The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s Rs 100-crore Bharat Nirman campaign ran into trouble this September. One of its print advertisements featured the same women models in an almost identical frame that was used in the Antyodaya Yojana campaign launched by the BJP-led NDA back in 2000. The two parties apparently hired the same agency. But then, fittingly, the NDA’s Antyodaya scheme was the precursor to the UPA’s Food Security Act too.
Of course, the Left has been telling us for long that the Congress and the BJP are two sides of the same coin. Not particularly money-minded, that’s how communists keep equidistance from both. But even the comrades brand the “twin evils” differently. While the BJP has been predominantly “communal”, the Congress is mostly “dynastic”. Until the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) told us that their parent parties were equally neo-liberal at heart.
In February 2012, 11 central trade unions came together for the first time to call a nationwide strike, demanding minimum wages, permanent jobs for 50 million contract labourers and a full stop to sale of stake in profitable public companies. A year later, this February, the unions went in for a two-day national strike against the antilabour policies of the UPA. “Hours before the strike, the Cabinet subcommittee headed by AK Antony called a meeting just for the sake of it. P Chidambaram did not even attend (the meeting),” INTUC national vice-president R Chandrasekharan slammed his own government.
Rewind to 2001, the 37th Indian Labour Conference in New Delhi. An enraged Hasmukhbhai Dave, general secretary of the BMS, the trade union wing of the Sangh Parivar, lashed out at the BJP-led NDA coalition, saying, “The BJP opposed the very same economic policies when in the Opposition. Now the government led by the BJP is pushing forward these policies. Unemployment and closure of industries are staring us in the face.” BMS president Dattopant Thengdi went to the extent of calling the then finance minister Yashwant Sinha “a criminal”.
The two principal camps of Indian politics are united not only in their apparent anti-labour stand, there is little to choose between the two when it comes to competitive populism. For example, after the UPA waived farm loans worth Rs 52,000 crore in 2008, the BJP’s 2009 election manifesto promised that the party would “waive agricultural loans to make India’s farmer debt-free”.
Thanks to the shared beliefs and priorities of the two parties, the continuity of economic policies in the past 15 years has been rather seamless. Recent arguments on GDP growth — particularly the war of words between the current finance minister and his NDA predecessor Yashwant Sinha — have been stuck in detailing decimals. The BJP highlights the achievements of the final year of the NDA regime when growth peaked. The Congress emphasises the higher average that shows them in better light. For both, it’s been about selective splicing of data to claim the edge in a show of identical strengths (and weaknesses).
In the early 1990s, PV Narasimha Rao began the economic liberalisation with the then finance minister Manmohan Singh at the helm. Nationalism did not come in the way of the BJP’s rush for foreign investment under Atal Bihari Vajpayee whose legacy includes the Indo-US nuclear deal that Manmohan Singh later clinched, even with his government at stake. Long before Chidambaram joined the cause, Jaswant Singh was committed to usher in foreign direct investment in retail. In the past nine years, the UPA has mostly consolidated what the NDA built on the foundations of Rao’s early reforms.
Essentially, they are the same, says Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto. “Neither may accept this for political reasons. The BJP has normally been right of centre. Since 1991, the Congress also came to be known as a right-of-centre party. However, this changed after the 2004 election. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi give the impression of being left of centre, perhaps believing that MGNREGA and the Food Security Act will help get votes even though these adversely affect the fiscal deficit. If the Congress wins again, there is a possibility of their continuing with left-of-centre policies,” he says.
While taking credit for unshackling the economy, the Congress also claims to pursue inclusive growth. In fact, the emphasis on agriculture has been evident during the nine years of UPA rule. The rural poor have always been the mainstay of the Congress vote bank. Yet, economic disparity has only become starker since liberalisation. Even the slew of legislations on rural employment guarantee, forest rights and food security may not be able to turn the tide.
The BJP has consistently gained from the support of the urban middle class. But the party also launched “social development initiatives” such as Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana, Antyodaya Anna Yojana, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Integrated Child Development Scheme to woo larger vote banks. It even set up a ministry for tribal affairs. Yet, skewed growth and a gaping rich-poor divide drowned the Shining India campaign in 2004. The party reinvested heavily in populism but the promise-packed 2009 poll manifesto did not cut much ice either.
