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March 21, 2001
Balco is only a symptom
For the first time in the three years of its rule, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government is losing its understanding with the Congress party on economic matters. The controversy over the sale of Balco, which culminated in a vote in the Rajya Sabha where the ruling National Democratic Alliance was defeated, may turn out to be the beginning of another confrontation between the government and the Opposition. It looks as if the Congress has changed its earlier stand on economic issues.
Whether it is the result of deliberations by the committee formed to have another look at economic reforms or whether it is the preference of political fallout to unpopular economic measures, the fact is that the Congress has something up its sleeve. It has come into the open to criticise liberalisation, a process the party had itself initiated a decade ago.
Balco is only a symptom. The disease is the revision in the Congress's thinking on economic reforms, which it wants to exploit in the coming assembly elections in five states. How far the party can reap this harvest remains to be seen. But, even on a larger canvas, the Congress wants to make an impact by denouncing at least those reforms which affect the farmers.
Former finance minister Manmohan Singh does not seem to be too happy with what is happening. He is there on the front bench in the Rajya Sabha, sitting all by himself, forlorn and lost in deep thought. During the Balco debate, he did not seem to like the Congress approach. Not even once did he say anything which was of consequence, nor did anyone from the party come to consult him as they had during past discussions on economic matters. It seems he has practically no role to play and everything is dictated from behind the scenes.
Who does it? Kerala's A K Anthony, who was on the committee, Pranab Mukherjee, Sonia Gandhi's adviser on economic matters, or someone else? But there is no doubt that Manmohan Singh has been pushed into the background. His tenure in the Rajya Sabha is coming to an end. The main question is not whether the party will bring him back. Instead, he needs to decide whether he should return to Parliament when his economic policies are going to be jettisoned by the Congress, one by one. For temporary political gains, the party will tear them in public. The various inputs from the field suggest that economic reforms would become increasingly unpopular and that the party would do well by siding with the critics. A volte-face, yes, but politics makes strange bedfellows.
The prime minister, in his reply to the President's address in the Rajya Sabha, was conciliatory. He appealed to the Congress to cooperate on economic measures, knowing well that his coalition could not go through in the Rajya Sabha without that party's support. The government's defeat on the Balco sale may well be the Congress's reply. One party spokesman, after the voting in the House, said the problem was not Balco but the entire gamut of economic reforms.
If this is so -- and it looks very much that way -- the BJP or, for that matter, the NDA should seriously discuss the future of economic measures with the Congress. Several measures are slated for the current session of Parliament. They cannot go through in the House without the Congress's support. In fact, what it boils down to is a public debate on economic reforms. Much is at stake. The country stayed ignorant because of the manner in which economic reforms were stealthily introduced. The Narasimha government struck down the 42-year-old policy of self-sufficiency. If we have to retrace our steps, let us do it openly. Every bit of policy and programme should be transparent, without ifs and buts.
Let the Vajpayee government learn from the mistakes it committed in the Balco sale. There would have been far less furore if the deal, and all its facts, had been made public as soon as the cabinet gave it a green signal. The government should have told the public that Balco had bank deposits worth Rs 300 crore and a captive power plant worth Rs 500 crore. Questions would have been raised, but the government should have been ready to answer to them. Chattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi has changed his stance too many times to be credible. First, he made charges of corruption, then he offered to buy 51 per cent of the plant.
Their defeat in the Rajya Sabha should make the NDA think. If it is Balco or any other such other project, it is of no legal consequence. At worst, it is an irritation. But what happens when the government takes up specific legislation, say, on labour? True, the NDA has a majority in the Lok Sabha, which really matters. But, under the Constitution, every bill has to be passed by both the Houses before it is enacted.
A piquant situation may develop if the Lok Sabha passes legislation, but the Rajya Sabha does not. The Constitution envisages a joint session of both Houses to iron out the differences. What happens if there is still no settlement? Will both Houses sit jointly and vote? How can the Lok Sabha member, directly elected by people, be put at par with the Rajya Sabha member, elected indirectly through the state assemblies?
Vajpayee is not conscious of the repercussions which the confrontation between the NDA-majority Lok Sabha and the Opposition-majority Rajya Sabha can bring about. If he believes a mere appeal to the Congress can meet the situation, he is mistaken. The matter is far more serious than he realises. His coalition may have to sit across the table with the Opposition, or the Congress, to find a way out. During the Janata period, when the Congress had a majority in the Rajya Sabha, there was no deadlock because there was no way the Congress, after the rout in the 1997 election, could oppose the ruling party.
This time around, the problem is different. The Congress, which began the economic reforms, wants to revise them. The criterion is not merit, either short term or long term. It is not even an ideological warfare. The Congress believes that opposition to economic reforms, particularly those that relate to the farmers, may give it an electoral slogan which can bring it back to power at the Centre. It is as simple as that.
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