a state of desperation. It convinced them that the UPA Government cared.

The main Opposition party lost because it could not cash on the anti-incumbency factor, not even the steep price rise and the current recession. The electorate has never responded to such issues with similar indifference and either stomached the media view that these problems were global and not a national failure or the farmer rather than be hit, gained from the price rise. The personal attack on the PM seemed distasteful and only reminded of the BJP’s own failures to deal with terrorism in the past. Besides Hindutva is a dead issue and no longer excites people’s minds. And the name Modi, thrown up as the next leader, drove Muslims away from the party besides not enthusing Hindus whose only image of him is of a powerful but intolerant, communally charged and bellicose leader.

A new term to the government without its baggage of the past will give both the government and the people ample time to be judged and to judge the correctness of its policies and its commitment to the aam aadmi by which it swore to win the election. Ten years is a decent enough period for a party to put into effect its core thinking and make course correction and deal with tardy implementation. The election verdict goes to prove the maturity of the Indian electorate.


The disappointment from the election verdict is not because a Congress revival and the withering of the regional parties is not a happy thing to happen. It surely is. We can trust it to keep peace both within and on the borders of the country more conducive to growth. It should also capitalise on its acknowledged sound fiscal and monetary management policy in the world.

Our disappointment is because of the limits of that policy, its cyclical character, its low employment potential, the limits of export led growth because of the stiff competition from countries like China. Its primacy to industry over agriculture is also a reason to worry. The domestic market can sustain domestic industry only if its productivity and buying power improve. There is in the Congress party too great a weakness to ape other models, beginning with the Soviet, then Western, now American and partly Chinese. There is too little innovative thinking on what will suit our domestic reality of a burgeoning population and lack of new skills and a sure market.

The Congress party was not always like this. It has had great thinkers and planners like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Shastri, Indira Gandhi to name some. The Congress party has moved away from the radical ideology of Mahatma Gandhi of development bottom up from the rural areas, or even Jawharlal Nehru with his emphasis on the public sector and a mixed economy or Shastri’s stress on self-reliance or Indira Gandhi’s bold nationalisation of banks which has saved us from the danger of collapse that the American banks did. The present-day Congress is too euphoric about the market economy and too trusting of foreign investment as a means of growth. It relies too much on export led growth, ignoring the huge domestic market to which all developed countries are strongly drawn. It took time to respond to the farmers’ problems or to start the NREGA project. It is too tardy on following Indian solutions to Indian problem of seasonal unemployment which large industry cannot solve and must be left to the cottage, small and medium sectors. We shall be facing bigger problems of unemployment with larger rural urban migration due to the incapacity of small holdings to support large families unless we make a deliberate and determined effort to encourage and build industries in the small sector around smaller towns. The habit to walk on the tested models of others must be abandoned.

We shall hesitate to write-off again and again farmers’ dues without hurting the banks or the taxpayers. The remedy lies in setting up a credible credit institution in the country in which the traditional moneylenders could also have a role through a tie-up between the panchayats and rural banks. Joint bonds could also be an alternative to individual creditworthiness and trust allowed a bigger role in lending policies. A sound framework undistorted by corruption which seems endemic with banks seems the need of the hour, maybe through the micro credit institutions.

We need to create or provide assets to our marginal or landless farmers by arming them with bank finance and government support to buy-off land in their villages from absentee land-owners since industrial jobs are in short supply. We could build skill development centres in each or a group of blocks to train our excess rural poplation in more contemporary arts and crafts.

Rahul Gandhi despite his youth, has lent a refreshing touch to the Congress party in the way it looks at the poor. Let us hope he will apply his mind to the need for asset creation for the poor.n

Shree Shankar Sharan is the Convener, Lok Paksh, Patna/Delhi.

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