A mixed bag

20 June 2009
Article
The UPA’s key appointments reflect conservative foreign and security policies and a “free market plus social security” approach to the economy.
AFTER three long weeks of consultation, deliberation and jockeying, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) finally formed a Council of Ministers. But the result is not authentically representative of India’s diversity, or the sources of its own victory. Indications emanating from the allocation of portfolios and the priorities outlined by President Pratibha Patil in her address to Parliament suggest that the UPA will be conservative on foreign policy, security, human rights and counter-terrorism; inclusive and pluralist in its social policy; and will follow an economic policy that is a hybrid or amalgam of the neoliberal model and state intervention through measures such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and other social sector programmes. The composition of the 79-strong Ministry is more skewed and less diverse than that of the parties that constitute the UPA. Former Chief Ministers occupy nine of the 33 Cabinet positions. Within the Council, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Kerala claim a disproportionate share, respectively, 10, nine, eight and six berths, although they account for 139 Lok Sabha seats. Uttar Pradesh, four times bigger than Kerala, has just five Ministers, all of them Ministers of State. Bihar has only one Minister. This partly reflects the UPA’s big electoral gains at the Left’s expense in West Bengal and Kerala. But it is equally the result of intense bargaining, as in the case of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. If electoral performance was the main criterion, Andhra Pradesh should have figured high on the list. The Congress’ performance – victory in 33 of 42 constituencies – helped turn the election around. But Andhra Pradesh has only one Cabinet Minister. A big story is the Congress’ rejuvenation in U.P., where it was half-dead for decades. Yet, U.P. does not have a single Cabinet Minister. Thanks to the “dynasty factor”, the Congress promoted Rahul Gandhi as never before. It did not elevate any other Congress leader to a rank at which he might be inducted in future. The other States from the so-called Hindi heartland are also under-represented. The number of “cow belt” Ministers has fallen by one-third to 16 in 2004 – despite the UPA winning six more seats there than the 59 it bagged five years ago. The region contributes 209 Members of Parliament but is represented by only three Cabinet Ministers. Rajasthan and Jharkhand have had a particularly raw deal. Orissa and Assam, like most tribal north-eastern States, are also poorly represented. Dalits are relatively well-represented in the Ministry, with four Cabinet berths and five Ministers of State. This, like Meira Kumar’s nomination as Lok Sabha Speaker, reflects the Congress’ anxiety to counter Mayawati. On the other hand, Brahmins (nine) and other “upper castes” (19) are over-represented. Together, they outnumber Other Backward Classes (16) by three-fourths. But Adivasis have only one Cabinet representation. Muslim under-representation stands out especially because the UPA claimed to uphold the principle of “fair representation” advocated by the Sachar Committee and because Muslims scripted the Congress’ victory in many States, most notably U.P. On the Sachar criterion, there should have been 11 Muslims in the Council. There are only five. There are only two Cabinet Ministers. Neither is from the heartland. This will rankle. The UPA must recognise that Muslims have long been under-represented in India’s political life. They form 13.4 per cent of the population. Yet, only 5.5 per cent of Lok Sabha MPs are Muslims. Their number has fallen from 34 in 2004 to 30. Half of the 30 belong to the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Major State-level parties – the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam Party – have no Muslim MPs. Muslim under-representation is chronic and in a sense built into the first-past-the post system, which favours geographically concentrated minorities. The problem will be best resolved through a proportional representation system. But meanwhile, corrective action is necessary to prevent Muslim alienation. The Congress/UPA has failed to take this and ignored the warning signals from the emergence of exclusively Muslim parties and Ulema Councils in U.P. The President underlined “inclusive growth, equitable development and a secular and plural India”. But the continuation of A.K. Antony in Defence, P. Chidambaram in Home, and M.K. Narayanan as National Security Adviser, and the government’s intention to beef up anti-naxalite operations through the National Counterterrorism Centre speak of an internal security approach that relies on force to suppress movements arising out of deprivation and popular alienation from a callous state apparatus corrupted by entrenched interests. On security policy, the government is likely to be deeply conservative, including military power projection, which goes beyond legitimate or adequate self-defence. This spells rising military spending, which already runs at an obscene Rs.170,000 crore. The UPA is likely to build on the strategic partnership with the U.S. and continue with a status-quoist approach towards the immediate neighbourhood. