By: Anand Balley
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi releasing the party’s manifesto for Elections 2009 in New Delhi on March 24.NATIONAL Common Minimum Programme (NCMP). This phrase, which figured time and again in all the Budget presentations of the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime (2004-08), was
conspicuous by its absence in the second UPA government’s first Budget, presented by Finance Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee on July 6, 2009. This is in many ways a pointer to the subtle but significant change in the political and economic direction of the second Manmohan Singh government. Evidently, the prime movers of the government, particularly those belonging to the Congress, the dominant component of the UPA, do not any longer want to refer to the NCMP as an “instrument of political vision” or be bound by it.
This reluctance manifested itself soon after the formation of the current Ministry. When leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Trinamool Congress, constituents of the UPA, made statements about taking a fresh look at the NCMP and strengthening it, the Congress ignored them. While Congress spokesperson Janardhan Chaturvedi said the Cabinet would go through the manifestos of the other parties in the UPA and try to evolve a common list, leaders such as Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal and Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily said the second Manmohan Singh government was a new government with a new mandate.
These positions, however, were not in keeping with the line advocated in the Congress party’s election manifesto, published on March 24, 2009, that is, about seven weeks before the party managed to win more than 200 seats and leave the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), far behind. The guideline for governance etched out in the manifesto was essentially based on the NCMP and its core principle of inclusive growth.
In a section titled “Achievements of the Congress-led UPA Government” the manifesto says: “As chairperson of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh negotiated a Common Minimum Programme that became the basis of governance of the coalition. The May 2004 mandate was for a government that would be responsive to the concerns of the aam aadmi (common person) and to the needs of the poor, the deprived and the disadvantaged. This has been achieved in very substantial measure. The May 2004 mandate was for a government that would accelerate economic growth but with a focus always on livelihoods and jobs, on inclusive growth and on social justice. This has been achieved in very substantial measure.”
The manifesto promised to advance the gains of the first UPA government if the party was returned to power. It also listed a set of
priorities, broadly based on the NCMP principles, under the title “The Work Programme: 2009-2014”. As many as 30 subjects, including public health, education, infrastructure, food security, social and economic empowerment of marginalised sections, internal security and national defence made up the list. Many of these areas were addressed in terms of specific programmes, while others were treated in terms of broad-spectrum policy parameters.
As far as finding a correlation between the “The Work Programme: 2009-2014” and Pranab Mukherjee’s Budget, it is a mixed bag. Many of the subjects in the “work programme” have been addressed enthusiastically, some others partially and some not at all.
In terms of allocation, the Budget figures point to an enthusiastic engagement with national defence and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and a lukewarm response to health, education and infrastructure development. In many other key segments, including the social and economic empowerment of marginalised sections, it is one of indifference.
NREGA – a hike of 30 per cent over the Revised Estimate of the previous year – emphasises that these areas would be the focus of the second UPA government.
In terms of health, the manifesto promise of health insurance cover to all below poverty line (BPL) families has been sought to be addressed through an allocation of Rs.350 crore, a 40 per cent increase over last year’s, for the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (National Health Insurance Programme). The allocation for the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) has also been increased to Rs.12,070 crore from Rs.2,057 crore last year.
The manifesto promises two model schools in every block. This has not been addressed specifically, but the Budget has provided for the setting up of 6,000 model schools across the country.
The passage of the National Forest Rights Act (The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006) was one of the major achievements of the first UPA government. The Congress manifesto promises to further strengthen the rights of the tribal people and other forest-dwelling communities through administrative and legal measures but the Budget gives no indication of any progress in that direction. The National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, another land rights-related initiative, has also been given the go-by.
Food security is a major component of the Congress manifesto. It states specifically that the National Food Security Act and the Universal Integrated Child Development Services programme will be initiated by 2012 to ensure for BPL families 25 kilos of rice or wheat a month at Rs.3 a kilo. The Budget reiterates the commitment to this programme, but with no funds being allocated under this head it could end up as mere lip-service.
The promises in the manifesto on crop insurance and on the usage of Information Technology (IT) for rural transformation remain unaddressed in the Budget.
More noticeably, the promises on empowerment of women have been completely bypassed in the Budget proposals. There is no indication of bringing in the Bill on reservation for women in legislatures or the law on domestic violence, both of which the manifesto promises to do. Similarly, the promise to enhance the protection for Dalits against atrocities, through the empowerment of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to monitor communal and caste violence, has also not been addressed in the Budget.
In spite of such serious omissions in terms of attempts to fulfil the Congress manifesto promises, Pranab Mukherjee’s first full-fledged Budget has been rated by large sections of society as pro-people and as one that seeks to live up to the 2009 electoral mandate. The slump in the stock market also contributed to this perception.
The BJP’s reaction has been predictable. According to Sushma Swaraj, the party’s Deputy Leader in the Lok Sabha, the Budget would not generate enhanced economic activity or give a fillip to investment or generate employment.
The Left parties pointed out that the “Budget is grossly inadequate in meeting the challenges of economic recession, growing job losses and declining purchasing power of the masses”.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) pointed out that “crucial sectors, like agriculture and rural development, where the effects of the prolonged agrarian crisis and the agricultural growth slowdown of 2008-09 have been severe, have been provided little support in terms of Plan outlays”. “The required lowering of interest rates to 4 per cent on farm loans has not been done and instead only an incentive to repay loans on time has been announced,” the CPI(M) pointed out.
Parties such as the Janata Dal (United), led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, accused the UPA and its Finance Minister of regional discrimination. The JD(U) said that while justifiable allocations had been made to West Bengal for reconstruction and rehabilitation in the aftermath of the destruction caused by Cyclone Aila, Bihar’s demands for reconstruction of the damage caused by last year’s Kosi floods had not yet been considered.
In the context of these observations as well as the vital omissions and letdowns in terms of the promises made in the Congress manifesto, the Budget, in its totality, would have to be rated as one that advances the agenda of inclusive growth rather half-heartedly.
Political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi said: “Pranab Kumar Mukherjee’s first Budget is absolutely ordinary and reflects the various pulls and pressures, both in government and in other policymaking bodies of the UPA. This is a government that is led by pro-liberalisation Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [and] having a Finance Minister like Pranab da, who is avowedly a Socialist of the Nehru-Indira Gandhi variety. The development policies of this government is crafted by the Planning Commission, which has liberaliser par excellence Montek Singh Ahluwalia as its Deputy Chairman, while it has committed pro-poor social activists like Mihir Shah. No wonder we are getting a mixed bag.”
But the big question, he said, was which way this delicate balance would swing in the coming days. “The UPA in its first stint in governance could not get into a pro-liberalisation, pro-globalisation hyperdrive because of the restraining influence of the Left parties. The current government has no such restraining influence and, clearly, that should give us an indication of which way the balance would tilt.” A well-founded apprehension, the firming up or rejection of which could define the characteristics of national politics.