Dr JK Bajaj
In its second consecutive term at the Centre, the UPA seems to be floundered. The failures of the alliance, both in political management and in governance, are so gross that political commentators, even those who are normally positively disposed to the Congress and this “progressive” alliance, have become scathing and dismissive in their criticism. There is a feeling in the air that this is now a lame duck government lacking the imagination, will and coherence to take any effective policy initiative, or even to simply put things in order. Many hope that the elections of 2014 shall overthrow this patently inefficient and corrupt government and a new, more effective and, hopefully, more nationalist government shall take its place.
But though many nurture such hopes, cold assessment of the electoral landscape of the country does not offer any firm assurance of the hopes being fulfilled. The most important reason for this is the crucial role that the minorities have come to play in all elections, but especially in the national parliamentary elections. Muslim and Christian minorities, including those who have been converted to Christianity without formally declaring it, constitute somewhat more than 20 per cent of the national votes. Then there are several other groups, especially among the weaker sections of society on the one hand and the most educated and resourceful on the other, who have acquired the self-perception of being minorities separate from the national Hindu mainstream.
The UPA has assiduously and unabashedly presented itself as a government of and for the minorities. It is a government the prime minister of which has publicly declared that the minorities have the first right on public resources. And, it is not merely rhetoric. Since 2006, this government has been allocating 15 per cent of the physical targets and financial outlays in all its schemes for the minorities. It has spent enormous energy and funds to create institutional structures specifically for the minorities. It has created a separate Ministry of Minority Affairs, which is currently headed by a Muslim minister and a Christian minister of State. The ministry has in turn created a National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation and Maulana Azad Educational Foundation to provide financing and educational facilitation specifically for the minorities.
When we, in the Centre for Policy Studies, created maps of districts of minority concentration and growth in the country, we were castigated by mainstream scholars for undertaking a communal exercise. This government has the same maps on its official websites. It has created and published official lists of 90 Minority Concentration Districts (MCDs) in Category A and Category B, as also of 1228 CD Blocks and 358 towns with minority concentration. This government has been unabashedly targeting funds and resources towards these areas on solely communal considerations.
This government may be inefficient in matters of high policy, but these communal initiatives of the government have been effective. The sheer numbers of minorities in India have been rising continuously for several decades. For the last about three decades, the minorities, especially the Muslim minorities, have also started moving upwards on the scale of educational and economic development. The various initiatives of this government have come just at the right time for them and have helped in distinctly improving their share in the economic and educational field, especially at the higher and elite levels. It is not accidental that of the 72 students selected for the highly prestigious MBBS course of the AIIMS this year, as many as 12 are Muslims from Kerala alone. The government initiatives of reserving seats for the minorities, directly as minorities or as members of OBCs etc., and of providing special coaching for competitive examinations and scholarships at different levels are being fully and effectively utilised by the Muslim communities. The Christians anyway have always been getting the best of educational and economic opportunities.
The minorities are indeed obliged to this government and have a vested interest in its continuation. Therefore, notwithstanding the odium it has earned for its inefficiency and corruption, it can hope to garner almost the entire 20 per cent votes that the minorities command. In the elections at the State level, part of this vote-share indeed gets diverted to groups outside the current alliance at the Centre, as the minorities look to maximising their advantage. This is what happened in Uttar Pradesh in the recent Assembly elections. But in the parliamentary elections, such diversion of vote away from the foremost pro-minority alliance is unlikely to take place. And, in the electoral game as played today, it is difficult if not entirely impossible to defeat a grouping with a solid vote-bank of nearly 20 per cent or more of the national votes.
One obvious way to counter such a situation would be for the main Opposition to try and consolidated the mainstream vote by promising them protection from such blatant minorityism. But that is unlikely to happen for several reasons. For one, the main Opposition party has convinced itself, perhaps rightly so, that Hindu consolidation is a theoretical impossibility and is therefore not even in a mood to try it out. And then, there are many within the party and more so in the parties associated with it who are keen on playing minority cards of their own. The party is so caught up with these considerations that it is unable to even loudly voice its opposition to the blatantly communal games of the current government. The leaders must be having valid political reasons for such pusillanimity; their political judgements need to be respected. But in the absence of a serious attempt to consolidate the Hindu vote, there seems little possibility of creating a political alliance that can overcome the minority vote advantage that the UPA enjoys. It may yet happen that the main Opposition picks up the courage to project an avowedly and unabashedly nationalist pro-Hindu programme and leadership which may result in offering a serious electoral challenge to the UPA.
Quite apart from the question of an appropriate political posture to counter the UPA, there is the issue of offering a convincing and viable programme that would overcome the problems that the current government is widely perceived to have created for the nation. There are many issues on which this government can be faulted. The two that have acquired silence are the issue of corruption and that of sagging economic growth, which is leading to extreme pain for the ordinary people. What are the remedies for these two chronic ailments of Indian polity that the UPA has so grossly aggravated?
Corruption in India is systemic. Some groups and persons may turn out to be more venal than others, but the Indian system of governance is so structured that corruption is an integral part of it. In this system, a minister, say of telecom or mining or civil aviation, has the authority to grant a license that can be immediately sold in the market for several thousand crores of rupees or can be leveraged to raise even larger funds from public institutions and banks. Knowing this, the concerned minister shall have to be extremely foolish not to demand a share of the loot, either for himself or for his party. The system can probably be tweaked to make it somewhat less discretionary and more honest. But, the corrections can only be marginal. Removing corruption entirely from the system would require overthrowing this system and creating a new one that devolves and distributes authority and responsibility at several levels.
This system is corrupt not only at the levels of high policy and authority. It also offers avenues of corruption at every level up to that of the constable, the patwari, the reader in the court and the dealing clerk in any department. In the British times, these varied offices were created to represent the authority of the colonial state at the lowest levels. As agents of an alien state, the holders of these offices had more or less a legitimate right to assert undue authority and demand gratification. The government protected them in all their acts of omission and commission, and they were intentionally insulated from all local control or responsibility. After acquiring Independence, we made no attempt to alter this system or the associated attitudes. We have only expanded the system and made it more pervasive. Now we have reached a situation where corruption at different levels has come to be seen as a matter of entitlement and woe betide an officer who tries to even slightly curb it.
Removing corruption would require a complete overhaul of the current polity and its structures of governance. Has anybody worked out the contours of such an overhaul?
The issue of sagging economic growth is even more difficult. We have intentionally kept the Indian economy extremely weak in the primary productive activities of agriculture and manufacturing. We have tried to build an economy entirely on the basis of the tertiary sector of services, which now include IT services. High growth in such an economy is possible only through foreign goodwill and investments. The foreigners, however, are demanding a high price for their goodwill. The mood in the economy has turned highly negative mainly following the attempt of the present government to curb stealing of tax, which is euphemistically called tax-avoidance or tax-planning, by foreign entities, and the failure to open the retail sector to predatory foreign investments. The foreign entities are so keen on obtaining such rights of theft and predation that the US president has personally joined the fray. And the current government seems to be kneeling; at least that is the impression created by its selection of the new finance minister.
How does the main Opposition plan to deal with these core economic issues? Does it propose to woo foreign goodwill and investments at the cost of national honour to ensure high growth? Or, does it have an alternate plan for the Indian economy?
The UPA is in doldrums. But for the Opposition to emerge as a viable alternative, it has to clarify its position on several issues, some of which we have mentioned above. The issues are important not only for the opposition; these are issues that are crucial for the nation and have to be settled quickly for India to move on her chosen path with confidence and inclusive justice that encompasses both the majority and the minorities.
(The writer is Director, Centre for Policy Studies).