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna is new to international affairs but reportedly has a pro-Western, pro-U.S. orientation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to be active on the foreign policy agenda with the assistance of Shashi Tharoor, who has been given crucial portfolios despite being a first-time MP. Shashi Tharoor is strongly pro-U.S. and sought support from Zionist lobbies during his bid for the United Nations Secretary-General’s post. Going by Shashi Tharoor’s support for the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza, in which he described Israel as “India’s envy”, he will favour uncritical support for Israel. This does not augur well for the prospect of an independent foreign policy. On climate change, the most important global negotiation India is engaged in, Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh is likely to harden India’s stance against caps on greenhouse emissions, while relying on fossil fuels for rising elite-driven energy consumption. Jairam Ramesh says India will more than double its coal consumption in eight to 10 years. ENVIRONMENTAL CLEARANCES He wants the Ministry of Environment and Forests to adopt an “industry-friendly” approach to environmental clearances and not be “a stumbling block to faster growth”. His rhetoric about not turning “Paryavaran Bhavan into the Udyog Bhavan of the pre-liberalisation days” might please those who buy into the “licence-permit raj” paradigm. But the context is set by a recent report of a committee constituted by the Finance Ministry, which recommends industry self-assessment and certification of environmental impacts. Jairam Ramesh’s pronouncements signal capitulation to corporate lobbies and further dilution of environmental regulation. Kapil Sibal has been given charge of Human Resource Development just when commercial institutions and foreign universities are making a strong bid to enter Indian education. He is known to favour privatisation. The first event he attended after assuming office was a business chamber-sponsored meeting. This sends a bad signal. Kapil Sibal will be under pressure to reduce the state’s commitment to school education and opt for vouchers to give access to private schools. How he handles this is an open question. The President spoke of a “five-year transformative agenda for governance”, with investment in roads, ports, education, rural development and health. But a good deal of this will be routed through public-private partnerships, including sweetheart deals for corporations. Similarly, while Pratibha Patil promised the National Food Security Act and other social security measures, she emphasised divestment of public sector units, foreign investment liberalisation in pension funds, and financial sector restructuring. Some of these measures are inappropriate. Our nationalised banks are a global success story. The agenda of recapitalising them ignores the commonsense idea: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Similarly, public sector divestment to finance the fiscal deficit makes no sense. But spreading the (income) tax net and raising top rates does. The government is keen on pursuing what may appropriately be called a hybrid approach: free-market politics with a “human face”. This is confirmed by the reconstitution of the Planning Commission under the deputy chairmanship of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a diehard neoliberal. The government has reappointed progressive economist Abhijit Sen and the civil society-linked Saeeda Hamid, but it has also reappointed the conservative B.K. Chaturvedi. The departure of Kirit Parekh and Anwarul Hoda is welcome. The best news is the induction of Mihir Shah, who has worked on food, employment and water security. But the government has also brought in Narendra Jadhav, a neoliberal zealot, and Saumitra Chowdhury, who cannot be termed an accomplished economist. The message is that the government wants to pursue a hybrid approach: a neoliberal growth model with all its inequities, plus social programmes to clean up after capital’s damage. The basic premises of these two approaches are incompatible. The NREGA cannot compensate people for land snatched away for special economic zones. Nor can the Food Security Act undo the havoc from the appropriation of forest land or water. Private capital-led growth, which “builds on the best”, cannot reduce fast-growing regional and income disparities. A far sounder, sustainable approach would be to undertake massive investments in public works, regulate capital, and direct investment into socially desirable areas – a modern version of the mixed economy. The UPA has reaped big political dividends from its modestly inclusive agenda. It should muster the will for a comprehensive radical approach, which promises even greater returns. Frontline
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.