THIRD FRONT SHOULD RE-ENVISION INDIAN UNITY
This campaign note, prepared for the fifteenth Loksabha elections 2009, is of relevance even today.
The notion of a third front of regional parties led by the Left and challenging the two fronts led by the so called national parties, had an inspiring and colorful take off during the fifteenth Loksabha elections. However, the very idea was looked down as plague by our elite classes.
Main stream media had even refused to debate on the possibilities of and prospects of such an alternative. Under the heat of real politics it simply vanished like a rainbow. Protagonists of the idea were criticized and ridiculed for lack of vision and political experience. Revolutionary ideas are nothing but beautiful dreams: we keep striving for their realization. Indian State is degenerating rather rapidly and the search for an alternative system of governance for the Union Republic and a polity suited for this could hardly be postponed.
Indian National Congress had long outlived its role as the leader of national liberation: the bogus Gandhi mantle on the person of its present President has lost its magical powers. BJP holds out Ram as a political trump card, but its efficacy has been greatly eroded by far lesser gods of more recent origin. Both Congress and BJP have lost most of their mass appeal, and regional parties that are close to the people at large are seen deserting these so called national parties, one after the other.
Our elite classes generally look down on regional parties: They are considered to be of little or no national importance. Regional parties even use all India labels, in order to enhance their repute, respectability and public acceptance. Nevertheless, relevance of regional parties has steadily increased, thanks to the failures of the national parties to live up to the expectations of common people. And today, they play a substantially large role in governing our Union Republic. A large number of Indian States are ruled, today, not by national parties, but by regional parties or political coalitions led by them. Congress and BJP, the two national parties patronized by the elite classes with the hope of developing a healthy two-party democracy, wield political power only in fewer number of member states of the Union Republic.
Under our federal constitution, state governments are accountable for most part of development administration and governance, including the delivery of public goods like policing and street level security. Division of responsibilities among Central, State and Local Self Government Institutions is somewhat water-tight in our country, and not seamless as it should be, and as practiced in by the parliamentary democracies of developed countries. As a consequence, there are numerous blind spots in our system of governance: The totally confused response to the 26/11 terror strike on Mumbai was an eye opener in this regard.
Obviously, there is a gross mismatch between the responsibilities assigned to state Governments and the material resources at their disposal for discharging them. This mismatch has widened over the past years. State governments elected by the people and accountable to them, are hardly equipped to live up to their expectations regarding material and cultural development. Public institutions under them are totally ill-equipped and grossly underdeveloped compared to their counterparts at the Centre. Thanks to their near total financial dependency, state governments find it impossible to launch meaningful capacity building programs or HRD projects of their own. This had precipitated a sort of self-aggravating dichotomy in Indian polity, which has now assumed alarming proportions, especially in the context of the recent economic reforms and structural adjustments.
Centralized policy making and decentralized administration are, no doubt, the golden principles of modern management; in business as well as in government. However, such a division of responsibilities in our federal constitution has not helped in developing a healthy Centre-State relationship. Due to the near-total financial dependency and lack of grass-root level democracy, decentralized administration at the state and lower levels has remained a mere pipe dream. On the other hand, centralized policy making was a partial success with regard to the twin objectives of protecting the national economy from neo-colonial exploitation, as well as optimum use of internal resources.
After national independence, the Government in Delhi had substantially expanded its developmental role, by opening up new technical departments, several Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs) or the so called Navaratna companies, as well as a vast network of S&T organizations: Indian Parliament, Planning Commission, the National Development Council (NDC) etc were serving as watch dogs over this large institutional network in broader national interests.
Statesmen like the great Rajaji had criticised this elaborate policy making apparatus as license-permit-quota raj: Nevertheless, it had helped the country in making rapid technological strides in several critical sectors and in pursuing an independent foreign policy. However, capacity building of this magnitude did not take place at the state level due to a variety of reasons, including historical ones like bureaucratic hangover from the colonial administration in Delhi, as well as vested interests of big business houses.