In theory, the BJP peddles swadeshi, which the party translates as economic nationalism. The Congress’ answer to that is economic self-reliance or arthik swaraj. In practice, both short sell the country’s natural resources to big businesses and investors. If Narendra Modi flaunts his investor-friendly Gujarat model (which has not landed much FDI yet), Chidambaram has his Cabinet Committee on Investment to hand out summary clearance to mega projects. Irrespective of their slugfest on GDP, inflation and fiscal deficit, the broad trajectories and outcomes of their policies have been mostly similar.
So much so that BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha uttered the unthinkable last week in Washington. Pointing out that the Congress and the BJP have similar views on foreign policy, defence and economic reforms, and “no one is untouchable in Indian politics now”, Sinha told PTI that the two parties should give a serious thought to forming a strong coalition government based on a common minimum programme to “end the daily political blackmailing” by smaller and regional outfits.
While Sinha hastened to add that this was certainly not his party’s view, and that the first option would be to form a majority government of the BJP at the Centre, he hoped that leaders from both parties would give serious thought to the idea of a post-poll alliance in case of a hung Parliament even as they campaign against one another over the next six months. Curious as the proposal may sound, the two parties have a lot more in common than required for a minimum programme.
It has been a case of permanent flip-flop for both the BJP and the Congress. Coal India is the latest example where the UPA government is keen to divest while the BJP unions are opposing it. But, ultimately, it always boils down to political convenience.
It was the BJP-led NDA that created the disinvestment ministry and put the reins in the hands of Arun Shourie. In the early 2000s, the Congress was strongly opposed to the idea of “selling the family silver”. Over the years, it would become an important tool for the UPA to raise money for the public sector.
The UPA’s disinvestment list now includes NTPC, Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, SAIL, Hindustan Copper, Oil India, HAL, MMTC, NALCO, ONGC, EIL and IOC. Even state governments took the cue. The Congress in Punjab privatised Punjab Tractors.
In 2002, it was the NDA that adopted the National Pension Scheme as the mandatory pension system for all new recruits after January 2004. When it took charge in May 2004, the UPA chose to stay on course. Yashwant Sinha pledged BJP support to the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill, claiming it was the same as drafted by the erstwhile NDA government.
The BJP demanded a 26 percent cap on FDI and stated assured returns for subscribers. “This government has kept that pensions Bill hanging since 2004. We have suggested two amendments to this Bill, to which the government agreed,” said Sinha.
Cosmetic differences between the two parties are now paving way for consensus on the insurance Bill, which would allow foreign investors to own up to 49 percent in local insurance companies, up from 26 percent currently. The Bill will also allow State-owned general insurance companies to raise capital from the stock market and bring in fresh investments in health insurance as well. The BJP has come around to support the Bill with a few conditions, which are not too difficult for the Congress to incorporate, such as a bar on single investors acquiring 49 percent stake in companies.
FDI IN RETAIL
The contentious issue may be done and dusted, but all the politics around this between the BJP and the Congress rode on opposition of convenience. As widely reported, it was the NDA’s commerce minister, Murasoli Maran, who floated the idea of opening up the sector. It found able supporters in Kamal Nath, Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh, who battled within the UPA right from 2004 in the face of stiff opposition from Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who wanted to be assured of the benefits of the move. In 2013, the FDI floodgates were finally opened with riders to appease the concerns of Sonia Gandhi and the Opposition.
The rise of states has been a big success story that belies the need for Centre-driven measures. A study by Indicus Analytics suggests Congress states have done better in poverty alleviation, while the BJP is pumping more money into creating capital assets. “But overall, neither party makes a compelling case for itself,” it concludes.
By and large, chief ministers deliver better when they get to chart their own course. Professor Bibek Debroy of the Centre for Policy Research wonders if the recent effort at centralising policies helped the states. “Should I have centralised policies or should I leave it to the states? Under UPA-2, contrary to what would be ideal, there has been much more centralisation,” he points out.
While the UPA was busy giving shape to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the BJP in its 2009 poll manifesto promised to launch “an innovative programme to establish a countrywide system of multipurpose national identity cards so as to ensure national security, correct welfare delivery, accurate tax collection, financial inclusion and voter registration”. The party proposed to “make it incumbent on every Indian to have a National Identity Card” and set a three-year deadline — Nandan Nilekani may guffaw here — to complete the programme.
