Retrograde shift

02 October 2010

Manmohan Singh is intent on shifting Congress and UPA politics rightwards. Whether and how Sonia Gandhi resists this will determine the Congress' future.

The central message from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's September 6 interaction with newspaper editors is that he wants to push the Congress party and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in a conservative, right-wing direction. This is evident from many statements, including his assertion that “it is not possible in this country to give free food to all the poor people”. The government is sitting on 55 million tonnes of foodgrain stocks, 33 million tonnes above the recommended buffer, and has exposed 18 million tonnes to rain. It admits that 55,000 tonnes have rotted and become inedible. Much more has surely been devoured by rats.

It takes a special kind of callousness to treat with scorn the Supreme Court's injunction to provide food free or at low rates to the poor instead of letting it rot. It is one thing to make a technical demarcation between the judiciary and the realm of policymaking. It is quite another to question the legitimacy of judicial intervention where the government does not follow its own policies. The litigation on the right to food launched by the People's Union for Civil Liberties has dragged on for nine years amidst declining food availability and consumption and persistent undernourishment among half of India's children, which will prevent them from fulfilling their basic human potential.

Manmohan Singh has gone further than any other Indian policymaker in suggesting that Indians must accept poverty as natural within the present context, in particular the dependence of large numbers of people on agriculture. He said: “The only way we can raise our heads above poverty is for more people to be taken out of agriculture.”

So poverty is not a function of structural inequalities, class exploitation and lack of assets and social opportunity for millions, nor is it a function of the state's failure to undertake remedial measures such as land reform. Unless India industrialises, it will “naturally” remain poor, and so be it. But this makes nonsense of both economics and history. There are many examples of places that abolished extreme mass-scale poverty without industrialisation, including China, Cuba and the Indian State of Kerala.

Manmohan Singh was reluctant to commit himself to a bold, radical food security law and extremely cautious about accepting the draft of the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi. (The NAC is divided on universalising the public distribution system and on pricing food.) All Manmohan Singh would say is: “We will take inputs from the NAC… and see what's possible and what's not.”

On environmental protection, too, he revealed a conservative streak. He said: “Environmental concerns are here to stay,” but they should not lead to “perpetuation of poverty” or a return to the “licence-permit raj”. This contraposition is bizarre. Protecting the environment by preventing destructive projects or building safeguards into them conserves natural resources (for example, forests, watersheds, and land), which in the long run are great assets, especially for the poor.

The surest way of perpetuating and deepening poverty is to deprive underprivileged people of access to the commons and privatising and handing over to predatory industries the natural resources on which they are dependent. As for the reference to the “licence-permit raj”, it was a tool of scaremongering and abuse unbecoming of a responsible leader. Regulating industry for environmental protection is an important and necessary function of government.

If Manmohan Singh had in mind Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's recent decision to accept the N.C. Saxena committee's report against licensing the Vedanta mining project at Niyamgiri in Orissa, then he is wrong. The Dongaria Kondhs, whose livelihoods would be destroyed by the project, are among the most vulnerable of Adivasis, officially termed “Primitive Scheduled Tribes”. But they practise incredibly productive horticulture, in addition to agriculture and animal husbandry, and are far from poor. Vedanta's mining operations, now blocked, would have uprooted them and turned them into refugees and beggars, as has happened in the case millions of Adivasis. The idea that industrialisation must be promoted even at the cost of high ecological damage, which can be undone later, stands discredited. Climate science teaches us that most ecological damage is irreversible; the hidden costs of conventional greenhouse emissions-intensive industrialisation are unaffordably high.

Travesty of reality

However, Manmohan Singh has long been partial towards such industrialisation. As Finance Minister in the 1990s, he often pleaded for rethinking “excessive” environmental protection. This is a complete travesty of reality: India is one of the world's least environmentally regulated countries. What else can explain India's spectacular success in turning its greatest rivers into sewers, degrading its fields through salination and desertification, polluting its cities to death, and destroying its virgin rainforests? Or India's failure to enact laws that mandate serious environmental scrutiny and impose deterrent penalties on polluters? Or the disgrace that is Bhopal?