These institutional arrangements intended for formulation of policies based on national consensus and planning have been either destroyed or have undergone fundamental changes in recent times, thanks to the socalled structural adjustment program. Footloose bureaucrats and corrupt politicians decide on national policies and programs today, with little or no formal consultations at the national level and with state governments.
The notorious nuclear deal with US was initiated by the Indian Ambassador in USA, and not by the atomic energy establishment, energy and power departments, or the Central Electricity Authority. There were no consultations, whatsoever, with state governments either: They are accountable for the street level supply of grid electricity and no nuclear power plant could be built on Indian soil without their permission and cooperation!
Electricity Act 2003, replacing the old act of 1948, was rushed through, despite serious objections raised by several state governments. Our country has no worthwhile power policy today, and the main concern of the union power ministry is the assigning of EPC contracts for super power stations in locations, finalized by it through all sorts dubious mechanisms. All these have virtually destabilized grid power development in the country, leading to widespread shortages and steep increases in electricity prices.
Ministry for telecoms has given up the time-tested national policy of capacity expansion based on an integrated program of technology development and local manufacture. Its only responsibility today is to auction off market rights for telecom operations and for this purpose we do not really require a union ministry in Delhi!
Signing of WTO agreement, the arbitrary withdrawal of agricultural subsidies by Central Government and signing up of numerous free trade agreements have destabilized Indian farms, opening up an era of massive farmer suicides. Several such examples of arbitrary policy changes by central government could be cited, including those related to defense policies and defense contracts, where the central government had abdicated or misused the policy making authority vested with it, in national interests.
Thanks to such numerous acts of omissions and commissions on the policy front, the very institution of central government has lost its moral authority over state governments, and along with it most of its patriotic credentials, earned and accumulated during the era of national planning and consensus, initiated under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. This should be a matter of great political concern for a multinational country of continental proportions.
The massive distortions that have crept into Centre-State relations, the working of our federal constitution and Indian polity at large, need urgent correction in the best interests of our people. Initiatives for this will not come from the so called national parties, Congress or BJP. Only a united front of the regional parties, who are in real charge of governance or aspiring for it, and covering a sizable part of Indian population, could be expected to take on such initiatives. The ten parties that have sponsored the third front in the present Loksabha elections have underlined the need for a serious review of the working of the Indian constitutions in general and Central-State relations in particular: Some have even published discussion papers on the subject on the eve of elections.
These more serious aspects of Indian democracy and Indian polity are hardly discussed by the mainstream media. Pessimistic forecasts about the emerging third front of regional parties are the order of the day. Regional parties are often described as a motley crowd with no vision or objectives and without a Prime Minister candidate. They underplay the fact that, the Prime Minister candidate of Congress is not even contesting the elections.
Manmohan was the weakest among Indian Prime Ministers: It is common knowledge, that he was back-seat driven by an extensive PMO headed by a minister and controlled by numerous commissions and committees that were either unconstitutional or extra-constitutional. Five year term of UPA and Manmohan has proved beyond reasonable doubt that, our Union Republic barely needs a popular Prime Minister for its survival!
Even in the absence of a Charismatic Prime Minister, the third front Government could hold the country together in a far more satisfactory manner, by making use of constitutional entities like the Inter State Council. They could be effectively put to use for the formulation of national policies and for evolving consensus decisions on controversial issues; and their decisions need to be made binding on the Central Government.
Even subject wise Inter State Councils could be established, if found necessary, as recommended in 2002 by Justice Venkitachelliah in his capacity as the Chairman of the National Committee for Reviewing the Working of the Constitution. Planning Commission could strengthen its federal character by working as the executive body of the National Development Council, and making this august body accountable to the Inter State Council.
Central Government organizations could develop a federal character by establishing state level subsidiaries and affiliates, as part of a much needed capacity building program at the regional level. Major states could be invited, in turn, to participate in the corporate management of Navaratna companies, at the board level. A third front of the regional parties, which are already participating in the governance of the country in a big way, are well equipped to formulate such alternative policies and programs and bring the Central Government administration closer to the people, help it shed its imperial pretensions, and liberate it from the stranglehold of global monopolists.