The CAG estimated that the UPA extended windfall gains of Rs 1.86 lakh crore to private entities by distributing 155 blocks without bidding between 2004 and 2009. In its defence, the Congress pointed out that the NDA gave a free hand to the screening committee, which allotted 32 coal blocks during its tenure without following any guidelines. The Standing Committee on Coal and Steel in its latest report underlined how the allocations between 1993 and 2004 were done without any advertisement or public information. In effect, all allocations since the liberalisation took place in complete disregard of standard procedures.
In 1999, the NDA changed the policy of telecom licence from “fixed licence fees” to “revenue sharing licence fees”. In 2003, it gave away licences at 2001 prices. The UPA followed the same policy by allotting licences in 2005, ’07 and ’08 (when additionally A Raja allegedly manipulated the first-come-first-served policy to favour cronies) at 2001 prices.
Neither the BJP nor the Congress opted for e-auctions. While the DMK says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in the loop at every stage of spectrum allocation, Vajpayee, in fact, held the telecom portfolio when the en masse migration from fixed to revenue sharing fee happened.
A slew of mining scams is testimony that neither the Congress nor the BJP can claim to be fair to the environment or to the affected communities. The MB Shah Commission report has exposed a Rs 35,000 crore illegal mining scam in Goa under Congress rule, in which politicians, bureaucrats and mining companies were indicted. The Reddy brothers made a killing through illegal mining in Bellary under the patronage of the BJP government. The BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh too are currently under the scanner for alleged mining scams worth several thousand crores.
In 2001, the Central Electricity Authority had ranked the hydroelectric potential of key Indian rivers while estimating potential installed capacity of nearly 150,000 MW by 2026. In the Brahmaputra basin alone, it identified 168 potential large projects that could generate 63,300 MW. Within two years, Vajpayee proudly launched the 50,000 MW national hydroelectric initiative, identifying 42 projects with installed capacity of 27,293 MW in Arunachal Pradesh alone.
As if to fulfil Vajpayee’s dream, the UPA rushed to commission dozens of dams across the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Already, projects worth 50,000 MW have been allocated across every Himalayan river basin and a number of those have been cleared without statutory impact assessment in the “national interest”.
A year before unleashing his hydel ambition, Vajpayee announced plans to link major Indian rivers to “free India from the curse of floods and droughts”. The mega plan failed to take off not because environmentalists resisted such large-scale tinkering with the river systems but due to lack of funds. Nobody was surprised when the UPA revived the project last year with 31 links of 9,000-km long canals to connect 37 rivers at an estimated expenditure of $140 billion.
Policy continuity assumes bizarre proportions when one considers the Sethusamudram project that aims to link Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka by dredging a shipping channel through the shallow sea and a chain of islands collectively called Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge.
The BJP promised “speedy implementation” of the project in its 2004 election manifesto. Following widespread opposition from religious and environmental groups, the party changed its position in its 2009 poll manifesto, offering to look for an alternative alignment.
But the Congress was sold on the plan. Having already spent Rs 777 crore on the project, it overruled the recommendations of the Pachauri Committee and the Tamil Nadu government this September in an affidavit to the Supreme Court, insisting on using the alignment cutting across the Ram Setu.
The UPA took the cue from the NDA to dilute the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) procedure to expedite clearance mechanisms and benefit investors.
Between 1982 and 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Forests received 384 applications seeking forest clearances for coal blocks. Of these, only 18 have been rejected. Between 1982 and 1999, the average delay in clearance was five years. During the NDA rule, it came down to three years. The UPA-1 further reduced it to 17 months. The UPA-2 takes 11 months to decide on a project.
In a letter dated 10 November 2005 to then environment minister A Raja, 140 organisations and individuals said that “the reengineering process and the subsequent draft notification (of the revised EIA) are guided almost entirely by recommendations of the Govindarajan Committee on Investment Reforms, constituted by the previous NDA government, and proposals made as part of the World Bank-funded Environmental Management Capacity Building Programme”.
During his tenure as prime minister, Vajpayee took four years to chair his first meeting of the Indian Board for Wildlife (now National Board for Wildlife) that was supposed to meet annually. The high-profile tiger crisis has made NBWL meetings more regular since 2005 under the UPA. But even during the tenures of Suresh Prabhu and Jairam Ramesh — arguably the best performing environment ministers under the NDA and UPA regime, respectively — the rate of rejection of projects seeking green clearances remained minuscule.