If Manmohan Singh has his way, the Navi Mumbai airport project will go through, destroying hundreds of acres of mangroves that protect the coastline. Similarly, foreign direct investment in retail will be permitted so that Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour can pamper the middle class while ruining poor vendors and street-stall owners.

Manmohan Singh has obviously lost none of his zeal for neoliberalism although this has demonstrably produced economic and financial disasters everywhere. His government has mindlessly divested Rs.30,000 crore from public sector companies, given huge tax breaks to corporations and rich people and done nothing to address obscenely high income disparities. His policies will turn the broadly centrist Congress into a fully right-wing party, with the rural job guarantee Act as its sole “human face” feature.

The stances adopted by Sonia Gandhi, and to an extent her son, Rahul, on poverty, social opportunity and environmental protection are different and often in contrast to Manmohan Singh's. We do not know whether the Gandhis have a specific economic philosophy or a general stand different from Manmohan Singh's GDPism. But their public pronouncements are pro-poor and sensitive to environmental concerns.

For instance, Sonia Gandhi said on September 9 that land must be acquired “in a manner that does not result in the loss of large tracts of fertile and productive agricultural lands”; if “farmers are deprived of their land-based livelihood out of necessity, they must be provided with adequate compensation and alternative occupations”. Upholding the rights of the underprivileged and vulnerable was the refrain.

Rahul Gandhi visited Niyamgiri to show solidarity with the Kondhs. And Sonia urged: “We must protect the environment…. In whatever we do, we must not forget that our lush forests and mountains, majestic rivers and all other water sources, and clean air have sustained and nurtured us for millennia.” She also pleaded for more renewable energy.

Now, all this may well be populist posturing. On a cynical view, the Congress wants to play both sides of the street and capture the elite and aam aadmi constituencies. It is possible that Rahul Gandhi thinks it is politically smart to adopt a pro-Dalit, pro-Adivasi posture but has no real commitment to the underprivileged.

However, that is irrelevant. What matters is that people in high places in the ruling dispensation at least speak the language of justice, equal opportunity, defence of livelihoods and environmental protection. That can only induce a healthy element in our social-political discourse. India needs good populism, a politics oriented towards the poor and powerless, and hostile to inequality, privilege and hierarchy. That alone can win the Congress-UPA genuine popular legitimacy. One can say this without being a Gandhi family admirer.

The question is whether the Gandhis' avowed defence of the underprivileged and advocacy of inclusion – including politics as a site of inclusion in Rahul's view – are enough to counter the right-wing tilt that Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P. Chidambaram have given to the UPA. This question is not easy to answer given the division of power between the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi.

Sonia Gandhi seems to be following a hands-off approach to this government, even more so than with UPA-1. The Congress, for its part, has no internal left-of-centre pressure group such as the Young Turks or the Nehru Forum of the past – only a few individuals who sporadically take Left-leaning positions.

Even the NAC does not have the dynamism of its previous avatar. Some of its new members are neoliberals. More important, it lacks the synergy that it earlier derived from interaction with Left party Members of Parliament and progressive elements within UPA-1 such as former Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Pratap Singh. Nor is the NAC's function vis-a-vis the government properly defined.

What the Gandhis should do if they really want to promote a justice-based “New Deal”-style agenda in keeping with their own professed ideas is to create institutional arrangements for the NAC and for party-government interaction. The Congress must promote a vigorous internal debate on issues such as poverty, inequality, the environment, development, Kashmir, naxalism, and so on. It should invite progressive intellectuals and civil society activists to initiate and join the debate.

Only thus can the “New Deal”-style agenda acquire sufficient momentum to overcome the UPA's rightward drift. That is a tall order. But it is not impossible.