June 28, 2020
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A New Manifesto

The UF's common minimum programme is short on specifics

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A New Manifesto
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"The United Front Government will not be a replacement of one set of rulers by another. It will mark the beginning of an alternative model of governance based on federalism, decentralisation, accountability, equality and social justice, economic and political reforms, respect for human freedom and openness and transparency which will ensure the dignity of both the nation and the individual citizen."

THIS lengthy, and somewhat pious, declaration, which  forms part of  the introduction to the new Government's agenda released as the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), understandably accorded top priority to federalism and decentralisation, demands articulated by the four-party Federal Front. After all, the constituents of the Federal Front—the DMK, Tamil Maanila Congress, Telugu Desam Party and the Asom Gana Parishad—have a solid block of 58 members in the Lok Sabha.

The coalition's underlying mantra, as set out in the CMC, is "a strong Centre, strong states and viable local bodies", is manifested in the specific legislative and administrative proposals that the United Front has pledged to introduce: to give greater autonomy to states in determining their priorities in developmental programmes; to give states more freedom to draw up their plans within the broad framework of the national five-year plans; to transfer a majority of centrally sponsored programmes to the control of the states; and to grant prompt assent to bills passed by state legislatures.

Complementing these proposals is the accent on the implementation of the Sarkaria Commission reccomendations which have been lying in cold storage for over a a decade. In fact, hours after being sworn in. It on June 1, Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda told the press that his first task after the confidence motion would be to call a meeting of all chief ministers to elicit their views on the Commission's reccomendations. and Significantly, the CMC stresses on the devolution of financial powers to the states.

Apart from promising to reactivate institutions like the Inter-State Council, the document also proposes a comprehensive review of Article 356 of the Constitution that provides for the dismissal of state governments by the Centre. The CMC states that the Article will be amended to reflect recent judgements of the Supreme Court in this regard, the obvious reference being to the S.R. Bommai case where the court held that action under Article 356 was justiciable.

For all that, the document is short on details. Such as from where the funding for the centrally-sponsored schemes to be transferred to the control of the states will come . from and to what extent the Centre will subsidise them. Also, while the draft offers a generalised commitment to the spirit of the Sarkaria Commission, it ignores specifics altogether. There is no deliberation, for example, on how the new Government plans to tackle the issue of the appointment of the governors, who Justice Sarkaria said must be completely non-partisan.

But it is not just the Federal Front whose wishes have been accommodated in the document. A careful perusal makes it evident that the agenda for the Gowda Government set by the approach paper has taken into consideration the entire gamut of support—from within and outside—for the United Front. Indeed, while going some way in setting out an independent agenda, this policies and programmes documentensures that no Front constituent—or the Congress—feels that its stand on major policy issues has been compromised.

That the CMC is a product of compromises is evident from the fact that even the Janata Dal, the most prominent United Front constituent, has not had its way on some of its more contentious policies, such as extending reservations to the private sector. But it does make some significant pledges on the social justice front—like reserving one-third of all elected posts in state legislatures and Parliament, as well as in Government, for women. And the emphasis on providing better facilities and greater financial assistance for craftsmen, artisans, weavers and fishermen is significant as most of them belong to backward castes. This will also upset the plans of Sangh parivaraffiliated bodies like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch which have been wooing these communities.

The provision for reservations for Christians of Dalit origin will find favour with the Congress whose attempts at passing a pre-poll ordinance to this effect were scuttled by the President. And if the proposal to confer ownership rights for minor forest produce—including the Tendu Patta (lease)—on Scheduled Tribes and other forest-dwellers is implemented, it would be an important step in settling the long-running dispute. The CMP also pledges to allocate 6 per cent of the GDP for education by the year 2000 and the constitution of a Lok Pal that will have the Prime Minister and chief ministers under its purview.

Another aspect of these proposals is that all political parties, including the BJP, will find it difficult to oppose them. But the BJP will find itself isolated on the policies enunciated on secularism. The United Front has boldly decided to refer the Ayodhya dispute to the Supreme Court under Article 138(ii) of the Constitution, which makes the court decision binding on all parties to the dispute. This is in contrast to the Narasimha Rao government's decision in 1993 to refer the matter to the court under Article 143(i), which implies that the verdict is treated as advice. It is here that the ruling coalition has shown that despite bowing to Congress pressure on certain issues such as the economic reforms, it will not hesitate in implementing its own agenda on basic policy issues, even though they may embarrass the Congress. Or perhaps, for that very reason.

The CMP stand on Kashmir—continuance of Article 370 and 'maximum autonomy'—is also unlikely to find favour with the BJP and a section of the Congress. But these are aberrations in what is essentially a document which steers clear of any major controversy and will follow longstanding policies on crucial national issues such as foreign policy, security and defence.

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