By M.V. Kamath
Poor Dr Manmohan Singh. He is an appointee to the prime ministership of India, courtesy Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress. He is not his own man. According to reports, even Natwar Singh, Minister of External Affairs, does not want to consult him. Natwar Singh'sfirst month has been distinguished by a series of diplomatic gaffes that has led him on occasions to retract or re-word statements made earlier. That is the least part of Dr Singh'sproblems. Every Saturday he has to report to Smt Sonia Gandhi who heads a 12-member National Advisory Council on how his administration is faring. That reduces his stature to that of a chief executive officer (CEO) and diminishes his role as Prime Minister. Fancy a Jawaharlal Nehru or an Indira Gandhi or even an Atal Behari Vajpayee being forced to report to some non-official body for its approval. Every minute of his life he has to constantly look backwards to see that he does not offend the Leftists, on whose support the Congress-led UPA government depends so desperately.
Should the 60 Leftist MPs decide that the government does not live up to their expectations, out it goes, as the West Bengal Chief Minister has made it plain. Already, some of the constituent elements of the coalition, like Laloo Prasad Yadav'sRashtriya Janata Party have got their pound of flesh for the mere asking. The Prime Minister has been forced to defend ?tainted? ministers and he should have known that he is playing on a poor wicket. To say that the BJP-led NDA government also had ?charge-sheeted? ministers on its roll is neither here nor there. In the first place, ministers like L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati were charged on political grounds whereas ministers like Laloo Prasad Yadav are charge sheeted in criminal cases. Laloo has spent time in jail, may it be remembered in connection with the Rs 1,000 plus crore fodder scam. The man is a disgrace whichever way one looks at him. One of his latest promises is to set up a wheel and axle plant in Chhapra, his constituency in Bihar which the railways don'treally need. It is bad enough to order such a plant to be erected anywhere if it is not needed. It is a greater offence to order it to be set up in one'sown constituency, a clear case of using one'sinfluence to get the public exchequer pay for strengthening one'spolitical base. This is loot of a different kind but still remains loot.
What is even more shocking is that the Railway Minister should sanction a plant costing thousands of crores of rupees when out of Rs 10 earned by the world'slargest rail network, nearly Rs 9.50 is eaten up by running costs, leaving very little for modernisation or even mundane jobs like conversion to broad gauge and investing in safety systems. Railways do not have money even to provide security to passengers. In the last week of June, armed criminals looted at least 45 passengers in a Howrah-bound train?the eleventh such dacoity since Laloo Prasad took over as Railway Minister. All these dacoities took place in Bihar, Laloo Prasad'sown state. And worse, Dr Manmohan Singh has been forced to make all kinds of wild promises that he should, as an economist himself, know are unenforceable. The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) to which the coalition is wedded demands that the government provide a legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment to at least one able-bodied person in every rural, urban poor and lower middle-class household. Considering that there are 709 million people in rural India, the Prime Minister and his Finance Minister have a pretty tough job on their hands.
What this calls for is not a UPA government but a truly national government and that means a government in which the BJP has an active part. The situation is too grim for just the Congress or even the UPA to handle it. What is at stake is the progress of India, not the prospects of the UPA. Ergo, we need a coalition of the two top parties, the BJP and the Congress to make India really shine. That is possible. More importantly that has become the categorical imperative. Party conflicts must be forgotten in the larger interests of the nation.
In his first address to the nation, Dr Manmohan Singh said that his government has been given a mandate ?to be sensitive to the concerns of deprived sections and regions?. No mandate has been given to the UPA, but rural India expects the government?any government in Delhi?to do something for it. And it is just as well to remember that in Andhra Pradesh, there have been over 3,000 suicides by farmers who couldn'trepay the loans they had taken. There have been over 100 such suicides in just the past four weeks. And starvation deaths are now being reported from West Bengal. The truth is that the share of agriculture has shrunk from 61 per cent to 24 per cent, while the population dependent on the rural economy has spiralled from 299 million to 709 million in 2001 and keeps on increasing year by year. Rural India needs help desperately. But how much is really available for disbursement? Even more relevantly, how much of money disbursed actually goes to the person who needs it most? And how much goes into the pockets of intermediaries, be they officials or politicians? The present system of disbursement hardly seems to work.
According to one estimate, for instance, power subsidies total Rs 25,000 crore but the supply of electricity is erratic. Foodgrain production is 220 million tonnes but storage capacity is only 70 million tonnes. Marketing is a major problem: over 60 per cent of the price paid by consumers goes to intermediate traders. Only 2 per cent of produce is processed, raising it to 10 per cent would need an investment of Rs 1,40,000 crore. Dr Manmohan Singh speaks of the Chinese model of rural development, but he hasn'tspelt it out. What is this model and can it really be applied in Indian conditions? There are many hurdles in the way. Over 100 irrigation projects are stalled. Indian farmers use seeds of 1960s vintage. India has the lowest yield per hectare in all principal crops. Wheat yield of 2.5 tonnes per hectare is way below the 3.9 tonnes per hectare of China.
The government has yet to produce a workable plan on an all-India level to preserve rainwater. Finance Minister Chidambaram has announced that gross credit to the agricultural sector would be hiked to Rs 1,05,000 crore up from Rs 70,810 crore disbursed last year and only time will tell how effective that would turn out to be. The Prime Minister says, ?Public and private investment in agriculture has to be greatly increased.? Words, words, words. Does the government have the money to invest? The potential of the Indian food industry, according to one estimate, is Rs 5,00,000 crore. It is a mind-boggling figure. But how many industrialists have really shown adequate interest in investing in agriculture? What this calls for is not a UPA government but a truly national government and that means a government in which the BJP has an active part. The situation is too grim for just the Congress or even the UPA to handle it. What is at stake is the progress of India, not the prospects of the UPA. Ergo, we need a coalition of the two top parties, the BJP and the Congress to make India really shine. That is possible. More importantly that has become the categorical imperative. Party conflicts must be forgotten in the larger interests of the nation.