People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIV

No. 12

March 21, 2010

BUDGET SESSION

 

The Struggle Within Parliament and Outside

 

Prakash Karat

 

THE Lok Sabha has gone into recess after the first part of the budget session. This three week session has brought out certain clear markers about the political scene in the country. Last year, the Congress-led UPA coalition had won the Lok Sabha elections, but it had failed to get a majority. The UPA on its own had won only 262 seats. It was able to form a government with the support declared by the parties like the SP, RJD, BSP and JD(S). A peculiarity of this support was that it was extended by these parties without the Congress formally requesting them to do so.

But the Congress-led government started behaving as if it had got a sweeping endorsement for its policies. It didn’t recognise the fragility of the coalition and its outside support. Ten months hence, the arrangement lies shattered. The first to be disillusioned was the Samajwadi Party. The opportunistic alignment forged between the Congress and the SP, when the latter did a somersault on the Indo-US nuclear deal, had begun to fray even before the parliament elections. Shri Mulayam Singh began publicly regretting the fact that his party had extended support to the Congress then. Another loyal ally in the UPA, RJD, was also spurned after the elections. The utility of Laloo Prasad Yadav was considered over.

The unprecedented price rise of food items and essential commodities saw the UPA government blithely disowning any responsibility. International prices and the increased prices given to farmers were held to be the cause; the failure of the state governments and the rising consumption of food were also blamed. Given the callousness of the central government, it was but natural that the opposition parties would raise this issue vociferously in parliament. And that was what happened in both the houses of parliament during this session. All the parties supporting the government from outside joined the fray.

When the government decided to act, after the submission of the Kirit Parikh committee report, to raise the prices of diesel and petrol, even its allies within the government baulked at the idea. Both the DMK and the TMC expressed their opposition. Though the union cabinet stepped back from a decision to hike prices, the Congress bided its time.

The union budget was used as the occasion for raising the customs duties and excise duties on petrol and diesel. It is this proposal in the budget speech which saw spontaneous protest, with practically the entire opposition walking out.

The only worthwhile step taken by the government was tabling the women’s reservation bill in the Rajya Sabha for adoption. The bill could be adopted in the upper house because of the support extended by the Left, the BJP and some of the major regional opposition parties. However, this move has antagonized the opponents of the Bill, the SP and the RJD further.

The CPI(M) and the Left parties have been unwavering in their support for the women’s reservation bill. They are equally unwavering in their opposition to the neo-liberal policies and the pro-American measures of the government. The UPA government is planning to bring forth a set of legislations to advance its pro-big business, privatisation agenda and to appease the American interests. One of the legislations seeks to reduce the government stake in the State Bank of India, the biggest nationalised bank, from 55 per cent to 51 per cent. Another seeks to provide foreign educational institutions’ access to the “education market” in India. This is coupled with the budget proposal to disinvest Rs 40,000 crore worth of shares in profitable public sector units.

The Congress-led government is not only bringing measures which are opposed by the Left, it is also being opposed by other secular opposition parties. The cut in fertiliser subsidy of Rs 3,000 crore is bound to be opposed not only by the Left but also by the SP, JD(S) and other erstwhile supporters. It cannot escape the notice of anyone that the neo-liberal regime provides tax concessions amounting to Rs 80,000 crore to the corporates, while the food and fertiliser subsidies are cut. None of the parties that extended support to the UPA government can condone such measures, unless they are willing to alienate their own mass base.   

The other indication of how the Congress-led UPA government is impervious to the mood of the people is the manner in which it has sought to push the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill in parliament. Here is a bill which concerns the lives and safety of the people in the event of a nuclear accident. The proposed legislation stems from the commitment made to the US to buy nuclear reactors to produce 10,000 MW worth of power. The main purpose of the bill is to ensure that the US suppliers of nuclear equipments have no liability in case of a nuclear accident in the reactors supplied by them and to see that the entire burden falls on the Indian government and the taxpayers. The basic right of Indian citizens to claim adequate compensation, medical treatment and cleaning up of the environment in the case of a nuclear accident would be abrogated.

Yet, Manmohan Singh government had no compunction in bringing such a bill. The failure to introduce the bill in the Lok Sabha in the face of strong resistance from all sections of the opposition only serves to highlight how isolated the UPA government is becoming.

Another feature of this period is the central government’s proclivity to centralise powers at the expense of states. The HRD minister makes one pronouncement after another on school and higher education ignoring the role of the states in the sphere of education. The proposed National Commission for Higher Education and Research would drastically reduce the role of the states in higher education apart from other problems in the new set up. The centre is issuing directive after directive to the states on the implementation of the Right to Education Act without the centre providing the financial wherewithal. The increasing encroachment of the states’ sphere and the issue of financial devolution of resources are going to be contentious in the coming days and portend more conflicts between the centre and the states.

The return of the MPs from the recess will see more struggles on some of the pernicious legislations being put forward by the government, the issues of price rise, agrarian crisis and the skewed priorities of the government reflected in the budget provisions. A particular issue will be how to get the government to withdraw the increased levies on petrol and diesel.

The sharpened conflict within parliament is only a reflection of how popular discontent is growing to the UPA government’s failure to curb price rise and the policies which favour big business and pro-US lobbies.

The Congress party is well known for its ability to manoeuvre to get out of a difficult situation. It will use all its resources and patronage to neutralise and win over some of the estranged leaders and parties. Even the CBI is not above being used as an instrument for this purpose. But all these will have only a temporary effect. Wedded to neo-liberal economics and strategically tied to the United States, the UPA government will soon find its space to manoeuvre shrinking.

As far as the CPI(M) is concerned, the struggle in parliament is part of the wider struggle to fight back the harmful policies of the Congress-led government. The fight within parliament is not some design to topple the government. It is part of the political struggle to isolate the ruling party and to carry forward the fight to reverse the retrograde policies.

The Left parties have been actively mobilising the people to curb price rise, strengthen the public distribution system and for provision of food security. The March 12 rally in Delhi was the culmination of a five-month campaign in the states through joint conventions and rallies. The next phase of the movement will be the April 8 mass picketing and court arrest programme in which 25 lakh people will participate.

The current parliament session also saw the joint action by the five central trade unions on the urgent demands of the working class. On March 5, tens of thousands of workers courted arrest all over the country. The trend of mass struggles and strikes by the working people are going to intensify in the coming days. This will open the way for consolidating the democratic, secular and Left forces to fight for alternative policies.