To Privatise or Saffronise?

Originally published in Satyam Online, 12 February 2000.

 

In the past several months since the NDA coalition has eased itself into the saddle of governance, our media has waxed eloquent about a newfound stability of the ruling alliance. The easy passage of the bundle of reform bills in the Winter Session of the Lok Sabha was advertised to the public and to the world as a prelude to a new round of liberalisation.

The showcase of the much-awaited “second generation” of economic reforms will be the upcoming Budget Session, to open at the end of February. Compared to the messy coalitions of years past, it seems now that the BJP confidently straddles the centre of the Indian political fulcrum. However, amidst the booming bourses and the hype around the visit of US President Bill Clinton, we should not be misled. The events of the past several weeks, notably the protests over Deepa Mehta’s film Water, and the announcement of the privatisation of Modern Foods and Indian Airlines, all give clues to the real fragility within the ruling party. The connection between these two events is not just incidental — Arun Jaitley holds both the Information & Broadcasting portfolio as well as that of Disinvestment.

Sanskriti or Swadeshi?

Last week, on the banks of the Ganga, one never heard a whisper of that other inflammatory slogan of the Sangh, opposing foreign economic domination and calling for swadeshi. This would have been truly radical, and dangerous for the new regime. We can rest assured, through Vajpayee’s “liberal” stewardship, that the strident slogans of culture and Hinduism will increase, and the politics of class will be silenced as the next wave of reforms approaches.

Earlier this month, political pundits were surprised to see the Prime Minister hitting out at Pakistan on several counts — for trying to disrupt the economy by flooding the country with counterfeit currency, by claiming that India was ready to match any nuclear threat in kind, and demanding the return of Occupied Kashmir. To this was added Vajpayee’s blessing of the RSS as a cultural and not a political organisation, to which the Governments of HP, UP and Gujarat responded by lifting the ban of their employees participating in the RSS.

Vajpayee’s tilt to the Right had less to do with these issues, than with an internal tussle in the BJP ranks, between the hardline saffron faction controlled by L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi and the so-called moderates, represented by Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley and others. Central to the Prime Minister’s calculations now is keeping this unwieldy ship together, to navigate it through the unrest that will be generated by the next wave of reforms.

Sabre-rattling against Pakistan, and the free hand given to the extremist wing of the Sangh Parivar as seen last week in Banaras, has placated the hardline saffron faction. And most importantly, it has wedded them to the agenda of privatisation favoured by the so-called BJP liberals.

Privatisation and Saffronisation

The showpiece of the new economic policies will be the privatisation of the public sector, foreshadowed by the two test cases floated earlier this month by Jaitley, and the further retreat of the state from its basic responsibilities towards the poor — subsidies to basic commodities which are now being cancelled; the WTO-dictated removal of import duties on basic food products which will have disastrous consequences for farmers throughout the country; and the withdrawal of responsibility for primary services like health and education, which the BJP Vice President J. Krishnamurthy has claimed the state has no business in providing.

If, according to Arun Jaitley, the state has no business providing bread for the people, and Krishnamurthy claims that the state should free itself from ensuring their literacy and health, one might ask whose Government is this then?

On the eve of the new Budget, the RSS and VHP could have mobilised its ranks on these issues, which redound most centrally on the livelihood of the masses. Instead they chose a soft target like Deepa Mehta.

This has saved the BJP from a major schism on the eve of one of the most important Budgets to be tabled in several years, one that will crucially determine India’s terms of engagement with the global economy. But one wonders what makes a bigger difference to the beleagured people of Banaras. Is it the rise in the prices of basic commodities, the further erosion of social services, the attack on organised labour — all of which will be floated in the new Budget — or the cultural sensitivity of an English film that will probably never be screened outside of some major Western and Indian cities?