A number of poll promises from the BJP’s 2004 manifesto could have been easily lifted from the Congress’ and underline the common slant:
• Work on projects with a combined capacity of 12,000 MW (including 8,000 MW in the private sector) will start before the end of 2004
• Policy will be reoriented, within three months, to encourage private investment in the mines sector
• Single-window clearance for harnessing of mineral resources such as iron ore, limestone, bauxite and precious metals
• New coal mining projects will be started in 2004 to enhance existing capacity by 50 million tonnes
• Necessary legislation will be introduced for encouraging private initiatives in the coal sector
• Special Economic Zones (SEZs) will be promoted as vehicles for overall growth. An SEZ Promotion Council, with wide industry participation, will be created in the commerce ministry as an apex body
The NDA had its own 1,000-crore Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana — flaunted as the biggest food-for-work programme since Independence — and promised to expand coverage of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana from 2 crore to 5 crore of the poorest in five years. It is unlikely that the party will roll back the UPA’s mgnrega or food security initiatives.
Says Debroy: “Do I see a BJP government rolling back these subsidies? No. Will a BJP government start fresh subsidy? They won’t. Do I see a Congress government in a UPA-2 kind of format next term come up with fresh subsidies? The answer is yes.” However, he hastens to add that such policies have a lot to do with who is driving the agenda. “If the finance ministry or the Planning Commission is leading the reform and is backed by the PMO, the decision will be to resist subsidy,” he says. “However, if an NAC (National Advisory Council) takes the lead, they will not see it the same way.”
The BJP’s stated position is that the party believes people have the right to food. In 2004, the NDA promised to provide 35 kg of rice or wheat every month to bpl families at Rs 2 per kg through food coupons redeemable at both PDS and private outlets. The BJP-run states have already extended the food security net. A good example is Chhattisgarh, which enacted its own food law in 2012 and has been providing 35 kg of foodgrains per month to 42 lakh poor families at Rs 1.20 per kg. Chief Minister Raman Singh claimed that the state government provided more foodgrains to the poor than the Centre’s programme has.
There are two broad prescriptions for reducing poverty. One professes that sustained economic growth is possible only if public spending is directed towards bettering health and education. The other claims that progrowth policies and market-oriented reforms will anyway bring down poverty levels. On paper, the NAC-burdened Congress appears to be closer to the first model while a Gujarat-powered BJP seems to champion the second.
The apparent ideological divide was represented this year by two renowned economists, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, and their latest publications. In Why Growth Matters, Bhagwati and co-author Arvind Panagariya projected unbridled growth as the panacea for all of India’s ills. Following soon after, An Uncertain Glory by Sen and co-author Jean Drèze stressed on State welfare and redistribution of wealth. While they seemed to be arguing on a chicken-and-egg situation — social indicators will not improve without a growth agenda and growth will not be sustainable unless inclusive — their intellectual face-off was soon dumbed down to a BJP vs Congress slugfest.
But on the ground, political and ideological compulsions blur the lines in both camps. The net result is strikingly identical — a combination of desperate sellout and reckless populism. “Painting the BJP as a pro-business party is difficult. Even Modi’s bedrock is the RSS, which is anti-globalisation. We don’t know how they will square the circle,” says economist and commentator Shailesh Chitnis. “On the social aspect, the Congress has pushed through a lot of Bills, like MGNREGA and now food security, but that’s solely because of Sonia Gandhi’s push. While the Congress may have a pro-poor face, I don’t see them being able to sustain it.”
Given the similarity of policies, it is tempting for many to believe that curbing corruption alone will make a difference. It can certainly tighten the delivery system. But it would be naïve to believe that transparency can influence the policies of short selling of national assets — from minerals to water — in so-called national interest. It would be equally naïve to assume that corruption is the preserve of any particular party. If one party appears any less corrupt than the other, it is only because the degree of corruption is usually commensurate with the scope for it.
Sumant Sinha of Renew Power says what’s needed is a system that builds strong administration and good governance. “We have a system where the government hasn’t taken enough timely decisions. Coal allocation was botched up, road building is at a halt, power sector reforms are missing. This needs only administration and governance. But can we separate this from politics?” he asks.
“Unfortunately, we are allowing politics to affect economics too much,” says Adi Godrej, former president of the CII. “I think we should have a strong free enterprise system as they work the best value. A lot of people feel inclusive growth is about slow growth but that’s not true. High growth will create more opportunities. We should have reform. It should lead to growth and progress. We need continuity.”
But CPM leader Sitaram Yechury is wary of the continuity that the unity of the Congress and the BJP on economic policies provides. At a recent political convention in New Delhi, he accused the two parties of making “silent overtures to each other” in Parliament. “The country requires an alternative policy framework. There is very little to choose between the BJP and the Congress. And unless you have an alternative set of policies, we cannot provide relief to the people,” he said, clearly batting for a Third Front.
Unfortunately, most potential constituents of a Third Front either do not have a national economic vision or share the ideas of the Congress or the BJP. The Left Front has little clout to steer the economic policy of a coalition at the Centre and anyway it has been exposed in the killing fields of Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal. Besides, even during the brief Third Front experiment in the mid-1990s, the finance portfolio was with one Chidambaram, the then chief of the breakaway Tamil Maanila Congress.
“The presence of the NAC does make some difference to the Congress. I’m not sure if a BJP government would have agreed to enact the RTI or the Forest Rights Act,” says Ashish Kothari, veteran environmentalist and rights activist. “Since the Swadeshi Jagran Manch was sidelined and the Gujarat growth model has become dominant, the BJP appears more pro-business. But after liberalisation, there has been no significant difference between the economic or natural resource management policies of the two parties. It’s been an onslaught on the poor and the weak.”
Depending on where one stands in the socioeconomic hierarchy and ideological spectrum, this one-and-a-half-decade- long continuity in economic policies and practices can be either reassuring or alarming. In either scenario, it is certainly no yardstick to determine which way one should vote in the next General Election. “If a voter wants to make a decision based on the economy, there is very little choice,” agrees Sumant Sinha.
That is bad news for the customary rhetoric that the voter, tired of the secular- communal debate, simply wants a government that will deliver economic prosperity. Worse, at a time when the country faces the massive challenge of poverty alleviation compounded by the trickle-down treatment, it seems India does not have a viable political alternative for the economic policies that have failed her weakest for too long.
The similarities between the Congress and the BJP run deeper than their economic policies
First, the obvious. For all its nationalistic protestation, the BJP’s pro-US foreign policy set the stage for the Congress to clinch the big deals. With Pakistan, the UPA has been following what are essentially different variants of the AB Vajpayee line. Even Narendra Modi toned down his anti-Pakistan rhetoric overnight after being anointed the PM candidate.
The telecom and coal scams are the shared legacies of the NDA and the UPA. If the Congress had to show one corrupt CM (Ashok Chavan) the door, the BJP was forced to sack two (BS Yeddyurappa and Ramesh Pokhriyal). If the Commonwealth Games scam tainted the UPA, the Kargil coffin scam spooked the NDA victory laps. While targeting the ‘soft’ Congress for dithering on Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab, the BJP carries the burden of the Kandahar swap when its foreign minister escorted three terrorists.
Curiously, the liberal versus hardliner debate cannot hide the fact that both parties are equally contemptuous of civil liberties and freedom of expression. Indira Gandhi did not take criticism lightly. Nearly a decade after Gulzar’s Aandhi was not allowed a full release in 1975, she got the entire consignment of a particular issue of The Economist confiscated because Kevin Kallaugher, the magazine’s iconic cartoonist, had portrayed her as a menacing, four-armed goddess in a snake necklace, trampling over Sri Lanka and holding a bag of money and dagger in two hands while squeezing a turbaned fellow and an aam aadmi with the other two.
The Sangh Parivar is ideologically beholden to cultural purity. So, affectionate young couples are never safe in public, particularly on Valentine’s Day. If the BJP forced MF Husain to permanent exile, the Congress refused to shelter a ‘homeless’ Taslima Nasreen. If James Laine was bullied for his treatise on Shivaji, Salman Rushdie’s The Satatnic Verses was handed out the first ban by the Congress in 1988. The Ashok Gehlot government scripted a sequel by refusing to host Rushdie at the Jaipur Lit Fest last year. More recently, the BJP wanted Amartya Sen to return his Bharat Ratna for criticising Modi. The Congress returned the compliment when Lata Mangeshkar, another Bharat Ratna awardee, praised Modi.
Both the Congress and the BJP have been frequently accused of staging encounters and fabricating charges against inconvenient activists, particularly in the tribal heartland. Neither has found it fit to review the scope of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act even after a SC panel highlighted its misuse. Yes, if it is any consolation, the parties are divided over scrapping Article 370. But then, breaking status quo requires numbers unlikely to accumulate in this coalition era.