India: Problems with the Left

After a “productive” tour of Britain and America, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returned home to a score of problems.

Many of them are natural to the kind of compromises Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party had made to form a government. Four months after assuming office, the United Progressive Alliance, is yet to address the most crucial issues facing the country: security and economy.

The main reason is that the government is led by the Congress Party but driven by the Left in return for a touch-and-go support that the latter lends to the government. There is suddenly a new nonchalance in the manner in which the Left is taking the government to task for including consultants from foreign financial institutions in some consultative committees of the Planning Commission.

The Left group has threatened to quit all the planning panels of which its nominees are members. Prime Minster Manmohan Singh, party chief Sonia Gandhi and finance minister P.Chidambaram tried to meet the demands of the Left half way over breakfast, lunch and dinner. They would come to an understanding but the minute they come out of these conclaves, the Left leaders would deny any such patch-up. Planning Commission deputy chief Montek Singh Ahluwalia told press persons that the government would resolve the problem in day or two. Half an hour later he told TV crews that it would take a few days. Maybe, everything will end well in a day or two.

But the root cause is the irreconcilable divide in the economic perceptions of the two political formations. The Congress is credited with authoring economic reforms in the early nineties when Dr Manmohan Singh was the finance minister. Under his aegis, the entire economic establishment of the country passed into the hands of former World Bank bureaucrats. Pursuing the same programs with vigor, the National Democratic Alliance government put the country on the economic map of the world. NDA’s main strength was the absence of dissensions in the coalition on economic policy. There were challenges to its disinvestment plans but an experienced Atal Behari Vajpayee handled them with tact.

Dr Manmohan Singh, as the founder of economic reforms, wants to take the country to greater heights.  But at the time of forging a coalition, Sonia Gandhi and her colleagues took hasty decisions in choosing their allies. Being regional parties, most of the UPA partners are in the government to extract concessions for their regions and to strengthen their domestic positions. Things would have worked in favor of the new government if it had not accepted the hand of the Left group. It is simple common sense that the Left will not accept any economic policy that has a World Bank perfume. The Left has now an opportunity to rule without a popular mandate and it is now enjoying the discomfiture of Dr Singh's government. The result is Indian economy has stopped ticking.

The Left combine argues that the inclusion of experts from McKinsey, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in consultative committees reviewing the country’s tenth plan would give these foreign experts a role in the country’s planning process. The Planning Commission emphasizes that none of these foreigners is involved in preparing any of the commission documents. The commission only listens to their views as it does the views of the trade unions in the country. The foreign experts are involved only in areas in which their parent agencies are actively supporting federal and state government projects. The commission reminded the Left allies that the leftist government in West Bengal has been employing foreign consultants to push reforms in key sectors.

But the most comic aspect of this dialogue is that both the Prime Minister and the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission themselves are former World Bank bureaucrats. Smaller fry like consultants should not matter in terms of logic. This aggressive posture of the Left has come on top of several compromises it forced the UPA government to make to continue its support. The government had earlier put on hold crucial programs to mollify the Left. These included plans to raise the ceiling on foreign direct investment in important sectors like telecommunications, insurance and civil aviation. The Left cites the example of the previous government of the National Democratic Alliance that continued with the old ceilings. The Left is also unhappy with the government’s decision to reduce the interest rates on employees’ provident fund accumulations. This need to take permission of the Left at every step of economic progress has blocked all economic activity. There is little that is happening to indicate the existence of a dynamic government.

People are aware of the price of frequent changes of government and are naturally behind this government. This is its valuable asset. Its major weakness is its obsession with the previous government. People are not anxious to know the reasons for the fall of the Vajpayee government. The failures of the old government are no answer to the country’s present problems. Instead of moving ahead with peoples’ friendly programs the alliance had accepted, the new government has settled down to undo everything the previous government did, good, bad and indifferent.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was essential to fight terrorism in several regions of the country. The present government repealed it merely to prove its secular credentials.  The government lifted the ban on a terrorist outfit called the People’s War Group and invited them for talks. In Manipur, hotbed of insurgency, it wants to placate secessionists whatever be its cost to internal security. Not to forfeit the support of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the government is likely to revise its policy towards the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers group. The government does little to check the dangerous influx from Bangladesh, dangerous both to security and economy, fondly labeling it as a humanitarian problem. This also is part of the government’s commitment to secularism.

About the repeal of POTA, Mr Praksah Singh, a columnist, wrote in the Indian Express, “This Act was also criticised on the ground that it gave extraordinary powers to law-enforcement agencies, which were misused. It was also argued that the existing laws of the land were adequate to deal with the problem of terrorism. If a law is to be scrapped because it is misused, then perhaps most of our laws will have to be dumped in the Indian Ocean. The proper approach in such cases is to punish those who misuse the law. And, it is sheer hypocrisy to say that the existing laws are adequate to deal with terrorism. M N Venkatachaliah, former chief justice of India, when asked whether POTA should be scrapped, said that what was necessary was regulation and not the scrapping of POTA.”

The most important task of the United Progressive Alliance is to look for reliable allies to neutralize the power of the Left to intimidate the government at every step.

Dasu Krishnamoorty
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Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov