One eye shut

Illustration : Anand Naorem

ONE COMMON democratic fallacy in India is our expectation that the character of a country of one billion people can be changed by one person — even if he is the Prime Minister. We pin all our hopes and heap our praise and blame on one person. It’s a contradiction to talk of the central importance of a single leader and of democracy in the same breath. It should be a compliment to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he’s seen, even now, as one amongst equals; but our praise or criticism should be directed at the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — particularly those who are involved in governance.

The biggest accomplishments of the last five years were the two pathbreaking laws passed by Parliament in 2005: the Right To Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Other legislations like the law against domestic violence and the Forest Rights Act were pioneering. There was also a very truncated, hurried, and shoddy laws for social security at the end of the Government’s five-year term. Nevertheless, that the government looked at these issues at all was a refreshing change from the previous governments, which refused to accept even the existence of these issues.

From the point of view of 70 percent of India — the nonshining part — the basic contribution of the Manmohan Singh Government has been the enactment of pro-people laws. These laws owe their progressive side to the openness of the political establishment to draw upon the expertise of people from civil society.

The UPA opened up some limited platforms for debate through the National Advisory Council and other institutional setups within ministries, involving people’s movements in the drafting of laws. I believe this is an important step towards greater democracy and participatory governance. After all, we haven’t given people who sit in Parliament a special power of attorney over our lives. This tentative effort at consultative democracy offers the potential for lasting change. If we establish these institutional platforms of participation, we can fight for a greater say in governance, no matter who wins an election in the future.


Debated policy The UPA Government only invited citizen debate on measures like the NREGA
Photo: AP

But how much credit can we give to the Manmohan Singh Government for creating this space? Consider the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), which was a promise the government made to the people. It was an extraordinarily good document because it incorporated what people wanted, not what the party decreed. But to translate the CMP into actual action needed political will. The UPA and Manmohan Singh have, in the CMP some important instances, had the will to accept accountability for the promises they made.

That said, the Manmohan Singh government also exhibited a kind of schizophrenic behaviour. What were termed populist measures, like the NREGA and the Forest Dwellers Bill, were thrown open to debate, So those who disagreed with them could express their dissent. But the government provided no such opportunity to people who opposed their economic policies. Laws that have come into the statute books as a result of liberalisation and its aftermath have not been subjected to public discourse. So, the contradiction lies in the fact that while the Forest Rights Act was debated, the SEZ Act was passed without even sending the legislation to a Standing Committee, which is done in the case of almost all legislation. There was not even a proper debate in Parliament. This haste is highly objectionable.

THIS IS clearly a case of equal opportunities being denied to people. In this sphere, the UPA has only continued with what’s been happening in the country for years. They didn’t begin this detachment of economic policy from developmental policy, and they didn’t end it either. NREGA is an economic issue, but there has been immense, intense debate on this from all sides. On the other hand, policy matters where there is large scale displacement, or where there has been a complete turnaround of the economic policies of the past, have been pushed through without dissent.

It’s easy to call the PM weak. He never had any intention of throwing open policies for debate. NREGA was debated, but the SEZ Act wasn’t

Some would say this wall around economic policy is because the PM is an economist. Even if we do attribute this attitude to him, then the fact that the UPA and Parliament allowed this to happen is unforgivable. It would be too easy to say the PM is weak, and was following the party mandate in keeping mum. In the case of the nuclear deal, not only did he stand his ground, but adopted the agreement even at the risk to Government stability. This is why I think that neither was there ever any intent on the PM’s part to open a dialogue on economic policy, nor was there sufficient will from the Opposition to fight these policies. Everyone just went along with it because, on economic policy, the Manmohan Singh Government and the Opposition thought alike.

Manmohan Singh should have taken governance far more seriously. Economic involvement based on global issues and not national priorities, weakens our basic democratic fabric. We cannot have an economic meltdown in New York that renders scores of young people jobless and hungry in India. The NREGA has protected the poor in some parts of rural India from the ill effects of the meltdown. However, the UPA and Manmohan Singh cannot just use NREGA as a gimmick for getting votes. They’ll have to work at getting it implemented better. They’ll have to look at unemployment of youth, especially now, when there is huge unrest among the literate unemployed. The Prime Minister cannot believe his role is just to placate as he has placated the bureaucrats and the civil servants — a group that is probably 0.2 percent of the population. The government is inordinately worried about salaries for civil servants, and unconcerned with the abysmal earning capacities of the poor enumerated by the Arjun Sengupta Committee. While the Sixth Pay Commission raised salaries phenomenally for civil servants grousing about a few hundred rupees, the government quietly imposed an unconstitutional and brazenly unjust freeze on minimum wages for NREGA workers. Moreover, they should have addressed the development and poverty issues of the Maoist belt, where there is zero development.

As far as poor and marginalised people are concerned, the UPA Government has passed more significant and progressive legislation than other governments in the recent past. It has, thankfully, not told us that India is shining when we are jobless and poor. By enacting a strong Right to Information law, it has changed the relationship of the ordinary citizen with the state. The UPAGovernment and Manmohan Singh have recognised, even if in a schizophrenic way, that there is another India that governance must work for. And no matter who comes to power in 2009, they will have to pay heed to the voice and needs of ordinary people. That, if anything, is the lasting legacy of the Manmohan Singh Government.

(Roy is the founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan)